Uzbekistan is located in central Asia and is 90% desert and mountain. It ranges from fertile valleys in the east to desert in the west, towards the Aral Sea. The capital Tashkent, with a population of over two million, is located in the fertile east. The Silk Road runs through the country, including the historic cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Uzbekistan is one of the world’s biggest producers of cotton.
A former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan was ruled by the authoritarian Islam Karimov from 1989 until his death in 2016. He was the leader of the Communist Party, and when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 he was elected president of the new country. President Karimov was ruthless with all perceived opposition. His successor Shaukat Mirziyoyev won the presidential election with a landslide victory on 4 December 2016. He had been prime minister since 2003, and is expected to continue his predecessor’s autocratic rule.
The state violates many human rights and restricts freedoms of religion, speech, press and assembly. Torture is routine and corruption is widespread.
Although the majority of its citizens are Muslims, Uzbekistan is a secular state, where religion is very tightly controlled. This is based on the real and growing threat from Islamist extremists, but repression of religious believers of all faiths has escalated in recent years and the regime also uses the repressive religious laws to persecute other minority religious groups, branding Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists”. Minority groups face harassment, detention and arrest for “illegal religious activity”. Those viewed as engaging in proselytism especially are targeted, for fear that they will cause Uzbeks to leave Islam for Christianity.
Christianity in Uzbekistan
Most of the Christian population in Uzbekistan is of Russian ethnicity and attends Russian Orthodox churches, which are permitted, and most Christians live in Tashkent and other cities. Large numbers of Russian Christians are emigrating, and the Orthodox population is only 10% of what it was in the 1980s.
Uzbekistan’s 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations restricts rights that are deemed to be in conflict with national security. It criminalises unregistered religious activity and forbids evangelism. Expatriates engaged in Christian work in Uzbekistan have almost all been expelled and foreign agencies have been shut down.
Evangelical Christianity is growing, however, especially Pentecostal and charismatic groups, through the underground house church movement, and many new churches have started in recent years. There is one small registered Protestant seminary (in Tashkent) and a new Uzbek Bible has been produced (a translation of the Old Testament and a revision of the New Testament). Its official presentation in June 2017 was attended by representatives of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Churches.
The distribution of religious material is legal, but only material approved by the State Committee for Religious Affairs. Religious books may only be read in designated areas such as registered church buildings. The government-recognised Uzbek Bible Society is allowed to exist but is heavily restricted in terms of importing or printing Christian materials, and Bibles may not be sold through any other outlets. All imports of Bibles and Christian books are examined and sometimes confiscated and then burnt. While there is Christian radio in Russian and English, there is very little in Uzbek.
State permission is compulsory for religious communities, but only some have been allowed to exist (Muslim groups, Jews, Russian Orthodox and some Protestant groups) and registration is frequently refused – sometimes for spurious reasons – or delayed, and is extremely difficult to achieve. No church has been allowed to register during the past decade. Since it is almost impossible to register, the house church movement is growing rapidly.
Registration requirements include a minimum membership of 100 Uzbek citizens, a fee of 50 times the minimum monthly wage, and documents detailing the group’s rules, meeting protocols and other data. Many minorities are unable to meet these requirements. Police make surprise visits to churches and close those that cannot immediately produce registration papers.
Without registration, not only is it illegal for religious groups to engage in any religious activities, but also they cannot open bank accounts; build, rent or buy buildings; print, distribute or import religious literature; or appoint leaders. The penalties for illegal religious activities include fines of as much as 300 times the minimum monthly wage and up to five years’ imprisonment.
Persecution of Christians
The secret police tap phones and carry out surveillance on places of worship, and files are compiled on Christian leaders by the 14 government agencies that monitor religious activity. Police and security forces raid meetings and detain members of unregistered – and occasionally registered – religious groups for “illegal” activities such as teaching of religion, meeting outside their geographic area of registration, possessing unapproved religious literature, discussing their faith, or singing religious songs. Detention and arrest is often followed by beating and torture, which remains endemic in prisons, pre-trial facilities and local police and security service precincts.
Huge fines are frequent and increasing. Christians accused of illegally storing, importing or distributing Christian materials can be fined 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly salary, while attending meetings, teaching the Bible and training Christian leaders can result in fines of 200 to 300 times the minimum monthly wage for repeated violations.
Persecution of Christians also includes property seizure, Bible-burning, expulsion of Christian students, dismissal of Christian employees and harassment. Ethnic Uzbeks who leave Islam for Christianity are seen as cultural or religious traitors and often experience hostility from family and community, including ostracism or beatings.
Persecution is especially intense in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic that occupies the northwestern end of Uzbekistan. In its capital, Nukus, the church is experiencing unprecedented church growth, with several thousand people becoming Christians in recent years. The government has shut every non-Orthodox church, so almost all growth is through underground house churches, and evangelical Protestant students have been expelled from university. In Karakalpakstan it is illegal to own a Bible.
In November 2015, following a police raid on a house church meeting in Tashkent, twelve adults and several children and babies were detained and tortured. Literature and possessions were seized.
Two months previously, ten members of an unregistered Baptist church were fined up to 50 times the minimum monthly wage each, and the Judge ordered that Bibles and songbooks confiscated in the raid be destroyed.
In August 2012 police raided the Tashkent home of a Russian Orthodox woman, Valentina Pleshakova. She and her disabled daughter were beaten and religious literature seized.
In December 2012, police raided a group of about 80 Protestants on holiday in the Tashkent region: four were charged with discussing their faith and singing Christian songs, and Bibles and songbooks were confiscated.
Tohar Haydarov (32) is a Baptist from Tashkent who was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and was incarcerated in a labour camp near Karshi, 400 km from his home city. Tohar was released on 8 November 2016, having served six years and ten months of his sentence. A former Muslim, he had been reported to the police after leaving Islam, and was sentenced in March 2010 on false drug trafficking charges – it appears that he was framed and his trial was rigged.
Pentecostal pastor Dmitri Shestakov was sentenced to a four-year term in a labour colony in 2007. He was charged with organising an illegal religious group, inciting religious hatred and distributing extremist religious literature. He was released in January 2011 after serving his full sentence, but remained under police surveillance. In January 2013, Pastor Shestakov and his family flew to Ukraine where they were given political asylum status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2016 they went to live in the US.
(Barnabas, Forum 18, Operation World, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Annual Report 2013, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch list)
Tohar Haydarov was released from prison on 8 November, having served six years and ten months of his ten-year sentence.
Police raided a house church meeting in Tashkent on 9 November and detained and tortured a group of Christians.
In two separate raids on 9 and 10 March, anti-terrorism police and other officials raided two homes and seized Christian literature.
A small Baptist church in Mubarek in south-eastern Uzbekistan was raided once again during Sunday worship on 24 March 2013. It has endured more than a decade of official harassment.
Uzbek police have raided the home of Valentina Pleshakova (53) and her daughter Natalya (26), who is disabled. They seized religious literature, beat Natalya and took the women to the police station. The Pleshakovas live in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, and attend the Russian Orthodox cathedral.