An Uzbek church leader has said he fears life will be even harder for minority Christians after the death of Islam Karimov, the country’s President since 1989.
Karimov, who was installed during the Soviet era, was eventually confirmed to have died on 2 September, after a week of speculation following his admission to hospital.
The current Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is the favourite to take over. But the appointment of one of Karimov’s leading supporters, who has served as his Prime Minister since 2003, would be unlikely to herald much of a change in the way Uzbekistan is run – not least with regard to its tight rein on how religion can be practised.
“If Mirziyoyev becomes the next President, the persecution of Christians will be even worse,” predicted the pastor, who did not wish to be named. “Actually, as it seems, it was he who initiated or was at least involved in the persecution of the Uzbek Protestant Church and converts from a Muslim background.”
“I don’t expect drastic changes,” said an Uzbek Protestant, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Christians in Uzbekistan will continue to experience harassment by the government.”
Uzbekistan is by far the most populous Central Asian country, with more than 30 million people – twice as many as the second-largest country in the region, Kazakhstan. It is generally considered to have the most restrictive laws in Central Asia. Sanctions on religious literature are particularly stringent. Religious books must be read in designated areas only, such as registered church buildings. Fines are hefty and regularly issued.
At No. 15, Uzbekistan is the highest-ranked Central Asian country on Christian charity Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, which ranks the countries in which it is most difficult to be a Christian. Karimov’s regime was accused of serious human rights abuses, including the systematic use of torture. Uzbekistan has been a “Country of Particular Concern” for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2005.
Open Doors estimates there are around 210,000 Christians in Uzbekistan, but during the last decade not a single church has been able to register. Unregistered religious activity is outlawed, while even registered churches face pressure from the authorities.
Uzbekistan is officially a secular state, although around 90% of the population is Muslim. Almost all of Uzbekistan’s Christians are from ethnic minorities. Under Uzbek law, it is illegal to try to persuade someone to change their religion.
In July, World Watch Monitor reported that the “paranoia” of Central Asian leaders over the threat of Islamism was also affecting Christians.
“The attitude of the government towards us will not change, no matter who becomes the new leader,” said another Uzbek pastor, who did not wish to be identified. “Of course, we hope for a better scenario, but we have to be realistic. Our government is always afraid of any manifestation of dissidents. It is not clear how, but unfortunately Christian believers fall into the category of potential religious extremists.”
An Open Doors expert on Central Asia, who again did not wish to be named, agreed that it is “unlikely that there will be any major changes for the better for the persecuted Uzbek Church. Do we want religious freedom to come? Many Uzbek Christians would surely say ‘Yes’! But [whether] the situation will improve, we don’t know”.
Paranoia, oppression, extremism
Uzbek Christians fall broadly into four categories:
Expatriates are usually left alone by the government because they play by the rules – by not evangelising non-Christians.
2. Russian Orthodox
Russian Orthodox churches are viewed as “historic” churches and are therefore typically run according to government regulations and in registered buildings.
Protestants, such as Baptists, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, usually function outside government regulations in non-registered buildings, which is illegal. As a result, they face regular raids on their churches/houses, threats, arrests and fines. Many refuse to register for fear of governmental control, but it is almost impossible for churches to register anyway – as indicated by the fact no church has done so in the past decade.
4. Converts from Islam
Christians from a Muslim background often face pressure to recant or reconvert. This can take the form of threats and sometimes physical violence – from friends, families or the local community.
Open Doors says there are three major “persecution engines” that make life difficult for Christians in Uzbekistan:
1. Dictatorial paranoia
To ensure there is no threat to the dictatorship, only state-run and state-controlled religious institutions are allowed. Christians who practise their religion outside of these institutions are labelled “extremists”.
2. Communist and post-communist oppression
While the Communist ideology may have been buried, its practices, laws and institutions are still in place and used to control people.
3. Islamic extremism
As mentioned above, this group can face threats and/or violence from friends, families or the local community.