Uzbekistan, a Central Asian former Soviet state located north of
Iran and Afghanistan and south of Russia, is one of the world's
worst abusers of religious liberty. Persecution arises from both
Islam and the government's Soviet-style authoritarianism. When
Uzbekistan opened up in the early 1990s, Wahhabi Islam came gushing
in from Saudi Arabia, and Uzbek jihadis came home from their
successful, adrenalin-pumping jihad in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan's
authoritarian government reacts against the very real threat of
Islamic militancy, not by opening up public debate to expose
Islam's ideological and historical problems, but by persecuting
pious Muslims. Whilst some of the Muslims are truly dangerous, many
others are just misdirected, often ignorant, God-seekers: fathers,
husbands, sons. The undesirable result is increased Islamic anger,
radicalism and nationalism. Also, following a worldwide trend, the
government refuses to distinguish between faiths, rejecting totally
everything that is not 'traditional' as being 'extremist' and
'alien'. Peaceful, altruistic Protestant Christianity is severely
persecuted in this context.
With release of the US State Department's first-ever report on
International Religious Freedom then due on 1 September 1999,
Uzbekistan freed all its religious prisoners in August 1999 to
avoid US condemnation and sanctions. Whilst conditions did improve,
Uzbekistan's repressive laws unfortunately remained unchanged.
Today however, different forces are at work. Uzbekistan is now a
member of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) formed in
2001. Through this SCO China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan co-operate on security, stability, trade
and economic issues. The SCO has been described as a 'huddle of
harried dictators' established to counter-balance the USA. Clearly
Uzbekistan does not need US aid or military support (requiring
policies acceptable to the US) when it can get Chinese and Russian
aid and military support without judgment or interference in its
domestic affairs. So over recent years the religious liberty
situation in Uzbekistan has seriously deteriorated.
According to the latest reports from the US State Department and
the US Commission on Religious Freedom, the government in
Uzbekistan continues to block the registration and re-registration
of Protestant churches, rendering them illegal. Christian leaders
have reportedly been detained in psychiatric hospitals, severely
beaten, and/or sentenced to labour camps. Protestants are accused
of belonging to extremist organisations. Their meetings are
monitored and frequently raided and their belongings confiscated.
More and more Protestants are going 'underground'. The situation is
most severe in the northwestern autonomous republic of
Karakalpakistan. Ethnic Uzbeks who convert from Islam to
Christianity also face persecution from Muslim society with the
police often reluctant to protect them.
Over the past year the government has increased its efforts to
close the country to the outside world by repressing international
media, human rights monitors and NGOs. With changes to Uzbekistan's
criminal law on 23 June 2006 harsh penalties now apply for the
'illegal' production, storage, importation and distribution of all
forms of religious literature. Forum 18 reports that Pastor Dmitry
Shestakov from Andijan has fled Uzbekistan to escape criminal
charges lodged against him in June in retaliation for his church
work. Lepes Umarov, a Protestant in Karakalpakstan, faces up to
three years imprisonment on criminal charges for 'breaking the law
on religious organisations', presumably due to his open Christian
witness. In the Fergana Valley, members of the Vitkovsky family
have been interrogated and threatened with imprisonment because a
Baptist fellowship meets in their home. Viktor Vitkovsky and his
wife were to face court on 3 July.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY FOR:
* Christ to build his Church in Uzbekistan against all opposing
forces, and for the Holy Spirit to bless all gospel ministry and
witness to bring salvation and transformation.
* God to speak into the hearts of Uzbek Muslims genuinely seeking
him, making them hungry for and leading them to the truth.
* our Heavenly Father to be the refuge and deliverer of his people.
* President Islam Karimov and all in authority (1 Timothy 2:1-4);
may God turn them from fearing Protestant Christianity to seeing
the good it brings, and make their hearts favourable towards the
Church so the gospel of salvation, transformation and abundant
life may be preached and embraced throughout the nation.
'. . .I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not
overcome it.' Jesus: Matthew 16:18
SUMMARY TO USE IN BULLETINS UNABLE TO RUN THE WHOLE ARTICLE:
UZBEKISTAN PROTESTANTS SEVERELY PERSECUTED
Uzbekistan, in Muslim Central Asia, is one of the world's worst
religious liberty abusers. The violently authoritarian government
labels all religion that is not 'traditional' as 'extremist' and
'alien'. Uzbekistan's small Protestant Church is accordingly
severely repressed and persecuted. Persecution has intensified
(along with the country's isolation) over recent years, especially
since mid-2005. In June 2006 harsh penalties were introduced as
punishment for 'illegal' production, storage, importation and
distribution of all forms of religious literature. Pastor Dmitry
Shestakov, evangelist Lepes Umarov, and Baptist house-church host
Viktor Vitkovsky are all presently facing criminal charges due to
their ministry and witness. Pastor Shestakov has fled the country.
Pray for God to protect, build and bless his Church in Uzbekistan.
* PRAYER NOTE: Elizabeth Kendal will be undergoing a follow-up lung
scan on 13 July. A prayer bulletin is available on request for
those who wish to join in more detailed prayer support for
Elizabeth. 'Reply' to this message with 'Prayer Support' in the
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RL Prayer List to help individuals and groups pray
specifically and regularly for religious liberty
issues, and in particular to uphold the Church
where it is suffering persecution.
RL Prayer is moderated by Ron Clough, a commissioner
of the WEA RLC and convenor of the Australian EA RLC.
Elizabeth Kendal researched and authored this message.