by Barbara G. Baker
April 6, 2001
ISTANBUL, April 5 (Compass) — An Uzbekistan government official publicly hailed the Bible as "a priceless source of knowledge" during a March ceremony marking the first local publication of an Uzbek edition of Proverbs.
Deputy Chairman Shoazim Minovarov of the Committee for Religious Affairs congratulated the Bible Society of Uzbekistan (BSU) and its partnering translators on the historic release of "The Proverbs of Solomon" at the March 30 presentation.
"The Bible is a priceless source of knowledge," Minovarov told the government officials, diplomats, religious leaders and international representatives of cultural and humanitarian organizations gathered for the occasion in Tashkent's Museum of Applied Arts.
"In order to understand the history of mankind, one must study the Bible," Minovarov continued. "The translation of the Bible into the Uzbek language will contribute to the spiritual enrichment of the Uzbek people. It is of help not only to scholars and historians, but to the whole people."
Minovarov also noted that more than 200 non-Muslim religious bodies belonging to 14 confessions have official registration status in Uzbekistan. "A secular government may not give preference to one religion only," the official said.
Although officially secular, Uzbekistan prohibits proselytizing or private religious instruction by its tightly restricted religious minorities. Under the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, religious groups must obtain a license to publish or distribute materials.
Government permission for publication and distribution of the Uzbek Proverbs was stamped on the last documents in January, according to BSU director Sergei Mitin. "We really thank God for this great victory for the Word of God in Uzbekistan," Mitin told Compass from Tashkent.
Noting the legal restrictions imposed on importing Christian literature in any of the Turkic languages since 1998, Mitin said the Uzbek edition of Proverbs, which rolled off the press in Tashkent this past November, was no less than "a miracle from God."
"This edition was published with the permission of the government," he stressed. With a total press run of 10,000 copies, half of the 79-page booklets are printed in the familiar Cyrillic script, with the remaining 5,000 in the newer Latin script.
The new edition of Proverbs is the first book of the Bible ever published in the Uzbek language inside the nominally-Muslim Central Asian state.
Its release signals an apparent thaw in the stance of government bureaucracy toward the interdenominational Bible Society of Uzbekistan, which gained official registration status in 1998.
Over the past decade, local officials have repeatedly blocked efforts to produce or import Christian literature and Scriptures in the Uzbek language, threatening and sometimes arresting church groups or individuals suspected of such activities.
In 1997, the Ministry of Justice had threatened to close down the Bible Society over this issue. The flashpoint was a train shipment from Moscow containing 25,000 Uzbek New Testaments. Customs officials promptly confiscated what they called evidence of illegal "missionary activity" and threatened to burn the entire shipment.
An international protest was mounted against the embargo, with 15 Bible Societies around the world filing protests and members of the British Parliament and U.S. Congress making inquiries. After a nine-month standoff, the Uzbek government released the shipment.
Some months later, the Bible Society was granted official registration as a national religious organization, the required status for publishing and distributing literature.
The text of the new Uzbek Proverbs was finalized in 1998, when it was printed in both Minsk and Sweden for distribution outside Uzbekistan. In September 1999, the BSU applied for government permission to publish the booklet in Tashkent. A second detailed proposal was sent by the BSU in May 2000.
After written approval came last July from the Committee on Religious Affairs, the booklet went to press in November.
The book of Proverbs is the first in a series of separate editions planned for Old Testament books as they are translated into Uzbek. The next edition due for publication is expected to incorporate the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther.
The translation of the entire Old Testament into Uzbek, projected to take another six years or more, is a joint project of the BSU in cooperation with the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Sweden-based Institute for Bible Translation (IBT) and the United Bible Societies. An IBT edition of the entire Uzbek New Testament together with Genesis, Psalms and Proverbs is now available abroad.
As soon as funding permits, Mitin said, the BSU has plans to open local branches in the historic city of Samarkand and in the Fergana Valley.
As a member of the United Bible Societies, the BSU sells its Scriptures at affordable prices on the local market. In respect to local laws forbidding missionary work, the organization declares its policy to be "simply making Uzbek Bibles available to those who ask for them."
Copyright Â© 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.