By BosNewsLife News Center
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) — Human rights officials in Europe and the United States expressed concern Wednesday, May 3, over the persecution of Christians in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, nearly a year after hundreds of people died when security forces opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its annual report to Congress and President George W. Bush's administration, included Uzbekistan in its list of 11 countries "of particular concern" because of what it called "extreme religious persecution". The other countries mentioned are Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.
Open Doors, an advocacy group defending persecuted Christians, reported from its headquarters in the Netherlands that evangelical and some traditional churches have become targets for government backed attacks as they are seen as pro-Western following a conflict with the United States over Uzbekistan's human rights record.
In one of the latest reported incidents, police officers from Uzbekistan's criminal investigation department burst into the home of a Protestant pastor in northwest Uzbekistan last week, disrupting 12 people as they were having lunch together. The pastor and another believer were allegedly charged with "breaking the laws on teaching religion."
The April 24 raid in Urgench, a city in the Khorezm region near the Turkmen border, targeted the house of Pastor Lunkin Sergey of the Union of Independent Churches, news reports said. In a separate incident, three Christians in Tashkent were arrested on April 21 while visiting and helping feed patients at tuberculosis hospital for children. One of them was reportedly charged with violating administrative laws against teaching religion.
Open Doors said that during the past 12 months, Uzbekistan's police and judicial authorities have stepped up pressures against especially Protestant Christians, and even government-registered churches are under heightened scrutiny. "Churches and Christian meetings have been raided" while "Bibles and computers are confiscated to be used as 'evidences'," the organization said.
"May 13, 2005, seemed a turning point in Uzbekistan's history" but that changed after an estimated 750 people were killed and America was forced to withdraw its forces, as "criticism from the West" is not accepted, added Open Doors.
A Central-Asian investigator of Open Doors, identified only as Suleiman, said pressure on churches increased since the bloody events in the town of Andijan as the government apparently fears to lose control over the growing number of Christians in the mainly Muslim nation.
Some traditional denominations have grown to 25,000 members years in the last fifteen years despite widespread persecution, he suggested. "The government says the reason is that some churches receive money from the West." President (Islam) Karimov's government "does not want to understand why Muslims convert to Christianity," Suleiman said. He added that former Muslims also lose their families and jobs and are often expelled from villages.
The Open Doors representative, who has close contacts with reportedly persecuted Christians, said "many pastors have been interrogated and pressured by police forces" who he claimed received orders to write an extensive report on each Christian leader. Local police stations also have to inform judicial authorities where religious activities take place, according to Open Doors. Even officially registered churches are allegedly monitored and the government is apparently trying to close these congregations.
In addition several foreign Christians and aid organizations working in Uzbekistan are reportedly pressured to leave the country as authorities refuse to prolong their residence permits. President Karimov has defended his policies saying he fights religious extremism, especially Muslim rebels. However besides Open Doors, secular human rights groups have condemned Karimov's record on human rights. In addittion the outspoken former British Ambassador in Uzbekistan Craig Murray has pointed to reports of Karimov's regime apparently boiling people to death, while the United Nations said torture was "institutionalized, systematic, and rampant" in Uzbekistan's justice system.
Despite the threats, torture and killings, Suleiman said he was encourages as to how Christians continue their activities amid increased persecution. "I am impressed with the strength shown by some believers," said Open Doors' Suleiman.
"At night I met an important leader where we took away Christian books and deleted crucial information from his computer. His arrest seemed only a matter of time as many others were already arrested, " added the Open Doors worker.
But Suleiman claimed the Christian leader refused to leave the area saying: "Brother I understand the dangers, but I also know that it's time that in my country and in my church someone stays at his post. If I leave, what Christians who know me will do? They may also leave. So I stay, but the only thing I ask is for a temporary hiding place for my wife and children." (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Uzbekistan).
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