By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
TASHKENT/ASHGABAT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) — Evangelical Christians in the ex-Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were on edge Saturday, May 6, ahead of Sunday worship services as security forces in both countries reportedly raided church gatherings and threatened believers, including children, while confiscating Bibles.
Human rights watchers and individual Christians suggested the banned Emmanuel Full Gospel Church in Uzbekistan faced a difficult Sunday, May 7, after 50 police already raided last week’s meeting in a hotel in Nukus, the capital of the country’s autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan
"In the absence of their own church building, the Emmanuel congregation decided to meet in the privately-owned Khoja Hotel, which belongs to a church member," said advocacy group Forum 18 about the April 30 raid in a message monitored by BosNewsLife.
"The Easter festival was attended by 160 people and their children. During the raid, police ordered all those present to write statements, whilst issuing threats and frightening young children present," said the group, which investigated the situation.
Parents were also pressured to write statements that they would not "attract their children to Christianity" and warned that failure to comply could see them deprived of their parental rights, Forum 18 said. A state religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "the police simply have to stop the church's members from holding illegal religious meetings."
In addition police apparently forced eight people to the town's police station, including the church's pastor, Nazim Nebiev. The eight were released after several hours, but the police confiscated Nebiev's passport
Local authorities are allegedly also trying to seize the church's land. In published remarks the region's senior state Religious Affairs official said he had no knowledge of any problems, but defended the attacks against the Emmanuel Church.
"Under Uzbek law, an unregistered religious community is not allowed to operate and therefore the police simply have to stop the church's members from holding illegal religious meetings," Nurula Jamolov of the Karakalpakstan regional state Religious Affairs Committee reportedly said.
The raid came shortly after sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to ten days' jail by a local court in Nukus, Forum 18 News Service reported.
Across the border in Turkmenistan, which like Uzbekistan is ruled by an authoritarian president, over 15 officials reportedly raided the gathering of 13 members of the Soygi (Love) Church in Ashgabat.
News of the raid on Wednesday, May 3, came shortly after the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom labeled Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern and among the "worst violators" of religious rights.
Compass Direct, a Christian news agency, quoted Christians as saying that the operation was carried out by members of the secret police and the foreigner registration office in cooperation with officials from the Committee for Religious Affairs and regular police forces.
They apparently entered the house without a warrant, searched the premises, and seized Bibles, discipleship texts and videos, as well as personal pictures and a notebook computer. Church members were allegedly forced to reenact their meeting activities while police videotaped them.
Turkmenistan officials were not immediately available for comment. The Christians were quoted as saying that they remained calm while police interrogated them over the next two and-one-half hours. "We all praise the Lord, and we thank him about all the things [that] happened," one of the church members said, apparently on condition of anonymity .
One of the group’s leaders asked interrogators to help the Soygi Church register with the government, reported a Christian who requested anonymity. "That was a very bold move," the Soygi member added.
Expecting continued police harassment, the Turkmen congregation reportedly appealed to fellow Christians around the world to pray for them. “We are now being investigated. We want prayer desperately."
The latest raid against the church is part of growing pressure on evangelical Christians in the former Soviet republic, human rights groups suggest.
Advocacy group Forum 18 has said that registered communities have difficulties renting property for worship services and that building a new place of worship is almost impossible.
Analysts have linked the attacks against Christians in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to concern among the authoritarian governments to lose control over the spread of Christianity, which if often seen as a pro-Western "American" religion. (With reports from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and BosNewsLife Research).
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