"We treat everybody equally, both Christians and Muslims," a local official named Nurmina Askarova told Forum 18, a Norway-based religious freedom monitor. In addition to terminating a Baptist church service, authorities also closed a nearby mosque, Askarova said.
The former Soviet republic of 28 million people in Central Asia has among the most suffocating religious restrictions of any ex-Soviet satellite. According to Forum 18, all religious activity not registered with the state, including meetings in private homes, is a criminal offense. Uzbekistan's Muslim majority is held under state domination and religious minorities are routinely targeted for persecution.
Baptists have borne their share of the state's ire in recent months, Forum 18 reports. Ten officials broke up a meeting of an unregistered Korean Baptist congregation on Sunday, Feb. 5, confiscating sound equipment, books, cassette tapes and DVDs. The officials stated that charges will be brought against the pastor, Vyacheslav Kim, who was leading 10 others in worship.
Askarova defended the raid, saying the Baptists were instructed to attend a registered church, but she would not say which church. In the past, according to Forum 18, Baptists were instructed to attend a Russian Orthodox Church.
On Nov. 21 of last year, Sergei Kozin was fined 800 times the monthly minimum wage for non-state sanctioned religious activity after a police raid grabbed him and a group of Baptists who were reading while on holiday. Baptists claimed the case was fabricated and that the government used a fake witness who did not produce the required documents proving his identity.
Officials also raided the flat of Latifzhon Mamazhanov, a member of an unregistered Baptist church, on Nov. 19. The officials did not produce a search warrant but still confiscated Bibles, books and other religious materials.
Uzbek authorities also have targeted Jehovah's Witnesses recently, raiding two homes that each had a visitor present for Bible reading. Using methods that Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 were "brutal," police arrested five family members and two of their acquaintances. All were accused of violating several of the country's religious restrictions and hit with hefty fines, while two family members and one acquaintance also were given 15-day jail sentences.
Forum 18's religious freedom survey on Uzbekistan states that religious groups are "raided with impunity and their members threatened, assaulted and even tortured." It says the government plants microphones at houses of worship, has agents spy on religious communities, and heavily restricts religious literature, even for Muslims. State television attempts to fan hysteria against religious minorities, and some Uzbeks have told Forum 18 of the use or threat of torture, including rape.
"Oppressive laws are symptomatic of oppressive official attitudes, and state officials do not appear to acknowledge any restraints on their actions," the Forum 18 analysis states.
Underlying the paranoia of state officials toward religion, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 that a man who was sentenced at the same court as the Jehovah's Witnesses "could not help showing his surprise that he got only five days for attacking a police inspector but they got 15 days for Bible reading."
Compiled by John Evans, a writer based in Houston. Forum 18 is on the Web at www.forum18.org.
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