A criminal case against Uzbek Jehovah's Witness Marat Mudarisov highlights the difficulties facing religious minorities in the Central Asian republic. Observers note the case is not isolated, and that members of many religious minority groups are regularly punished for their beliefs.
Prague, 7 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The trial of a Jehovah's Witness in Uzbekistan is highlighting the often difficult situation for religious minorities in Central Asia.
Jehovah's Witness Marat Mudarisov is being tried in the Uzbek capital Tashkent for allegedly inciting national, racial, or religious hatred. The next hearing in the criminal trial is tomorrow.
Uzbek authorities claim Mudarisov was found with publications that defame Islam. Mudarisov's defense team, however, says the publications were planted on him by the National Security Service, or NSB.
Harassment against minority religious communities is relatively common in Uzbekistan. In most cases, religious communities are denied registration, while local authorities crack down on believers who gather in unregistered chapels or private homes.
But according to Felix Corley, the editor of Keston News Service, which monitors issues of religious freedom, Mudarisov's case "marks a new development, because Mudarisov is specifically being targeted for the publications which he was illegally distributing -- for the content of publications -- as opposed to being framed on drug charges or other fraudulent allegations against him. But there have been a continuing series of fines and petty harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses meeting for worship in private, home meetings to discuss the Bible and so on."
Attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses or other religious minorities can take many forms. Last week, NSB officers interrupted a meeting in a private house in Tashkent involving 12 Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the participants at the meeting, Olga Petrosian, faces a court hearing today.
Aleksandr Serdyuk, a legal assistant involved in the civil case, noted some of the comments made by the arresting officers. "They said interesting things: 'We have put all these Wahabbists in jail. And now we have one member of your group in our hands. Soon we'll get the rest of you. When we imprison 20 more from your group, everything will come to normal, and everything will come down.'"
In the wake of a police raid last month on a Jehovah's Witnesses meeting in a private home in the northern town of Navoi, the authorities have pressured a student who attended.
At the Navoi pedagogical institute, where she is a student, Nuriya Fahridinova was summoned to the dean's office where an official from the city department of internal affairs was present. Fahridinova was warned that she would be thrown out of the institute if she did not stop attending Jehovah's Witnesses meetings.
According to the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience, religious congregations must be registered in order to act as public organizations in Uzbekistan.
But Aaron Rhodes told RFE/RL there is nothing in the law that would prevent members of an unregistered congregation from getting together to pray or discuss matters of faith. He is the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna. "When the state authorities think that this kind of normal exercise of a religious freedom is contradicting one of their laws, it's not true. And it becomes religious persecution when people like [the Jehovah's Witnesses] are tried."
In practice, members of nearly any unregistered active religious community are likely to face punishment. Uzbekistan's restrictions against religious minorities are among the most severe in the former Soviet Union -- along with Belarus, which last week introduced the same restrictive provision banning unregistered religious activity.
Corley says in Uzbekistan: "There's a lot of official pressure on people who belong to religious communities that the government does not like. And it extends far beyond Jehovah's Witnesses. It's extended especially to Protestant Christians [and] to Muslims that try to function outside the framework of the government-approved Muslim board."
Elsewhere in Central Asia, Corley said, the situation facing religious minorities is also far from ideal. He added that Turkmenistan has similarly seen sweeping restrictions on religious communities: "In Turkmenistan, communities need to have 500 members before they can register an individual religious community. And the government has prevented any religious community -- apart from those from the Muslim board and the Russian Orthodox Church -- from registering officially. Which means in effect that their activity is treated as illegal although the religion law does not say that unregistered religious activity is illegal."
In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev earlier this year vetoed a new religion law that would have placed similar restrictions on religious minorities.
But Corley noted that in practice, the Kazakh government is moving to step up control of religious activities although the existing religion law does not require religious communities to register. "The government uses a provision of the Administrative Code which punishes unregistered religious activity. A lot of Baptist churches have recently had their leaders fined. The Hare Krishna community also has problems running a farm near the commercial capital, Almaty. Protestant churches in country areas, which are mainly populated by ethnic Kazakh of Muslim background, have had a lot of problems."
The main reason for the crackdown on religious communities in Central Asia seems to be that local governments see such groups as laying the foundation for potential opposition movements. Rhodes said: "The Uzbek government tends to want to control all aspects of life. And therefore, the exercise of civil freedoms such as participating in religious denominations that are not controlled by figures that are cooperating with the government is intrinsically a threat to the authority of the state."
Corley agrees, adding that religious believers are facing suspicion from the Central Asian government's bureaucrats who operate under the lingering heritage of Soviet atheism.
Another reason, Corley said, is the fact that new religious communities are challenging the two-way Muslim-Russian Orthodox split in the population that governments can control.
Gerd Stricker, deputy editor in chief of the Zurich-based monthly journal "Glaude in der 2. Welt" (Faith in the Second World), offers another explanation. He told RFE/RL that Central Asian governments favor the Orthodox Church over other Christian movements in order to get support from Russian President Vladimir Putin in the fight against Islamic extremism. "When Putin sees that the Central Asian governments are regarding their states as [part] of the canonical territory of the Russian [Orthodox] Church, Putin will help them. That's why the governing groups in these Central Asian states are trying to handle the situation as if Central Asia also were [part of] the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church."
Jehovah's Witnesses claim to have 3,500 members in Uzbekistan. But such numbers are nearly impossible to verify, as it is difficult to get reliable statistics on religious affiliation in Central Asia. There are many other communities of a variety of faiths. Some of them are new, like the Hare Krishnas and Jehovah's Witnesses. Others -- like Bahais, Christian Protestants, and Catholics -- have been in Central Asia for more than a century.
(Akram Faisullo of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)