Stalin-like persecution of faith

The hunt for signs of hope in Russia isn't totally forlorn: The decline in religious freedom seems to have stopped. Cases such as the recent expulsion of an Oregon Baptist missionary are far rarer than they would be if the authorities were strictly enforcing the harsh 1997 law on religion. But freedom of conscience has yet to regain ground lost over the last five years, and it may take another turn for the worse under Boris Yeltsin's successor - or sooner.

In a former Soviet Republic 2,000 miles east of Moscow, the picture is much darker. Central Asia is the world's largest area of overlap between the post-Soviet and Islamic cultures - both inhospitable to religious freedom.

The region's most powerful state remains a fortress of persecution. Uzbekistan explicitly criminalizes unregistered religious activities. If believers organize worship services not licensed by the state - even Bible studies in private homes - they risk prison terms of up to five years.

To obtain such licenses, churches must endure a process that seems diabolically designed to give bureaucrats as many opportunities as possible to say no.

Each congregation must prove it has 100 adult citizen members - often impossible for rural churches or new missions - and pay a fee 50 times the monthly minimum wage, the equivalent of $50,000. Officials routinely extort bribes on top of that.

The congregation must also declare its sources of income and provide permits from numerous local agencies and from the central government. Even after it has been registered, it must submit a quarterly report on its activities, donors, number of members, and future plans. Believers are forbidden to engage in missionary activities designed to win new converts.

Unlike Russia, Uzbekistan is actually enforcing its anti-freedom law, reviving practices most of the former Soviet Union has not seen since the 1980s. It has been arresting, imprisoning, and even torturing pastors. In November a Baptist was subjected to a week of interrogation and threatened with a two-year jail term - because police had found 200 religious tracts in his possession.

Under foreign pressure, Uzbek authorities made some concessions in August, releasing five Protestants and a Jehovah's Witness then known to be in prison because of their faith. They also registered a score of congregations whose applications had long been delayed. Their obvious goal was to keep the US State Department from formally listing Uzbekistan as one of the worst violators of religious freedom (along with countries like China), and they succeeded.

But the basic picture remains unchanged. President Islam Karimov and his administration have failed to annul the criminal charges against the newly released prisoners, who could thus be re-arrested at any moment. They've failed to reprimand or punish those who arrested, or brutally beat, or framed these believers on false narcotics charges. They've found excuses to continue delaying applications for registration, and have even launched new raids on worship services and arrests of worshippers.

Most important, they have failed to consider any changes in the repressive 1998 law on religion, which flagrantly contradicts Uzbekistan's own Constitution and its obligations under human-rights treaties.

Mr. Karimov has shown great skill in manipulating the West's darkest fears about Islam. He claims that his policies are necessary to protect Uzbekistan from Wahhabis (a particularly hardline and militant version of Islam), a label the president applies with deliberate imprecision to any Muslim he dislikes for any reason. Even if he were right about the scale of the terrorist threat, the 1998 law is counterproductive. It requires officials to spend their limited resources monitoring every congregation of every faith rather than concentrating on those who are truly dangerous.

Uzbekistan's neighbor, Turkmenistan, is in the middle of a systematic, sustained campaign to stamp out all religious practice by non-approved groups. Last week, three Baptists were arrested after a series of nocturnal raids that one of them likened to the Stalin-era knock on the door in the middle of the night.

A decade ago, the Keston Institute, a British organization that monitors religious freedom in the former Soviet bloc, stopped publishing updates on Soviet religious prisoners for the best possible reason: The last known prisoner had been released.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, by restoring the methods of the Stalin era, have now forced us to revive our prisoners' list. They hope that Western Islamophobia will allow them to keep getting away with persecuting Muslims and Christians alike.

*Felix Corley writes about religious freedom in former Soviet Central Asia for the Oxford, England-based Keston Institute, of which Lawrence Uzzell is the director.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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