Authorities in the Uzbekistan capital of Tashkent raided a Baptist church during Sunday worship on October 17, declaring the service an “illegal religious meeting” and demanding the pastor promise to stop all the church’s activities.
According to Compass News, about 120 members of the congregation of the Bethany Baptist Church in Tashkent’s Mirzo-Ulugbek district were midway through their Sunday morning service when eight district police officials appeared at the door.
The officials reportedly asked if the church was given permission to congregate and if the church was registered. After the church pastor replied that the church was not registered, the police demanded that the pastor list the names of everyone present. When the pastor refused to comply, the police told him to write and sign a statement, admitting that he was conducting an illegal religious meeting.
With the officers’ permission, the pastor returned to the congregation to ask if any would volunteer to represent the church by writing a personal statement for the police. Eight of the members came forward to write and sign statements declaring they had been present at the church’s morning service.
After demanding that the congregation not meet again in the church and confiscating samples of literature found in the church sanctuary and classrooms, the officers left. The pastor was told that he and the eight members would be called to answer in court over the case.
A member of the Baptist Union, Bethany Baptist Church has been seeking official registration in vain for the past eight years. In repeated attempts to gain legal registration, the Church congregation has provided the required list of 100 founding members and three pastoral leaders, paid a large registration fee and even secured the written approval of local community leaders and neighbors.
But nevertheless, police have twice before interrupted their worship services, assessing fines against the congregation, arresting the pastor and several members and filing criminal charges against them in May 2000 and again in June 2001.
In March 2001, the church sent a letter to President Islam Karimov, in an attempt to be heard. Although the pastor was told that Karimov’s cabinet had seen the letter and would “resolve” the case, there has been no written response.
According to an International Relgious Freedom Report, a number of minority religious groups, including congregations of a variety of Christian confessions, had difficulty satisfying the strict registration requirements set out by the law.
In addition, Protestant groups with ethnic Uzbek members reported operating in a climate of harassment and fear.