Half a year after their church was stripped of its registered status and was labeled “illegal,” Baptists in Urgench, the central city in the Khorezm region of north-western Uzbekistan are facing renewed pressure.
According to Norway-based Forum 18, which monitors religious freedom in Communist and former Soviet states, the Uzbekistan National Security Service (NSS) interrogated two church members in late June, beating one and threatening both with imprisonment. One NSS officer from Urgench—who gave his name only as Alisher—admitted to Forum 18 that Baptists had been summoned to the NSS, but denied that they were beaten or had pressure on them. “The Baptists’ activity is illegal, and so we simply had a chat with them,” he claimed. He added that the Urgench Baptist church is a banned organization “because its registration status was removed.”
Local Baptist Sharovat Allamova, who was called in to the Khorezm NSS headquarters on June 25 said that she was jeered at for maintaining her Christian faith. “You Protestants rely on Western money,” the officer told her. “The humanitarian western missions who support you are basically espionage organizations. So you yourselves are agents of foreign intelligence services.” According to Forum 18, the officer ordered Allamova to say which foreign organizations were in contact with local Baptists, threatening that if she refused he would imprison her under the article of the criminal code that forbids knowingly giving false evidence.
On June 26, another Urgench Baptist, Dilshod Dilbaev, was called in for question and asked about the Baptists’ link with foreigners and about the humanitarian aid they received from abroad. Forum 18 reported that during Dilbaev’s interrogation, authorities were more brutal; hitting Dilbaev several times and threatening that if he did not give the required information they would plant drugs on him. “We will put you away for years,” the officer told him.
Baptists in Urgench began to experience difficulties since February of this year when the justice administration for Khorezm region removed their church’s registered status for the “enticement and underage children into religious organizations, and also their religious instruction against their or their parents’ will.”
Uzbekistan’s religion law bans the activity of unregistered religious communities. Reportedly, even a discussion between several people about religion is considered as an “activity” of a religious community.
Oleg Bader, pastor of the Urgench Baptist church told Forum 18 in February that work with children was included in the church’s statute, which had been registered with the same regional justice administration on December 30, 1999. Bader told Forum 18 on March 1 that the children's work was actually only taking place with their parents' consent. "It's true that some parents made statements saying that their children had come to summer camp without their permission, but they did this under pressure from the National Security Service (the ex-KGB secret police), and then these same parents came to see us in church and asked our forgiveness," he said.
Bader believes that the authorities have been looking for an excuse to remove the church's registered status. Meanwhile, Baptists in the Uzbek capitol Tashkent believe that the real reason for the closure of the Urgench church was that the authorities simply do not want Christianity to become widespread in the Khorezm reigon. Currently, there is only one registered Christian community left in the Khorezm region—the Korean Protestant Church.