Tuesday, March 18, 2014

RLPB 252. Uzbekistan: church is restricted and repressed

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 252 | Wed 19 Mar 2014

Uzbekistan: Church leader outlines history and vast needs of the registered and ethnic churches

By 'AV', a religious liberty advocate with a particular concern for and involvement in the former USSR. 'AV' based this RLPB on a recent interview with one of the key Uzbek Church leaders.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s there was a large influx of missionaries from Western countries and South Korea to Uzbekistan. From then until approximately 1998, missionaries planted many new churches, organised discipleship seminars and social charity projects, and held youth and children's camps.

Following several terrorist acts in 1998 organised by Islamic extremists, the Law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations was tightened. As a result many religious organisations lost registration. The number of members needed for registration of a church or any other religious organisation was increased to 100. The Law prohibits proselytism, missionary activities and printing, storing or distributing religious literature. The changes in the Law mainly targeted Islamic extremist groups but Christian and other religious groups were affected also.

For some time after the changes were made, the Law was not enforced. However, in 2003 the government started applying a policy of getting missionaries to leave Uzbekistan. They were asked to leave voluntarily, but no visa extensions were granted. Many missionaries who left the country temporarily were not able to get back into Uzbekistan. Later the amendments to the Law were published, disclosing  harsher punishment for violating the Law, including heavy fines and in some cases imprisonment.

After the political protests and massacre in the city of Andijan in 2005, the government started escalating severe measures against religious organisations, continuing until 2013. Believers experienced oppression and persecution that targeted especially evangelism, group meetings and religious education. Their homes were searched, literature, DVDs and other educational resources were confiscated. Believers were detained, interrogated, sentenced to pay very large fines and sometimes were imprisoned. During that period Christian churches and other religious organisations and groups faced sustained oppression on a massive scale.

The case of Pastor Dmitry (David) Shestakov, who was imprisoned for 'religious extremism' in 2007-11, became well-known globally and many Christians participated in a prayer campaign for Dmitry and publicised his situation. Many Christians, especially ethnic believers, left the country or moved elsewhere during that period because of persecution. Other factors were financial hardship and unemployment. However, the Church continued to do God's work despite the oppression.

The situation for religious organisations began to improve in 2013 and the authorities started to dialogue with Christian organisations. They no longer searched or watched homes at random but only in response to specific allegations. Because the authorities clearly defined what is and is not permitted, the churches came to understand their boundaries better. To meet in homes is prohibited. There are few registered ethnic churches so the majority of ethnic believers have to meet secretly. Religious freedom is especially restricted in Karakalpakastan because there are still no registered churches.

The situation with Christian literature is very critical. It is practically impossible to get an official permit to publish or import Christian literature. Any unauthorised printing, storage and distribution of literature is punished by huge fines, which can have a devastating effect on individual believers who are struggling with financial hardship.

The restrictions on religious freedom also affect the education of  Church leaders and members. There is only one registered seminary in Uzbekistan which is allowed to take only seven to ten students each year. The department of religious affairs controls the process and no ethnic believers are allowed to study there.

Despite all the difficulties and pressure from the State, the churches in Uzbekistan faithfully continue to worship God and fulfil the great commission of the Lord Jesus Christ to make disciples in their country and beyond. They need daily prayer support from the global Christian community while they go through a long, difficult period of severe restriction of religious freedom.

Praise God for the growing unity and good co-operation among Christian churches in Uzbekistan.

Please pray specifically --

* for the registered organisations and that God will use them to help the unregistered churches.

* that the ethnic churches will continue to grow and get freedom to worship.

* that Christians can have Christian literature without fear of fines.

* that the applications for entry of religious experts will be successful and be granted quickly; for God's protection from demands for bribes.

* that Christians can get good quality theological education within the country and that ethnic believers will be allowed to study.

* that the authorities will not consider Christians a threat to national security.

* for the safety and God's protection of all Christians in Uzbekistan.

'They have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me. Ploughmen have ploughed my back and made their furrows long. But the LORD is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.' (Psalm 129:1-4 NIV)

SUMMARY
UZBEKISTAN CHURCH IS RESTRICTED AND OPPRESSED

After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Uzbekistan experienced an   influx of missionaries from Western countries and South Korea who initiated considerable Church growth. However, following Islamic extremist terrorism in 1998, religious restrictions were imposed. Whilst targeted at the extremists, Christian groups were affected also. The regime oppressed believers severely. Missionaries were expelled and producing or possessing religious material incurs massive fines. Access to resources is a vast need. Meeting in homes is prohibited. Many churches meet secretly, unable to register. There is just one registered seminary which is allowed an annual intake of ten, thus restricting the education of Church leaders and members. Despite all the State oppression, the churches continue to worship and fulfil Christ's great commission to make disciples. Please pray for Uzbekistan and its Church.

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Elizabeth Kendal
thanks 'AV' for authoring this week's RLPB while she is absent, speaking at conferences in Sydney and Canberra, Australia.