As Uzbekistan prepares to elect a new president after the death of longtime dictatorial ruler Islam Karimov, Christians in the former Soviet state fear religious persecution will only worsen.
The Open Doors advocacy organization for persecuted Christians already ranks Uzbekistan as the most difficult Central Asian country in which to practice Christianity, but the change in leadership won’t help the estimated 210,000 Christians in the country of 30.4 million people, two pastors and a Protestant layman said in a World Watch Monitor report.
Current prime minister and acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced Sept. 16 he will seek the presidency in December amid predictions of a sure victory, the French press agency AFP reported.
“If Mirziyoyev becomes the next president, the persecution of Christians will be even worse,” one pastor said before Mirziyoyev’s announcement, remaining anonymous. “Actually, as it seems, it was he who initiated or was at least involved in the persecution of the Uzbek Protestant church and converts from a Muslim background.”
In neighboring Turkmenistan, meanwhile, the estimated 95,000 Christians also face heightened oppression, with both countries operating under legalized suppression of religious practice among the mostly Muslim populations. Government suppression of radical Islam is said to work against all religious practice, including Christianity.
“It is not clear how, but unfortunately Christian believers fall into the category of potential religious extremists,” a Uzbek pastor said. “The attitude of the [Uzbek] government toward us will not change, no matter who becomes the new leader. Of course, we hope for a better scenario, but we have to be realistic. Our government is always afraid of any manifestation of dissidents.”
An Uzbek layman voiced a similar view. “I don’t expect drastic changes. Christians in Uzbekistan will continue to experience harassment by the government.”
Evangelism among non-believers is illegal in Uzbekistan, where Christians are mostly ethnic minorities. Open Doors ranks Uzbekistan at 15 on its World Watch List 2016 of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has deemed Uzbekistan a “Country of Particular Concern” since 2005.
According to Open Doors, religious practices of Protestants including Baptists, evangelicals and Pentecostals are considered illegal in Uzbekistan because the groups operate in non-registered buildings. No Christian church has registered in the past decade, Open Doors said, with Christians facing regular church raids, threats, arrests and fines.
In June, Uzbekistan strengthened existing restrictions and punishments against individuals exercising freedom of religion and freedom of expression, including Christians and Muslims, Forum 18 reported. Changes include longer jail terms; a ban on the production, storage or distribution of religious literature; and increased restrictions on the use of mass media, telecommunications and the internet, Forum 18 said.
Before the laws were strengthened, Uzbekistan already pressured churches and parents to prevent children under the age of 16 from attending religious services of any kind, Forum 18 said.
An unnamed Open Doors expert on Central Asia told World Watch Monitor it is “unlikely that there will be any major changes for the better for the persecuted Uzbek church. Do we want religious freedom to come? Many Uzbek Christians would surely say ‘Yes’! But [whether] the situation will improve, we don’t know.”
Turkmenistan has amended its constitution to lift any restrictions on the president’s length of service, World Watch Monitor reported Sept. 14. Previously, presidents had to retire at age 70. There, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has erected a golden statue of himself and is becoming known as “Arkadag” or protector of all Turkmens.
The country has about a dozen registered churches, Open Doors estimates, and the smaller population of only 5.4 million people makes it easier for the government to enforce religious restrictions, one Christian told World Watch Monitor. Imprisonment, brutality and fines are employed.
Most ethnic Turkmens refuse to associate with Russian Orthodox churches, leaving them few legal options to practice their faith.
“Non-registered religious activity is illegal. … Even registered religious communities face regular check-up visits,” according to Open Doors 2016 World Watch List, which ranks Turkmenistan 19 among the 50 countries where it is most difficult to practice Christianity.
“There is strict control by the government and local authorities over the Turkmen population, and all communication is being monitored,” Open Doors said of the country. “Publishing and distributing religious literature is prohibited, and its import is monitored and censored. There is no Christian bookshop in the country.”
Other former Soviet states on the 2016 World Watch List are Tajikistan, ranked 31; Azerbaijan, ranked 34; and Kazakhstan, 42.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)