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Heavy fines, bans levied on Uzbek Baptists

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan (BP)–On the basis of allegedly fabricated evidence, a court in Uzbekistan has effectively removed three leaders of the country’s Baptist Union on charges of tax evasion and illegally teaching religion to children.

Pavel Peichev, head of Uzbekistan’s Baptist union, Yelena Kurbatova, the union’s accountant, and Dmitri Pitirimov, director of the Joy Baptist Children’s Camp, each were fined the equivalent of 260 times the monthly minimum wage and were banned from all administrative and financial activity for three years, according to the Forum 18 news service. The court also ruled the Baptist Union will have to pay 107 months in unpaid taxes on alleged profit from children’s camp operations.

The children’s camp is held on recreational property owned by the Baptist Union for their adult members and their children. Peichev testified during an Oct. 6 hearing that not only did the camp not make a profit that could be taxed but the Baptists spent more money on each camp participant than was paid in fees.

The three were convicted even though some of the parents involved denied their children were forced to listen to religious teaching, Pitrimov told Forum 18. Parents testified they had filed no complaints about the camp and that no one harmed their children materially, physically or morally. They also told the court that no religious rituals were performed with their children during the camp, no Baptist had suggested their children change religion while at the camp and no one had suggested children attend Baptist churches after the camp. One parent said she had written her statement as it was dictated to her by officials from the prosecutor’s office and that she had signed the record of her interrogation even though it was written in Russian, which she does not speak.

“Despite the fact that it was proven in the court the whole case was fabricated, the judge still went ahead and made a decision against us,” Pitrimov told Forum 18. “As Jesus says in the Gospels, ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ One can only imagine what kind of further attacks may come from the authorities.”

The trio intend to appeal the court’s decision, which was announced Oct. 29.

The verdict illustrates a broad climate of government persecution against religious freedom in Uzbekistan that affects not only evangelical Christians but also Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and even Muslims. Forum 18 reported the country’s Justice Ministry held a seminar Aug. 4 that compared the activity of religious groups to human trafficking and religious extremism. Sharing one’s religious beliefs with others is a crime in Uzbekistan.

Newspapers and websites publish alarmist articles against missionary activity and authorities have been rebroadcasting TV films encouraging intolerance and attacking religious minorities as well as freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 said. In October, an article in the “Chirchik” newspaper alleged — without giving concrete examples — that Jehovah’s Witnesses converts are stripped of homes and money. An Uzbek state television special first shown in November 2006 claims Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses turn people into zombies and drive them to psychiatric hospitals.

In June 2008, Abe David Gurevich, the Russian-born head of the country’s Jewish community who had worked in Uzbekistan since 1990, was forced to leave Uzbekistan after the Justice Ministry refused to renew work visas for Gurevich and his wife Malka. Usbekistan’s prisons also house prisoners of conscience such as Dmitry Shestakov, a Pentecostal pastor who is serving a four-year sentence, and three Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.

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