OSLO, Norway (BP)-Officers with Uzbekistan’s secret police, the National Security Service, interrogated two Baptists in the northwest Uzbek city of Urgench, “beating one up and threatening both with imprisonment, saying that ‘we will put you away for years,'” according to a report by Forum 18 News Service.
A secret police officer, however, claimed to Forum 18 that, “The Baptists’ activity is illegal, and so we simply had a chat with them,” and that the Baptist church in Urgench is a banned organization “because its registered status was removed.” Urgench is the central city in the Khorezm region of northwestern Uzbekistan.
An NSS officer identified as Alisher Khasanov also jeered at a Baptist church member for being a Christian and claimed that “you Protestants rely on Western money; the humanitarian western missions who support you are basically espionage organizations. So you yourselves are agents for foreign intelligence services.”
Also, an NSS officer questioned why the Olso-based Forum 18, an Internet news service focusing on persecuted Christians and other religious groups in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states, is interested in a “banned organization” that was stripped of its registered status six months ago.
Baptists in Urgench began to experience difficulties in February when the justice administration for the Khorezm region removed the church’s registered status for “the enticement of 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. Moreover, authorities can judge a discussion between several people about religion to constitute “activity” of a religious community.
Article 3 of Uzbekistan’s religion law does indeed forbid “the enticement of underage children into religious organizations, and also their religious instruction against their or their parents’ will”. However, as Oleg Bader, pastor of the Urgench Baptist church, told Forum 18 in February, work with children was included in the church’s statute, which had been registered with the same regional justice administration in December 1999.
Baptists in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, who asked not to be named, believe that the real reason for the government’s steps against the Urgench church is that they simply do not want Christianity to become widespread in the Khorezm region. Currently, only one registered Christian community is left in Khorezm region, a Korean Protestant church.
In Urgench, a Baptist who asked not to be named told Forum 18 on July 6 that the NSS secret police interrogated the two Urgench church members in late June.
One secret police officer, who gave his name only as Alisher, admitted to Forum 18 from Urgench on July 5 that the two Baptists, Sharovat Allamova and Dilshod Dilbaev, had been summoned to the NSS, but he denied they were beaten or had psychological pressure put on them. “The Baptists’ activity is illegal, and so we simply had a chat with them,” he claimed.
On June 25, when Allamova was questioned about being a foreign agent by Khasanov at the Khorezm regional NSS headquarters, Khasanov ordered her 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, Khasanov called in Dilbaev for questioning. Dilbaev also was asked about the Baptists’ links with foreigners and about the humanitarian aid they received from abroad. Forum 18 reported that this time Khasanov was more brutal, hitting Dilbaev several times and threatening that drugs would be planted on him if he did not give the required information. “We will put you away for years,” Khasanov threatened.
Forum 18’s attempt to establish from the Khorezm NSS what had happened yielded an unexpected response. In a July 5 telephone call, even before Forum 18’s correspondent had time to introduce himself, an NSS officer asked if he was the journalist Igor Rotar. The officer said Khasanov was on leave and refused to give his own last name, but said, “I can answer your questions.” The officer questioned Forum 18’s interest in the church and said, “We keep track of your visits to Urgench. When do you intend to visit us next?”
Forum 18 has learned that a local journalist who helped the news service in Urgench in February was summoned to the NSS in March for questioning about why a correspondent for a Norwegian organization was visiting the region.
Igor Rotar is the Central Asia correspondent for Forum 18 News Service based in Oslo, Norway, and on the Web at www.forum18.org.