Crackdowns on alleged Muslim extremists recently landed Uzbekistan on the U.S. State Department's list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC). The situation for all religious groups has deteriorated since 2005, when troops in Andijan fired on civilians gathered in a public square, killing hundreds.
About 88 percent of Uzbekistanis are Muslim. But the government has closed thousands of mosques and arrested, imprisoned, and tortured Muslims in the name of combating Islamic extremism, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
"They are being arrested by thousands," said Michael Cromartie, who chaired the USCIRF from 2004 to 2006. "The point is, when [the government] cracks down on thousands and thousands of Muslims, you, too, could be a victim of a crackdown."
President Islam Karimov's regime, like several others in Central Asia, restricts aid organizations and religious groups out of concern that they foment Islamic or democratic revolution, according to Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement. At the same time, government officials try to mollify Islamic radicals by harassing Christian churches. However, with increasing anger over government abuses, the threat of Islamic militants is growing.
"Extremists would never be able to recruit on their own," Seiple said.
Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, was long known for toleration. But now a strict though unevenly enforced 1998 law requires all religious groups to register with the government. Many decline, Cromartie said, because they don't want to be monitored. Even registered churches have been raided, according to Forum 18. The Norwegian human-rights organization reported that 47 worshipers were arrested during a service in October. As is common, their religious literature and Bibles were confiscated and burned. The USCIRF report states that "several Christian leaders have been detained at psychiatric hospitals, severely beaten, and/or sentenced to labor camps and continue to have their churches raided, services interrupted, Bibles confiscated, and the names of adherents recorded by Uzbek officials."
Only about 1,000 evangelicals live in Uzbekistan, according to Seiple. This year, the government has deported Western Christians and missionaries as it phases out international organizations.
"The exciting news is that the church has leaders, and God is raising them up," Seiple said.
Uzbekistan's U.S. embassy did not respond to calls for comment. The embassy released a statement saying the CPC designation "is unfounded and nothing else other than the interference into internal affairs of sovereign Uzbekistan."
Seiple doubts Uzbekistan will be swayed by the U.S. censure.
"The government will not budge an inch on anything," he said. "It's going to be more of the same, more people crying out for social justice. At the end of the day, it's only what President Karimov says."
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Christianity Today articles on Uzbekistan include:
Uzbekistan: Catch-240 | "Repressive regime requires Christians to register, but won't process their applications" (January 1, 2003)
Pastor Faces Drug Charges | Four Uzbek Pentecostals from the Full Gospel Church in Uzbekistan face long prison terms if convicted of charges of using and distributing drugs. But the charges may have been trumped up by authorities. (April 26, 1999)
The most recent Forum 18 reports on religious freedom in Uzbekistan include:
Government attacks on Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims continue (December 20, 2006)
Government tries to deny religious freedom reality (December 19, 2006)
Prime-time state TV incites intolerance of religious minorities and religious freedom (December 19, 2006)
State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage (December 7, 2006)
Despite official denials, religious freedom violations continue (November 28, 2006)
Court fines Baptists and burns Bibles (November 27, 2006)
Systematic repression of Muslims since Andijan (November 2,, 2006)
Sunday morning a favoured time for raids (October 16,2006)
The US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom gave a speech on the State Department's 2006 designations of Countries of Particular Concern. (CPC's)
The BBC's country profile of Uzbekistan includes a timeline of events and articles on Andijan.
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