Will new Uzbek leader double down on persecution?
Already repressed Christian groups fear crackdown on religious minorities
Christians in Uzbekistan already face severe restrictions on their religion—the worst of any nation in Central Asia. Now they fear an increase in persecution following President Islam Karimov’s death.
Karimov died Sept. 2, days after being hospitalized for a stroke. The government did not acknowledge his illness until hours before his death.
The authoritarian leader rose through Communist Party ranks to become the head of Soviet Uzbekistan two years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. He became president of an independent Uzbekistan in 1989.
After Karimov’s death, the country’s parliament named Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev interim president on Sept. 8, to maintain law and order, according to Reuters. The constitution requires a presidential election within three months, and Mirziyoyev is expected to win.
The transition of power worries Christians who already suffer from restrictions on worship and religious publications, as well as government monitoring, threats, raids, and arrests.
“If Mirziyoyev becomes the next president, the persecution of Christians will be even worse,” a pastor who wished to remain anonymous told World Watch Monitor (WWM). “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.”
Although officially secular, Uzbekistan retains much of the Soviet distrust of religion, and the government seeks to restrict and control all religious groups. Karimov also restricted speech and censored the press.
Uzbekistan is about 90 percent Muslim, with a Christian minority of about 210,000 people, according to Mission Eurasia. Muslim converts to Christianity endure persecution from family and their community, in addition to government pressure.
Unregistered religious groups and churches are illegal, but Uzbekistan has not approved a single new church registration in a decade, WWM reported. Many evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal groups either cannot register or choose not to out of fear of government control. But the government often raids illegal churches and threatens worshippers. Christians are spied on and can be fined for possessing religious literature.
Forum 18 reported that in June officials tortured a Protestant from Urgench while searching his home for religious literature. Then a court sentenced him in absentia to pay a fine. Officials tortured another Protestant during a 16-day prison sentence for possessing eight Christian books. They later fined him, too.
The same month, four Sufi Muslim leaders were each sentenced in criminal court to four years in prison for holding home religious meetings, according to Forum 18.
“The current power vacuum could also strengthen the control of the country’s national security service (SNB), which was created as a successor to the KGB after the collapse of the Soviet Union and has a long history of torture, censorship, and human rights abuses—including raids of churches and Christian homes,” Mission Eurasia warned after Karimov’s death.
Human rights organizations have criticized Uzbekistan’s treatment of its people for many years. Open Doors ranked Uzbekistan 15th on its 2016 list of severe persecutors of Christians. Since 2005, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has repeatedly designated Uzbekistan a country of particular concern. Human Rights Watch also condemned the government for a “quarter century of ruthless repression” under Karimov.
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