Uzbek Authorities Raid Baptist Church

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Tashkent congregation refused registration for eight years.
by Barbara G. Baker

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan, October 27 (Compass) -- Police in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent raided a Baptist church during Sunday worship on October 17, declaring the service an “illegal religious meeting” and demanding the pastor promise to stop all the church’s activities.

About 120 members of the congregation of the Bethany Baptist Church in Tashkent’s Mirzo-Ulugbek district were midway through their Sunday morning service when eight district police officials appeared at the door.

Ringing the bell, the officers demanded to speak with the church’s leader. Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko complied, leaving the platform at the front of the church to walk outside and speak with the officers.

According to Shevchenko, who spoke with Compass two days after the incident, the policemen demanded, “What’s going on here?” When he stated that he and his congregation were singing and worshipping, the officials asked, “Do you have permission to do this? Is your church registered?”

“I told them no, so they asked me, ‘Why not?’” Shevchenko said. “That is also my question,” he told them. “Why is our church not registered?”

A member of the Baptist Union, Shevchenko’s church has been seeking official registration in vain for the past eight years. Despite a three-year lull in police actions against their activities, the church remains caught in an apparent standoff between local city regulations and the government’s restrictive registration laws instituted in 1998.

When the police insisted that paper be brought so they could write up official documents on the case, the pastor led them back through the church sanctuary to a room off the church’s inner garden. There they demanded that the pastor list the names of everyone present. When he refused to do this, they told him to write and sign a statement, admitting that he was conducting an illegal religious meeting.

“It is not pleasant for me to persecute you while you are praying to God,” one officer reportedly told Shevchenko. “But we have orders, so if you do not comply, we will have to call for trucks and buses so we can arrest everyone and take them to the police station.”

With the officers’ permission, Shevchenko returned to the congregation to ask if any would volunteer to represent the church by writing a personal statement for the police. Eight of the members came forward to write and sign statements declaring they had been present at the church’s morning service.

Although the police demanded that Shevchenko promise not to meet again in the church, he declined to do so. After confiscating samples of literature found in the church sanctuary and classrooms, the officers left, telling the pastor and eight members that they would be called to answer in court over the case.

In repeated attempts to gain legal registration, the Bethany Church congregation has provided the required list of 100 founding members and three pastoral leaders, paid a large registration fee and even secured the written approval of local community leaders and neighbors.

But nevertheless, police have twice before interrupted their worship services, assessing fines against the congregation, arresting the pastor and several members and filing criminal charges against them in May 2000 and again in June 2001.

In a straightforward plea to be heard, the church sent a letter in March 2001 to President Islam Karimov, attaching 18 documents confirming the history of the church’s attempt to register itself legally. Although Shevchenko was told orally that Karimov’s cabinet had seen the letter and would “resolve” the case, there has been no written response.

On October 19, Shevchenko told Compass that he had heard about three other Tashkent churches which had experienced similar interruptions from police officials over the past few days. “The clouds are gathering again over our churches here,” he said.

Shevchenko, 57, started the Bethany Church as an independent congregation in 1996. With Sunday attendance averaging 130 or more, the church has since started two spin-off church groups in nearby districts of northeast Tashkent. The members are an ethnic mix of Germans, Koreans, Uzbeks, Tatars, Kazakhs and Russians, the pastor said.

“We have existed since 1996,” Shevchenko said, “so how can the authorities say we do not exist?"