Uzbek Television Slanders Protestant Church

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Evangelicals’ relatives, neighbors swayed by ‘terrible lies and accusations.’

Special to Compass Direct

URGENCH, Uzbekistan, January 16 (Compass) – A so-called “documentary” televised regionally in Uzbekistan last summer has left entire communities convinced that a Protestant congregation is an “extremist” group worse than fundamentalist Islam.

Entitled “Zalolat” (Disaster), the 22-minute “exposé” sensationalized a police raid last June against the Full Gospel Church in Urgench, capital of Khorezm province in northwest Uzbekistan.

The program intersperses scenes from the June 26 raid with interviews with local police, judicial and Muslim officials. The program host and speakers represent Pastor Ruzmet Voisov and his congregation as “Christian extremists” guilty of breaking the laws of Uzbekistan and trying to destroy national stability.

“After people saw this program,” one Uzbek Christian in the region told Compass, “some of them told us, ‘The Wahhabis are much better than you.’” Banned Muslim groups fighting to replace the Uzbek government with an Islamic state are commonly labeled “Wahhabis,” after the strict Muslim sect dominant in Saudi Arabia.

According to Uzbek Christians living within range of Khorezm TV, their relatives, neighbors and entire communities have been swayed by what one house church leader called “these terrible lies and accusations” aired against evangelical Christians and their beliefs.

The pseudo-documentary was televised at least twice, on July 27 and again on August 10. The popular Uzbek-language channel can be viewed throughout Khorezm province and the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, as well as in eastern Turkmenistan.

In a CD copy of “Zalalot” obtained by Compass, a police officer opens the program by reading a litany of charges against the men and women caught worshipping in the “unregistered” Urgench church on June 26. Declaring that the group had no official license to meet for worship and use “illegal” literature, the policeman stress that the Christians have been deliberately breaking laws on religion for two years.

The Uzbek government routinely denies registration applications as a pretext for repressing churches.

Repeatedly panning the congregation, the camera zooms in on Uzbek and Turkish Bibles lying on the church pews or held by various members. Despite official efforts to suppress Christian materials in the Uzbek language, the Uzbek New Testament is printed and sold legally in the country.

Christians ‘Cause Division’

In the longest single interview on the program, local judge Gulchenhera Qulimova speaks from her courtroom, accusing the Urgench church of causing division between Islam and Christianity. “Our president [Islam Karimov] has warned against these kinds of activities on Uzbek soil,” she declares.

In a later segment, a Muslim imam identified as Davron Abdulqudirov declares that Christian missionary activities among Muslims are outside the mandate of the New Testament.

The cleric quotes Matthew 15:24, claiming that Jesus had told his followers to evangelize only Jews, “the lost sheep of Israel,” and that any Christians who tried to proselytize Muslims were disobeying Jesus’ command.

“Having an imam talking as an expert on what a Bible verse means is like asking a Jewish rabbi to explain the Quran!” one Uzbek Christian commented.

The imam goes on to proclaim Islam’s precedence over Christianity as revealed in the so-called Gospel of Barnabas, a medieval forgery used by Muslim apologists since the 15th century to undermine Christian theology.

In closing, the program warns listeners to be alert against these “extremist” Christians, said to be targeting youth and children in their proselytizing activities. The program claims that as much as $1,000 in bribes have been offered to potential converts to Christianity.

“Government officials themselves broke the law throughout the whole program,” an Uzbek lawyer who examined the contents of the film told Compass. But given the climate in the religiously repressive nation, local church leaders have declined to press criminal charges against the TV channel or officials participating in the program.

Filming the Offering

The Urgench Full Gospel Church began with a handful of Uzbek believers meeting together in the late 1990s; by 2000, it had grown to a group of 60. After Voisov and his family returned from a year’s training at the Tyrannus Bible School in Turkey, they bought a large home, gradually renovating one section into a sanctuary for the growing congregation.

By last June, an average of 150 to 200 worshippers attended Sunday services.

In the month leading up to the police raid, Voisov told Compass, at least 50 church members were pulled in for questioning by the SNB (secret police). The Sunday before the raid, two unknown men entered during the service, looked around and then left.

But the following week, on June 26, an entire busload of anti-terror police in civilian clothing pulled up at the church at 10 a.m., while the worship service was in progress. Eight or nine men entered the church, at least three of them with small video cameras whirring.

Declaring the meeting illegal, the SNB demanded to see the passports of the participants, saying repeatedly, “You do not have registration. Your meeting here is illegal.” When Pastor Voisov asked the SNB officials to show him proof of their identities and an official search warrant, they refused.

While the pastor met with several of the intruding policemen in an adjacent room of his home, other officers told elderly church members to leave and ordered younger ones to sit down while they were filmed. Some police officers mocked young women in the congregation, grabbing their arms, proposing marriage and suggesting they go off with them to a bar or café rather than sit in church.

Voisov and his wife Muhabbet were ordered to pose in front of the police cameras and count the money from the church offering. The footage was used in the TV program to accuse the pastor of getting rich by collecting large sums of money from his congregation.

Finally, 40 church members were loaded into a bus and taken to the police station. Together with Pastor Voisov, who had been driven there separately, they were all ordered to write an explanation of what they had been doing at this “illegal” meeting and sign it. They were then released.

Questioned in Court

That week, Voisov and his wife were summoned to collect the literature that had been confiscated from the church. But the summons turned out to be a ploy to send them directly from the police station to the Urgench City Court.

There the judge peppered them both with questions: “Are you Christians? Why do you believe in Christianity? Why are you trying to start a church? Why don’t you believe in Islam?”

Voisov said his wife answered the judge’s questions so well that at one point the court recorder stopped taking notes and just listened, until he was reminded by the judge to continue writing.

After questioning them, the judge ordered them from the room. When they were summoned 20 minutes later, the judge proceeded to read aloud their sentence. But after the judge stated that Voisov had no theological education and that he was unemployed, the pastor interrupted.

“This is not true,” he insisted. “I was working until just this past May in the mayor’s office, and I am receiving a pension.” The judge was silent as Voisov pulled out his pension book, proving his claims. In the end, the judge postponed the decision until the next day.

When the couple returned on June 29, the court ruled them guilty of starting an illegal church under Article 216 of the Administrative Law. When they refused to pay the fine, the court confiscated the church offering of 28,000 Soms ($24). If Voisov had not been able to prove that he had been employed, the judge admitted, he also would have sentenced him to 15 days in prison.

“Now they listen to our telephones and watch our church building,” Voisov told Compass. “And they have told all our members that if they are ever caught again attending our illegal church, they will begin a criminal case against them.” Under Uzbek law, a repeated infraction of an administrative law becomes a criminal offense, which carries stiff monetary and prison penalties.

As a result, the congregation can no longer meet as a group, but has been forced to divide into small cell groups meeting in various homes.

Meanwhile, Voisov has applied to both the public prosecutor’s office and the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan to appeal the ruling against him.

December Crackdown

Several thousand Uzbek citizens of Muslim background have converted to Christianity since Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991. Although dozens of Uzbek groups now meet in house church fellowships throughout the country, none have been able to obtain legal registration status.

Last week, Forum 18 News reported a month-long “sweeping crackdown” beginning December 16 on religious activities in Tashkent, requiring government agencies to perform detailed checks on all “official and unofficial” religious groups meeting in each district of the capital.

According to a copy of the measures obtained by Forum 18, 34 non-Muslim and 114 Muslim religious communities are registered in Tashkent. Local authorities were instructed to halt any unregistered organizations or related missionary activity they uncovered during their investigations.

In practice, Uzbekistan denies legal registration to new religious congregations, which then provides the state with a legal pretext to criminalize all unregistered religious activities.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct