By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife at BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- Fearing beatings, detentions and deportations "many" Uzbek Protestant church leaders and their families were in hiding Friday, September 1, as Uzbekistan celebrated its 15th anniversary of independence, Christians said.
Barnabas Fund, a well-informed international group supporting persecuted Christians in especially Muslim nations such as Uzbekistan, told BosNewsLife there is "a surge of anti-Christian activity" in the former Soviet republic, including reported cases of violence against Christian women and children.
"It is believed that this is linked with the 15th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s Independence Day" Friday, September 1, Barnabas Fund added. "During August, Barnabas Fund received reports from Uzbekistan indicating increasing persecution of Protestant church leaders and their families, many of whom have now gone into hiding." It did not say how many were in hiding Friday, September 1, but it was believed key church leaders were among them.
In one of the latest incidents, a well-known church leader and evangelist, Sergey Hripunov, was reportedly given a week to leave the country with his wife and children.
"This is the second incident of deportation of a church leader from Uzbekistan in a month. The leader of a church started by Sergey Hripunov was given only 24 hours to leave the country with his wife and two children, the youngest of whom was only two weeks old," said Barnabas Fund which has close contacts with Christians in the region.
"They were given no reason for the order, nor was there a court order accompanying it," the group claimed. In addition, last week, "a group of Christians were arrested in the town of Termez by the Security Services. Some of the Christians, including women and children, were beaten," Barnabas Fund said.
"The following day some of the group were released, but six men were kept under arrest. Officials have as yet given no information as to why the Christians were arrested. One of the men detained was a Ukraine national, called Yuri Stefanko, visiting some friends in Uzbekistan."
In another incident in August a group of Uzbek Christians, mostly young men but also including a pregnant woman were reportedly arrested in the Surhandarya region. "The men were beaten and detained in jail," Barnabas Fund said.
Also in August the government introduced an "increase to fines for unregistered religious activity. Anyone caught sharing their faith will now face fines between 200 and 600 times the minimum monthly salary," Barnabas Fund and other human rights watchers said.
"This is an increase on the current fines which stand at 50 to 70 times the minimum monthly salary. According to some reports their church minister will also face a fine. If a person continues to share their faith and is caught a second time they, and their church minister also, will face a prison sentence of three to eight years," added Barnabas Fund. Officials have not commented to the latest allegations.
It comes as Western diplomats are seeking ways to re-establish relations with Uzbekistan and its perceived autocratic President Islam Karimov who rights watchers say does not allow "an independent religion" such as Christianity, apparently for fear it could undermine his powerbase in the Islamic nation.
Washington and Brussels suspended high-level contacts with Uzbekistan, accusing it of usingindiscriminate force to quash a revolt in the town of Andizhan in May 2005.
Human rights groups and witnesses said at least hundreds of men, women and children died when troops opened fire on a crowd at Andizhan, but the government claimed most of the dead were armed terrorists.
Diplomats have told Reuters news agency that the West is now changing its tactics toward the gas-producing Muslim country as it competes with Moscow over influence in the region. Analyst and diplomats believe the United States will need Uzbekistan in its war on terror as the country is strategically located.
The US military has been evicted from a base in Uzbekistan which it had been using for operations in neighboring Afghanistan. It remained Friday, September 1, what impact the reported rapprochement efforts would have on allegedly persecuted Christians and dissidents.
"I ask Christians around the world to pray that the Uzbek authorities will recognize that the peaceable activities of Christian believers are no threat, but rather a source of positive help to society, said Barnabas Fund International Director Patrick Sookhdeo in a statement to BosNewsLife.
"In the context of increasing general repression in Uzbekistan, Christian leaders and their families are being targeted as if they were violent criminals to be restrained in the run-up to independence celebrations," Sookhdeo said. Nearly nine out of 10 people in Uzbekistan are believed to be Muslims, while most others are Eastern Orthodox, with a tiny minority of Evangelical Christians. (With BosNewsLife News Center, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Uzbekistan).
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