by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service
The authorities in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-west of Uzbekistan, are trying to halt the spread of Christianity among Karakalpakstan's native peoples (Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Karakalpaks, who are historically Muslims), Protestant told Keston News Service in the republic's capital Nukus at the end of May. Seeking to find out details of the incident in which several Protestants were detained in Nukus following an investigation into the sources of Christian literature in Central Asian languages (see KNS 27 May 2002), Keston found that the majority of those detained were ethnic Karakalpaks, Uzbeks or Kazakhs. Native Protestants were frightened to speak to Keston in public, fearing persecution from the authorities, and those who did speak insisted on remaining anonymous.
On 27 May a Christian from Nukus, told Keston that on 13 May members of the "Novaya Zhizn" ("New Life") Protestant church held a meeting in a private home in Nukus. There were 17 people at the meeting, among them two foreigners: a US citizen and a Russian citizen. Suddenly six policemen appeared at the meeting and proceeded to search all those present, including the women, which according to local custom is a grave insult. All the participants in the meeting were taken to the city administration of internal affairs. The foreigners were released within an hour, and received an apology, but the local Christians were held for six hours. Moreover, the policemen threatened the Christians with physical reprisals, saying "the foreigners will leave, but you will stay with us". They also threatened to plant drugs on one of the detainees. On 16 May four of the participants at the meeting were sentenced by the city court to fines of between 19,000 sum (26 US dollars or 18 British pounds) and 27,000 sum (37 USD or 25 GBP) for organising an illegal meeting.
"The 'Novaya Zhizn' church has not been registered at the Ministry of Justice of Karakalpakstan, and therefore it has no right to hold religious meetings. The police actions were within the law," said Shamurat Sapartayev, head of the department for the fight against terrorism at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Karakalpakstan Republic, speaking to Keston by telephone on 27 May. "I am not going to pass comment on the court's decision concerning the 'Novaya Zhizn' church. If the Protestants are unhappy, then they can appeal against the city court's decision at the Supreme Court of the republic," Keston was told on 28 May by Aibek Tureyev, acting chairman of the city court.
The Protestants who spoke to Keston suggested that the fact that most of the "Novaya Zhizn" members come from Karakalpakstan's native peoples may be the reason behind the authorities' harsh actions against them. In 1999 drugs were planted on three native Protestants, who were sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment and released only after six months under pressure from the international community, after writing a request for a pardon. It is noteworthy that the chairman of one of the mahallas (a city sector with private dwellings) declared openly to Keston that he would not give permission for a Karakalpak Christian community to operate, on the orders of the city authorities. (According to Uzbekistan's law "On freedom of conscience and religious organisations" this permission is necessary in order for a community to be registered.) The representative for religious affairs at the cabinet of ministers of Karakalpakstan Husnuddin Hamidov did not support a project by local Protestants to publish an existing translation of the Bible into the Karakalpak language.
Overall, one may conclude that in Karakalpakstan the authorities are pursuing an even harsher policy towards Christian communities than in other regions of Uzbekistan. In the whole of Karakalpakstan just one Christian community has been registered - "the Church of Christians of the Full Gospel 'Emmanuel'". (correction to KNS 30 May where it was stated that no Christian groups are registered in the republic)
Keston's journalistic activity aroused the intent interest of the local security organs. On 31 May two men entered the Keston correspondent's hotel room in Nukus, saying they were employees of the Department of Visas and Registration of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Karakalpakstan. They told Keston that "a routine check on foreigners was under way". They were amazingly well-informed, however, and knew about Keston's telephone conversation with Sapartayev. Moreover, they asked Keston's correspondent where he had been on 30-31 May (that day he had left for the north of the republic, reserving his room in Nukus). Keston's correspondent managed to ascertain from hotel staff that during the "routine check on foreigners" the employees from the Department for Visas and Registration had for some reason spoken only with him, although there were other foreigners staying in the hotel. Moreover, the hotel staff told him that several days before "employees from the Department for Visas and Registration" had asked in which room a telephone Keston's correspondent had used was located. The hotel staff supposed that this information was needed in order to monitor the journalist's telephone conversations.