Uzbekistan: Officials Admit Arrest of Protestant Pastor

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Indictment equates 'Charismatic Pentecostals' with Islamist extremists.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Uzbekistan’s religious authorities admitted publicly for the first time this week that an Uzbek Christian pastor was arrested last month in the eastern city of Andijan and now faces criminal charges.

“Dmitry Shestakov, who calls himself a pastor and heads an illegal religious organization which operated in the Andijan region, has been arrested,” the press service of Uzbekistan’s Religious Affairs Committee told the Russian Interfax news agency on February 12.

Denying reports that Shestakov was an evangelical pastor affiliated with the legally registered Full Gospel Church, the press service claimed he was not an authorized leader of any officially recognized religious organization in Uzbekistan. Rather, the Uzbek government agency said, he was an “imposter” leading an underground group identified as “Charismatic Pentecostals” who were engaged in “missionary and proselytizing activities under Shestakov’s leadership.”

But according to a written statement from Shestakov’s lawyer on February 12, a church document proves that the pastor has been authorized to conduct official worship services in the Full Gospel Church since October 5, 2004.

Shestakov, 37, was arrested in a raid on his registered Full Gospel Church in Andijan during Sunday worship services on January 21. He was kept incommunicado for the next two weeks, denied any contact with his lawyer, family or church members.

In an official indictment filed against Shestakov by Andijan prosecutors on January 30, the pastor was charged with operating an illegal religious organization, inciting religious hatred and distributing materials promoting religious extremism. If convicted on these criminal charges, he faces maximum sentences from five to 10 years in prison for each separate offense.

Prepared by a senior investigator in the Andijan prosecutor’s office, the indictment against Shestakov equated the so-called “Charismatic Pentecostals” group with Islamic extremist groups like Hizb ut-Takhrir, Akramia and Tovba.

The indictment identified Shestakov’s group, along with these Islamist groups, as “religious-political extremist organizations which, under the guise of meeting religious needs, began to strive to seize power.” It also accused all of the religious groups of causing divisions, constituting a “threat to national security.”

It was not until February 3 that Shestakov was first allowed to read the accusations against him. Local authorities have refused to confirm any date set for his court trial.

On February 6, they also attempted to impose a state-appointed lawyer upon the pastor. But that same day, Shestakov’s own lawyer arrived to take the case at the public prosecutor’s office, just as prison guards escorted his client into the building.

“It was an answer to our prayers,” one member of the congregation said. “All our church was fasting and praying for his lawyer to come.” Local sources who were allowed to bring Shestakov food and other necessities last week reported that he seemed to be keeping up his courage, despite some health problems. He is being held in solitary confinement, according to Forum 18 news service.

Reaction to Uzbek Conversions

According to a report from the Russian newspaper Pravda yesterday, the 37-year-old Shestakov is being accused of “converting Muslims to Christianity.”

He had been subjected to previous harassment by Andijan prosecutors in June 2006, when secret police raided his home and church, temporarily detaining him and confiscating tapes, videos and printed literature.

The crackdown was an apparent reaction to ethnic Uzbeks converting to Christianity through Shestakov’s ministry. His 100-member congregation in Andijan worships in both the Russian and Uzbek languages. In these services, according to his wife Marina, whole families have become Christians, people have been healed of epilepsy, and several home groups have formed.

But after verbal warnings that serious criminal charges were about to be filed against him, Shestakov fled Andijan last summer with his wife and three children to avoid arrest. After a few months they returned, and by late November Shestakov resumed his open ministry in the church.

“We felt that it had calmed down,” his wife said. “If they wanted to find Dmitry, it was easy. But nothing happened. We organized Christmas meetings, and had a big service with prayers on New Year’s Eve. So we decided there was no problem, and he wasn’t wanted anymore.”

But within two hours of his detention, Shestakov was told he had remained on the “wanted” list. Officials read to him an arrest order that had been issued against him last June, declaring, “Now we have found you, and we are arresting you.”

‘Illegal Proselytizing’

The government statement issued two days ago described the pastor as a “former drug addict” involved in “illegal proselytizing.”

“He was a real drug addict,” Marina Shestakov acknowledged. “He was in prison several times, and was a terrible and awful man.”

But that was before “the day of Dmitry’s salvation,” she stressed. Since that time, more than 15 years ago, she said her husband’s life had been transformed by his Christian faith.

“All of our Christian life, God has been guiding us,” she said. “We believe God has a plan for us.” But she admitted she was very afraid for the first two or three days after his arrest, as she tried to calm her children’s fears – and her own.

“I felt fear, not for my own sake or the children, but for my husband. Maybe they have begun to torture him, to beat him, to use the gas mask on him,” she said. “We know many stories when people just disappear forever. Police in Uzbekistan can put a lot of charges on you, or plant drugs.”

But in the week after his arrest, she said, “Our church was mobilized. People encouraged me every day. Some gave me money or food. They sustained me.”

Although she pled with the chief prosecutor to be allowed to visit her husband, she said he told her: “He was wanted, so we searched for him and caught him. He is a dangerous criminal. We forbid you to visit him.”

Uzbek authorities have been particularly repressive of all religious activities in Andijan after a May 2005 uprising there in which hundreds of protestors were killed by government troops.

After the U.S. State Department added Uzbekistan to its religious freedom “blacklist” last November as a Country of Particular Concern, the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry declared it was “perplexed” by such an “unfounded” rating.

“In the last years, not a single fact of an interfaith standoff or conflict situations, neither among the confessions themselves nor [between] confessions and the state structures was observed in the country,” the ministry claimed in an official statement on November 25, 2006.

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