Uzbek Christians Suffer as Regime Tightens NooseAt least four incidents of Christian persecution were reported from the former Soviet country of Uzbekistan this week. A Christian woman was beaten into concussion, another woman was fined $1,465 by a court for giving the New Testament to a child, a Christian man was threatened with axe attack by a police official and another man was assaulted by police.
The spurt can be linked to renewed attempts to maintain hold on power and the communist legacy in this most populous country of Central Asia by its president, Islam Karimov, who has remained in office through controversial referendums since 1991. Karimov’s objectives can be met only under an authoritarian rule where the executive has powers over all other State institutions including the judiciary and that’s what best describes the government of Uzbekistan.
While the people of Uzbekistan do not seem to be in a position to emulate the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, President Karimov cannot underestimate the threat. The conditions that led to the wave of revolutions late last year and earlier this year – poverty, corruption, unemployment and authoritarianism – all exist in Uzbekistan as well. Karimov will never admit it, but at the same time he will leave no stone unturned to pre-empt any attempt by the people of his country to plan a revolt.
Karimov, the dictatorial president of the Sunni-majority country with over 28 million people, intensified restrictions on civil rights under the pretext of fighting Islamist extremism after the Islamic Jihad Union outfit targeted government installations in the Fergana Valley and the national capital of Tashkent in May and August 2009. Since then, Karimov has projected the threat from Islamism as an excuse for the restrictions.
However, more striking was President Karimov’s crackdown on the 2005 civil unrest in which hundreds of people were killed by security forces. Hundreds of demonstrators were detained and tortured. A severe restriction on expression and manifestation of political dissent and the freedom of the press soon followed and became a de-facto policy.
Religious persecution predates even these two developments. In 1998, Karimov’s government enacted a law making registration mandatory for all religious groups and providing for tedious criteria and procedures so that the government could use its own discretion to allow or refuse registration to organisations.
Titled, Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations, the legislation granted freedom of worship, freedom from religious persecution and the right to establish educational institution only to registered groups. It banned activities that were perceived to be conflicting with national security, such as proselytism, religious instruction in schools, private religious teaching, and publishing and distribution of religious literature without license.
The law developed strict and arduous criteria for registration and declared all non-state registered religious activities as a criminal offence. What’s more, Section 2 of article 217 of the criminal code and article 201 of the administrative code imposed fines for repeat offenses under the religion law up to 300 times the minimum monthly wage of approximately $25.
Indoctrinated with the anti-religious Soviet propaganda, President Karimov enacted the 1998 law to preserve the socio-political status quo of the country where freedom of religion was subject to tight regulation and control by the government to prevent them from effecting change in government or society. This is what sets Muslim-majority countries in Central Asia apart from their counterparts in the Middle East, where Islamic groups have played significant roles in shaping societies and government policy.
During the Soviet era, religion was merely stifled – and was not dead – in communist countries under the Soviet Union, and post-independence, religious communities were expected to emerge as a major force. And that compelled President Karimov to gain control and authority over all religious activities in the country.
Apart from restrictions, the government of Uzbekistan also runs media campaigns against the Christians. For example, state-owned television has shown films promoting hate against the religious minorities that seek to share their faith with others and as a result many converts face societal opposition. But generally speaking, persecution of Christians in Uzbekistan comes mostly from the State and not society.
Geopolitics, thanks to Uzbekistan’s natural resources and its potential role in the global war against terror, has helped President Karimov to maintain and get away with his authoritarian rule. The European Union, one of the most influential among foreign powers in the region, imposed sanctions on Uzbekistan in November 2005 in response to the government’s violent crackdown on the 2005 uprising and its refusal to accept an international investigation. However, the sanctions were eased soon thereafter despite the Uzbek government’s refusal to budge. This was apparently due to Brussels’ competition with Russia and China in gaining a larger share of Central Asia’s energy resources.
Most recently, in February 2011, the European Council approved an amendment to the EU’s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan, extending customs and tariffs breaks to that country and opening up European markets to Uzbek cotton.
Uzbekistan uses its relations with the EU as a sign of reforms in the country. For example, at the country’s periodic review by the UN Human Rights Committee in March 2010, the President Karimov’s delegation claimed that the EU’s lifting of the visa ban and the arms embargo signaled the bloc’s satisfaction with Uzbekistan’s own investigation into the 2005 unrest.
President Karimov has shrewdly sought to showcase reforms by enacting new legislations while at the same time subverting the spirit of reform measures by enacting conflicting laws. For example, while the constitution provides for freedom of religion and separation of religion and state, the 1998 law severely restricts religious freedom. Similarly, while Uzbekistan abolished the death penalty and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008, the incidence of disappearance and torture of political dissidents and violations of civil and political rights remains high.
At home, Karimov portrays diplomatic efforts by other countries towards ensuring respect for human rights and their accusations of violations as part of “an information war” by the “enemies” to legitimise “intervention” into the country’s “internal affairs.”
In the midst of President Karimov’s constant reluctance to grant civil rights and promote party politics and his ability to minimise international pressure, the Christians as well as other religious organizations, independent journalists, human rights activists and political activists continue to suffer.
That has to change. Uzbekistan has figured on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, but Western nations have put little diplomatic pressure on Karimov’s regime to promote respect for civil and political rights. Especially the European Union must put human rights before its strategic interests in Central Asia.