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Uzbekistan: Pray for Christians as country transitions

07 September 2016

Uzbekistan After Karimov: 'Christians Still Seen as Religious Extremists'

Islam Karimov seized power in Uzbekistan in 1989, shortly before the USSR collapsed and the country gained its independence. Under his leadership, Uzbekistan grew to be one of the harshest dictatorships in Central Asia. The regime did everything to stay in power and persecuted Christians. How will that change now that Karimov is gone?

On September 2, 2016, Uzbek authorities officially confirmed that President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, died at the age of 78. His death was confirmed six days after he was taken to the hospital following a stroke. Political commentators have speculated that the most likely next president of Uzbekistan will be its present prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev. He has served as prime minister since 2003.

Christian persecution after Karimov

Among other human rights abuses, the Karimov regime unleashed severe persecution on Christians in Uzbekistan. It's probably the country with the highest fines (sometimes up to several years of salaries) for things like possessing Christian materials.

Open Doors managed to contact a few believers from Uzbekistan about how they see the future. One protestant believer, who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, says, "I don't expect drastic changes. Christians in Uzbekistan will continue to experience harassment by the government."

A pastor who also didn't want to be named, added: "The attitude of the government towards us, will not change, no matter who becomes the new leader. Of course, we hope for a better scenario. But we have to be realistic: our government is always afraid of any manifestation of dissidents. It is not clear how, but unfortunately Christian believers fall into the category of potential religious extremists."

Another pastor from a secret Church in Uzbekistan shared, "In case the current prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev indeed becomes the next president of Uzbekistan, the situation with the persecution of Christians will be even worse. Actually, as it seems, it was he who initiated or was at least involved in the persecution of the Uzbek Protestant Church and converts from the Muslim background."

Based on these responses and expert opinions, it's unlikely there will be any major changes for the better for the Uzbek Persecuted Church. An Open Doors worker requests for prayer: "We don't know the details of God's plan for Uzbekistan, but we know that His intentions are the best possible for the country and the people. We pray for the new president and trust our Lord. Do we want religious freedom to come? Many of Uzbek Christians would surely say 'Yes!' But we don't know if the situation will improve. What we do know is that He has always been gracious and He will continue to be gracious. We ask our supporters to pray that His will be done in Uzbekistan."

Persecution in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan ranks 15 on the World Watch List (WWL) 2016. Open Doors estimates there are around 200,000 Christians in Uzbekistan, but during the last decade not a single church has been able to register. Unregistered religious activity is outlawed, while even registered churches face pressure from the authorities. Generally, the church in the 'stans', as the Central Asian republics are known, face some very difficult circumstances. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are both in the top 20 in the World Watch List, while Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Azerbaijan are all in the top 50.

Persecution has three roots

A better way to describe it is that persecution in Uzbekistan has three engines. The three are as follows:

  • Dictatorial paranoia. In other words, to preserve the dictatorship only state-run and state-controlled institutions are allowed. Mainstream Protestants (but also Jehovah's Witnesses for example) are frequently branded as "extremists" for their practice of religion outside of state-sanctioned structures.
  • Communist and post-communist oppression. While the communist ideology may have been buried, its practices, laws and institutions are still in place and used to control the people.
  • Islamic extremism. Pressure on Christians coming from Islamic circles is particularly aimed at Christian converts from a Muslim background (Muslim Background Believers - MBBs). If indigenous people convert to Christianity, they will experience pressure and occasionally physical violence from their families, friends and local community to force them to repent and return to their former faith.

Believers from a Muslim background face enormous difficulties

There are basically four types of Christians in Uzbekistan: expatriates, historical communities, non-traditional Protestants and converts from Islam.

Expatriates are hardly involved in evangelization and are therefore mostly left alone by the government. Historical communities are Russian Orthodox Christians and they usually run their church according to the government regulations.

Non-traditional Protestants such as Baptists, Evangelicals and Pentecostals often choose to function as a church without a government registration. Getting a registration means more involvement of the government. Besides, the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to receive a registration. Punishments include house / church raids, threats, arrests and fines.

In Uzbekistan, the government restricts faith groups and no religious activity is allowed, outside of state-run and controlled institutions. Churches require registration, but no permits have been issued since 1999. Christian homes are bugged, phones tapped and groups infiltrated to monitor unregistered house churches, who are in constant danger of being raided.

Converts from Islam pay the highest price. They will experience pressure and occasionally physical violence from their families, friends and local community to force them to repent and return to their former faith. Some MBBs will be locked up for long periods and be beaten. Local Mullahs will preach against them, putting additional pressure on those MBBs. The MBBs may eventually be expelled from their communities. As a result, MBBs will do their best to hide their faith - they become so-called secret believers.

Hope for the Church in Uzbekistan

The Uzbek Church has grown a lot since the 1990s. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did a real indigenous church arise. Especially the non-traditional Protestants and MBBs have multiplied in numbers. This has partly to do with the first generation of indigenous believers having children, but also with many Uzbeks coming to faith. It's estimated that there are about 200,000 Christians in Uzbekistan.

But the Church also grows spiritually. Even though the first generation believers were very active, the second generation wants to experience God's power even more during times of persecution. According to one field worker: "They want to become stronger through the persecution and are very engaged in helping other people."

Please pray:

  • For Christians in Uzbekistan
  • For wisdom and compassion for Uzbekistan's future leader
  • For freedom to worship in safety for Christians across "the Stans"

More News from Uzbekistan:

Find out more about persecution in Uzbekistan.