In contemporary Uzbekistan, most basic law proclaims the protection of religious freedoms; however, government policy and societal discrimination directed against minority religious groups—including Christians—undercut and reverse these aims, and the State Department has classified Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom since 2006.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan
Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University
According to data published by the CIA, the population of Uzbekistan consists primarily of Sunni Muslims (88 percent). Eastern Orthodox Christians constitute the single largest religious minority group in the country, composing nine percent of the population—particularly within the Russian ethnic minority, which makes up about five percent of the population. The remaining three percent of the population practice other religious traditions, including small numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Korean Christians, and Shi’a. Estimates from the Department of State place Christian demography in greater decline, estimating an Eastern Orthodox population of only four percent and a Sunni population of 93%. In either case, estimates confirm Uzbekistan to be a majority Sunni-state wherein ethnic Russians practicing Orthodox Christianity constitute the largest religious minority.
History of the Uzbek Christian Community
The Uzbek Christian community inhabits a historical nexus point across which major Muslim, Christian, atheist, and other religiously oriented empires have done battle and attempted to enforce specific demographic or ideological visions. Uzbekistan once sheltered a large Eastern Christian community; however, Mongol policies targeted and largely expelled these Christians. The Russian Empire, by contrast, conquered the region and encouraged the importation of Russian Orthodox Christians—the same Orthodox who were subsequently suppressed by the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church has gained national primacy in Russia, while tensions between Russian and Muslim ethnic groups have fueled official distaste toward Russian Orthodox communities in other former Soviet States, including Uzbekistan.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
In contemporary Uzbekistan, most basic law proclaims the protection of religious freedoms; however, government policy and societal discrimination directed against minority religious groups—including Christians—undercut and reverse these aims, and the State Department has classified Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern” for violations of religious freedom since 2006. In particular, the government maintains strict rules regulating the registration of religious groups and conduct of religious actors, imposing severe penalties for non-compliance. Proselytizing is banned in the country, religious groups must have over 100 members of the age of 18 and a legal address to register as such, and unregistered groups may not print religious literature, conduct prayer services, ordain clergy, or conduct many of the functions essential to the practice of any faith; and officials often reject the repeated attempts of smaller Christian denominations to obtain registration. In addition, the government maintains the power to designate certain religious groups as extremist, removing any official recognition attached to them and subjecting their members and organizers to severe penalties, including prolonged jailing. According to some reports, members of such groups have been prohibited from reading scripture, praying, and conducting other basic activities during their confinements. The government has largely targeted non-state affiliated Muslim groups under this rule, but targeting of Christians has been as pervasive. The government raided private gatherings of officially registered Christian denominations and fined several Baptists for “missionary activity,” and police assaulted and beat a Protestant man on a manufactured complaint. Authorities have also raided, fined, and arrested Christians for the possession of “illegal” religious literature and materials (the country approves only a limited number of producers of such materials), and have confiscated Bibles and other basic religious texts. These are only a few examples of state-led persecution and are not isolated incidents. In addition to state-led persecution, Christians and in particular Russians in Uzbekistan face societal discrimination, while ethnic Uzbeks faced pressure not to convert to Christianity. Such protracted violations of religious freedom threaten to push out practicing Christians, eliminate their ability to attract new converts, and gradually shrink the Christian community in Uzbekistan.
Religious Repression and Response in Central Asia
Kathleen Collins -- Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota
Protestant pastors are often arrested, and Catholics priests are afraid to speak. Most Christians hide their religious identity, and many hide their churches. Even performing charitable work is a political risk. Converts face physical and psychological abuse. Despite Christians’ hopes for religious freedom after communism’s collapse, the post-Soviet governments have increasingly returned to many practices of the Soviet era, from closing churches to branding Christians as Western agents. The political situation is compounded by societal discrimination rooted by both Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities,’ which often share an animosity towards proselytizing Christian sects.
The five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--only independent since 1991--comprise the vast southern region of “Muslim Eurasia.” The population of this region, while predominantly Muslim, includes at least several million practicing Christians today. Precise numbers of adherents to any of the multiple Christians communities are very difficult to verify for several reasons. Many churches operate underground due to political persecution. The out-migration of Christians has been continual since 1991, because of ethnic and religious discrimination, as well as economic crisis. Moreover, there is a persistent Soviet-era culture of religious “ethnic” affiliation with Christianity without the communal practice or study of one’s faith. Such conditions have made Muslim Eurasia a target of many Christian missionary groups seeking to revive the faith.
The origins of Christianity in Muslim Eurasia lie in the followers of the Assyrian Christian Church and Nestorians, who arrived as missionaries in the seventh and eighth centuries and established small communities. However, the majority of the region’s Christians are Russian Orthodox, the descendants of settlers in the region dating to nineteenth century Russian colonialism and especially the forced economic developments of the Soviet era. Catholics and Lutherans exist but are few. They are largely the remaining families of deportees to Central Asia from Poland and Ukraine during World War II. Other Christians, often called “new Christians” in the region, include a wide range of small Protestant groups—Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Korean Baptists, other Evangelicals, and Pentacostals—as well as Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons. Some are the children and grandchildren of converts dating to the 19th or early 20th century. Some were among the deportees or forced migrants of the Stalinist era. Some even converted in underground churches begun in the Soviet era. Still others are new converts—from an Orthodox or Islamic family tradition (even if raised as atheists)—who have come to Christianity during the last twenty-five years, when the borders became more open to foreign missionaries from around the world.
Like the Soviet regime that preceded them, the post-Soviet successor regimes of this region have been characterized by authoritarian politics and extreme corruption among ruling families and their cliques. An atheist mentality persists in government, even though atheism is no longer the actual policy of the state. Religion, especially any religious organization or community that exists independently of the state, is still considered a threat to the regime and is therefore subject to various forms of persecution by the state. Persecution does vary somewhat across the cases. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan conditions for Christians are clearly worse than elsewhere. Yet this chapter will also discuss the deteriorating situation for Christians in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. These countries are increasingly and consciously adopting the policies of the Uzbek and Turkmen regimes, and their close relations with Russia and China have further escalated the coordination of state policies that are hostile to religion. State persecution begins with highly restrictive laws on religion and onerous registration processes that make it impossible for most churches to operate legally. Unregistered “house churches” are often raided, and police break up religious study groups and confiscate Bibles and religious literature. Missionaries and pastors, and even ordinary church members, have been frequently arrested. Many are then subject to immense fines and sometimes lengthy prison terms. Cases of forced psychiatric treatment and other torture have been reported.
While the state’s suspicion of independent religion extends to Muslims and Christians alike, a secondary problem is more specific to Christians: societal persecution, which results from the predominantly Muslim culture and society, and particularly its attitude towards religious conversion. Societal persecution is directed mainly towards new Protestant groups, missionaries, and converts. This includes discrimination at work and in the community, harassment, psychological pressure, and sometimes brutal physical violence towards Muslims who convert to Christianity. Often such abuse comes from family members.
Christian responses to post-Soviet persecution are varied. Missionary work, active in the early 1990s, has declined and gone underground. Indigenous Christians continue to emigrate. Those who remain combine an inward focus on faith and prayer with the adoption of short-term strategies to survive as communities. Catholics and Lutherans, since they are generally legal, focus on prayer and a quiet Christian example, while remaining politically quiet and barely visible in public. Other registered and unregistered Protestant groups—those more at risk of being banned--focus on prayer and teaching the faith to their new and existing members. Doing so involves the underground dissemination of religious literature, and underground church meetings for prayer and education. Some attempt contacts with transnational church networks for fellowship, training, and sometimes material assistance or legal advice. When interfaith or state-religious dialogues take place (in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), they participate to argue for a positive public role for religion. A handful establish relationships with local officials who permit their charitable work. While Christian churches often defend their arrested members in court, they have not mobilized or posed any political challenge to the state. Nor do they articulate any political theology. Survival is key for now, while they hope for improved conditions and the spread of their faith in the future.
By contrast, those churches which are rarely threated by either state or society—mainly the Russian Orthodox churches in the region—have their own set of strategies. They have established close contacts with the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. They exist in close collaboration with the states across the region and with the “official” Muslim spiritual hierarchies. The church leadership (locally and from Russia) occasionally lobbies their state to protect their interests, including a near-monopoly of Christianity. In doing so, the Russian Orthodox churches threaten the religious freedom of both new Protestant communities and Catholics.