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 9 percent of the population, most of whom are ethnically Russian. The remaining 3 percent of the population practice other religious traditions, including small numbers of Roman Catholics, Jews, Korean Christians, and Shi’a Muslims.
History of the 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. 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 at least 100 members over 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. 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. This includes raids, fines, the arrest of individuals for possessing “illegal” religious literature, and sentencing to labor camps.
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.
Responses to Persecution
Christian groups in Uzbekistan have responded to persecution in a variety of ways, although none of their efforts have successfully stopped the regime’s increasing repression. In the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan enjoyed a brief religious revival, but any evangelism that took place in previous decades has gone underground. The key strategy now is invisibility.
Survival is the first goal for most Christians in the post-Soviet realm, and some churches see the key to survival in legality. Hence, many Christians have circumscribed their typical activity to comply with the state, avoiding politics and appearing to accept a private role. The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Central Asia, all older churches that existed during the Soviet era, have maintained a legal and politically quietist position since independence. However, even this cautious approach has not prevented increased government control. On the other hand, a few churches have shown that strategies of engagement and network-building with local government officials may be possible in certain circumstances. In one case, a local Protestant church ultimately achieved legal status after many years of operating as a network of unregistered house churches. Since then, this church network across Uzbekistan has expanded to sixty churches, and it serves local communities through its charitable work. However, such outreach is not without risks.
Despite the repression they face, most churches in Uzbekistan are reluctant to turn to international actors for help. In part this is due to fear of government retaliation and a suspicion of strangers, but it is also hindered by a cultural rift between religious communities and civil society groups, which are generally very secular. However, at least some local Christian churches have accepted assistance from international actors, including one pastor who was released from prison after intervention from the US Ambassador-at- Large for International Religious Freedom. Such instances remain rare, however. Most Christians groups are small, highly fragmented, and unorganized, with little ability to communicate. There are few opportunities for organized, civil-society dialogue.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an exception to the oppression faced by other Christian groups in Kyrgyzstan. To achieve its goals of monopolizing Christianity in the region and driving out competitors, the Orthodox Church has established good relations with the regime in power and with the Muslim Spiritual Board, the state body that organizes and controls an Islamic hierarchy in the country. In large part, their strategies have been successful. The Russian Orthodox Church has reclaimed many pre-Soviet-era buildings and opened new churches—even in areas where the Orthodox community appears to be extinct—and it has gained the right to run religious classes for all and to open multiple seminaries. This is particularly striking when almost all other religious education—including for Muslims—has been banned.
Many Christians in Uzbekistan have also chosen emigration, although motives for these moves are multi-causal. The vast majority of Russian émigrés, although they are nominally Orthodox Christian, have left for reasons other than religious oppression. Rising nationalism and changing language laws in the late 1980s triggered a wave of out-migration of ethnic Europeans (the majority of Christians) even before the Soviet collapse. Since 1989, the number of ethnic Christians in Uzbekistan has dropped as the number of Muslims have grown.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Kathleen Collins and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.