Article Sep 16, 2016

Prayer for the persecuted church: Uzbekistan

But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13).

Our ultimate hope for ourselves and our brothers and sisters who suffer around the world is the hope for a new heaven and a new earth, “in which righteousness dwells.” In the meantime, let us join in prayer with our brothers and sisters in Christ who face an uncertain future in Uzbekistan.

An authoritarian regime at a transition point

Two weeks ago, Uzbekistan’s first—and only—president, Islam Karimov, died from a stroke. President-for-life Karimov ruled Uzbekistan since 1991 when the Republic of Uzbekistan emerged from rubble of the Soviet Union.

Karimov was an exceptionally brutal dictator from a region exceptional for its brutal dictators. The U.S. State Department has designated Uzbekistan a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act. Between 5,000 and 15,000 individuals are in prison today for alleged “religious extremism,” a nebulous charge used to combat terrorism and political dissenters alike.

Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev has been appointed interim head of state and will lead the country until elections are held later this year. These elections will hardly be open and free; the entire political transition will be overseen by the most powerful figure in Uzbekistan after Karimov’s death, Rustam Inoyatov, who heads Uzbekistan’s most prominent secret police. (Uzbekistan boasts three other repressive internal security agencies.)

From Foreign Affairs:

In many respects, today’s Uzbekistan is in the same condition as it was after the Soviet Union’s collapse. There are no independent media outlets, organized civil society is restricted, and access to information is highly controlled. Most of Karimov’s closest allies were members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union or are the adult children of former party leaders. At the elite level, the closed, repressive structures of the Communist era have survived into the twenty-first century.

Few commentators believe that the death of President Karimov will provide any hope for a more open Uzbekistan. Indeed, in Central Asia the trend seems to be that the successors to Presidents-for-Life simply become Presidents-for-Life themselves. Uzbekistan has arguably never had a legitimate election, and the current political elite have little to gain from an open Uzbekistan.

The church in Uzbekistan

Christians are a small minority in Uzbekistan. At least 88 percent of Uzbeks practice Sunni Islam. Of the remaining 12 percent, nine percent practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity; the majority of these adherents are ethnic Russians. Small numbers of evangelical Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Bahai, and others make up the remainder. There are several Baptist and other evangelical churches in Uzbekistan.

All religious groups must be registered with the government; otherwise they are considered to be “illegal.” Some religious groups, especially radial Islamist groups, are prohibited outright by the government. Uzbekistan has a 25-year history battling Islamic extremism from within its country; many of these groups now operate in secret. The governing elite tends toward atheism and treats all religion as a destabilizing force.

Because of the discrimination associated with being a Christian, many practicing believers have gone underground, and their house churches are raided regularly. Choosing to not register with the government makes their religious activities illegal. While it is not illegal to convert to Christianity from Islam, ethnic Uzbeks who convert to Christianity face enormous societal pressure, sometimes with the assistance of elements of the government, to recant and return to Islam. However, proselytism is a crime, punishable by up to three years in prison.

Stories of persecution

In June of this year, an Uzbek Baptist was arrested for the “illegal possession” of religious material in his home. If he is convicted, he will face up to a three-year prison sentence.

Last February, a gathering of Baptists in a local believers home was raided by authorities. The host was charged with illegal possession of religious materials.

In May 2015, four Protestants traveling together were stopped at a traffic checkpoint. The group was detained, and one was tortured until he lost consciousness. Authorities threatened to rape one of the members of the group.

Torture, threats, and trumped-up charges are routine and almost mundane in Uzbekistan. Our brothers and sisters in Christ there face the daily fear of detention, house searches, and torture.

Prayer with the persecuted church

Here are a few specific ways that you can pray with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Uzbekistan.

  • Pray specifically with the Baptist church, whose churches are raided, pastors are arrested, and leaders are harassed by local and federal authorities.
  • Pray for new believers from Muslim backgrounds, who suffer significant pressure from a variety of sources to return to Islam.
  • Pray for native Uzbek speakers to write and develop a rich body of Christian literature and hymns, as the importation of religious material is virtually banned by the government.

Further resources

For more information on the church in Uzbekistan, check out the following resources: