Uzbek authorities trying to seize Baptist land
OSLO, Norway (BP) -- Authorities in Uzbekistan -- a country criticized for persecuting religious communities -- are attempting to seize land the state-registered Baptist Union is using for summer camps for children and families.
The Norway-based religious freedom organization Forum 18 reported that the state claims the Baptist Union "illegally" purchased the land in 2000 from a restaurant chain which had originally bought the land in 1993 from the government's Department of Privatization and Deregulation of Property (DPD).
The DPD claims that in 2004, local residents complained that the Baptists were running their camp on land that used to be a cemetery, Forum 18 reported. On June 18, the DPD brought the case to the Tashkent Economic Court, arguing the Baptist Union must return the land to the state, basing the claim on the Deregulation and Privatization of Property Law of 2006.
Baptists who wish to remain unnamed for fear of government reprisals set forth a number of arguments to Forum 18 in their defense, including:
-- There is no evidence that a cemetery exists on the site, and even if there were, its existence should have been asserted much earlier.
-- The restaurant chain was given permission to build on the site (the Baptists now use those same buildings), and no complaints regarding a cemetery were ever brought against the restaurant chain when it owned the land.
-- It is illegal to base claims on a law passed six years after the alleged offense.
-- Under Uzbekistan's statute of limitations, actions like the DPD's must be brought within three years of the land purchase (i.e. by 2003).
-- The DPD never explained why it waited until nine years after the allegations to bring a case against the Baptist Union.
DPD lawyer Bobyr Mukaddamov, contacted by Forum 18 and asked how he justified breaching the country's constitution and laws, replied: "Let's wait until the end of the case. Let the court conclude whether or not our claim is unfounded."
Forum 18 noted that other officials in the Tashkent Region also refused to comment.
The Baptists wrote to Uzbekistan's Prosecutor General in July, Forum 18 reported, complaining about the DPD's actions and violations of laws, but the Prosecutor General has not responded. The Baptists told Forum 18 that "the future of Uzbekistan cannot be built on the plundering of religious organizations."
Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey pegs Uzbekistan as a major religious rights violator attempting to gain state control over all religious communities.
"In Uzbekistan all exercise of freedom of religion or belief with others without state permission is illegal ... including sharing any beliefs with anyone and meeting with others for worship or the study of sacred texts in private homes," the Forum 18 survey said.
The survey reported that people of faith who meet together without state permission frequently are under surveillance, raided by authorities who confiscate Bibles, Qurans and other religious literature. Believers often are detained, threatened, assaulted, tortured and fined.
One such raid occurred on July 23 at a children's camp organized by local Protestants in the village of Mironkul, Forum 18 reported. More than 80 officials and police arrived from different government agencies. A Protestant who wished to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals told Forum 18 that police "began brandishing their rubber batons" and collected statements from everyone -- even from small children.
Following six hours of questioning, police took everyone at the camp -- nine adults and 22 children -- to a police station for more questioning before releasing them, according to Forum 18. Authorities took the passports of two Ukrainian citizens without informing their embassy and also confiscated electronics, New Testaments, personal notebooks and posters.
Forum 18 reported that after the camp's participants were released, police raided the homes of the camp's organizers, confiscating Christian literature, personal notebooks, electronics, CDs and DVDs.
"State officials frequently violate freedom of thought, conscience and belief and interlinked rights such as the freedoms of expression and association -- even though the state has made solemn binding commitments to uphold and protect the exercise of human rights," the survey said.
Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).