Church registrations are increasing in Uzbekistan with three churches validated in September, and up to five more registrations expected to be finalised in October. The first church registration in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, where penalties for Christian worship were previously harsher than in the rest of Uzbekistan, is expected within weeks.
The rise in registrations could signal greater religious freedoms for Christians under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was elected into office in the Muslim-majority country in December 2016.
President Mirziyoyev is expected to introduce a new religious law soon, under which the membership requirement for church registration will be lowered from 100 members to 50.
A Barnabas contact said the long hoped for registration increase was “hard to believe”. He added that, in some cities, the authorities had even approached pastors to offer to help them navigate the process of proving church buildings meet strict registration requirements. The church registrations were even broadcast on national television in a report featuring an interview with a pastor and footage of a church service.
Before Mirziyoyev’s election, Uzbekistan was known for its harsh treatment of Christians. But within the first year of his leadership, the first 3,000 Uzbek Bibles, partly funded by Barnabas, were sold legally in the country and official celebrations were held to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Fines imposed on Christians by the courts were also lower.
However, the increasing numbers of foreign missionaries working in Uzbekistan prompted the Religious Affairs Committee to issue a statement on 16 October describing Christian missionary work as “one of the problematic issues of our time”. It pledged to look at measures to combat proselytism, which remains illegal in the country, at its next meeting. Under Article 240/3 of the Uzbek law, non-Islamic proselytism is punishable by a fine, compulsory community service of up to 360 hours or a maximum jail term of three years.
From Barnabas Fund contacts