OLSO, Norway (ABP) — Leaders of the registered Baptist Union of Uzbekistan claim continuing harassment by the country's legal system and a media campaign intended to smear the group as a dangerous cult that targets children for proselytizing.
Forum 18, a Norwegian news service that tracks stories about abuses of religious freedom, reported Feb. 22 that a Baptist forced to appear in the trial of three Baptist leaders convicted in October of illegal religious activity at a union-sponsored camp last summer recently was ordered to pay a fine imposed in his absence by the same court.
Valery Konovalov told Forum 18 that he signed an interrogation record without reading it under threat of a prosecutor who told him he was a witness but at any moment could be turned into a crime suspect.
Last fall a judge in Tashkent imposed massive fines against three top leaders of the Baptist union found guilty of tax evasion and involving children in religious activities without their parents' permission at Camp4Joy, a summer camp held several years for children that became target of a government crackdown last July.
A city court later dropped the fines but left standing an order that the three — including Pavel Peichev, who has headed the Baptist union since 1994 — pay back taxes and be suspended from their leadership positions for three years.
The Baptist leaders argued during the trial that as a registered religious body the union is exempt from paying taxes but reluctantly paid the alleged debt in order to get the matter behind them. Now, Dimitri Pitirimov — one of the convicted leaders — told Forum 18 he is more concerned about who will lead the Baptist union in Peichev's absence. An interim leader is in place and elections are scheduled for a new leader in May.
Meanwhile, negative media portrayals continue to give Baptists a bad name in Uzbekistan, which is cracking down on minority religions that the government considers extremist groups.
The arrests last summer followed articles by a government-sponsored news agency the Baptists claimed falsely accused them of unlawfully teaching children religion and misusing resort facilities.
In February, Uzbek television broadcast an expose titled "Grief of 'Joy,'" which accused the Baptists of making "zombies" out of people, encouraging them to sell their houses and give the money to the church. The program warned citizens that Baptists used deception to trick children in missionary activity that if successful would create a "large army" of converts.
Pitirimov called the allegations "outrageous lies."
"We now avoid telling people we are Baptists," he told Forum 18. "People try to avoid us when we say we are Baptists."
Similar programs have incited intolerance of state-disfavored Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahais and various Protestant groups. Such activities prompted the United States State Department to list Uzbekistan as one of eight "Countries of Particular Concern," a designation for the world's worst violators of religious freedom.
In January police in the central Syrdarya Region arrested Tohar Haydarov, a Baptist, on drug charges punishable by up to five years in prison after raiding a peaceful meeting of local Baptists. An anonymous witness told Forum 18 that police planted the drugs on Haydarov. Acquaintances said Haydarov does not even smoke cigarettes, let alone use drugs, and was being persecuted for his beliefs.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.