PHILADELPHIA (ABP) — A trial for three Baptist officials in Uzbekistan charged with tax evasion and illegally teaching children religion was scheduled to enter its third week Oct 12.
If convicted, Pavel Peychev, president of the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan; Yelena Kurbatova, the union's accountant; and Dimitry Pitirimov, director of a Baptist-sponsored youth camp, face up the three years in prison.
"Camp Joy" has been held each summer for at least 10 years in Uzbekistan, but there was never a complaint until this year, said Peychev's brother-in-law, Stuart Quint. Quint and his wife, Tatyana, are following the trial from Philadelphia through reports from contacts in Tashkent and public court documents written in Russian.
Supporters of the three Baptists have been denied access to parts of the trial and have accused the prosecutor of falsifying documents. They say it is part of a tightening noose around the necks of Baptist, Pentecostal and Presbyterian minority groups resulting from two widespread beliefs that the national identity is tied in with Islam, and that the Russian Orthodox Church is the only acceptable "Russian" denomination for Uzbekistan's Christian minority.
One document quotes Peychev describing his experience growing up in a Baptist family under communism in the Soviet Union. "They did not give us the opportunity to study, neither did they give us good work," he said. "Today the same thing is happening: they are persecuting Baptists, and this trial is a clear demonstration of my point."
The trio's defense is that as a registered religious organization, the Baptist Union is exempt from paying taxes. Besides, they say, the camp does not have any profits to tax. The only money campers are asked to bring is to offset food and transportation costs. The bulk of expenses are paid with donations.
The presiding judge said he could not understand how it is possible for the director and personnel at the summer camp to do their work without earning profits from the campers.
"We are Christian believers and do not think like other people amongst whom we live," Kurbatova answered. "Our Lord Jesus Christ gave everything for free and never demanded money from anyone. That is how we work."
The Baptists say they believe witnesses quoted in complaints against them were either coerced into making false accusations or did not understand what they were signing.
Pitirimov, the camp director, said there were children of Uzbek nationality at the camp, but he always asked newcomers if they are Muslims. Those who said they are Muslim or didn't want to hear Christian teaching were driven home. He said there were between five and 10 such cases in 2008.
The three Baptists were arrested in July after a government-sponsored news agency ran articles that included charges of illegal activity. The defendants deny doing anything wrong.
Last year Camp Joy had 538 campers. The camp lasts eight days and features rock-climbing, hiking and other recreation.
Uzbekistan's constitution provides for freedom of religion and for the principle of separation of church and state, but a religion law passed in 1998 restricts many rights only to registered religious groups and limits which groups may register.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom labels Uzbekistan a "Country of Particular Concern," ranking it as one of the world's worst violators of religious liberty.
Observers do not know how long the trial is expected to last.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
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