Military personnel and plainclothes police raided and ransacked an unregistered Baptist church in Uzbekistan’s capital city during Sunday worship Nov. 25, the Forum 18 news service reported.
Up to 40 officials—including members of the National Guard, the State Secret Service, the Justice Ministry and Yashnobod District Police—participated in the raid in Tashkent, according to the Norway-based news service.
The military personnel and police searched the entire church facility, confiscating about 7,800 items, including all of the church’s hymnals and other books, Forum 18 reported.
When asked why military forces were involved in the raid, officials reportedly said, “It is a special operation.”
Fourteen Baptist worshippers, including a 14-year-old boy, were taken by bus to the Yasnobod Police Station, where officials attempted to secure confessions they had participated in an “unauthorized meeting,” Forum 18 reported. When they refused, the Baptists were interrogated for nine and a half hours.
Late evening on Nov. 25, police reportedly ordered the gas service to cut off the heating system in the church. The low temperature in Tashkent was 24 degrees.
The raided church is affiliated with the Council of Churches Baptist, a group whose members refuse to register with the state.
“I am deeply concerned about ongoing reports of efforts to harass or restrict believers as they gather together in peace to worship. The Baptist World Alliance is continuing to reach out to Baptists in Uzbekistan and across the region to determine the best way to offer support and prayerful assistance,” BWA General Secretary Elijah Brown said.
History of religious freedom violations
Since 2006, the U.S. State Department has listed Uzbekistan as a “country of particular concern,” a designation reserved for the worst offenders in violating religious liberty.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom—which ascribes “Tier 1 CPC” status to Uzbekistan—noted widespread hope in 2017 for “relaxation in the repression of religious freedom.”
“However, the Uzbek government has not yet embarked on a major deviation from its overall policy of severe restriction of religious freedom, premised on the threat posed by Islamic extremism,” the commission states in its 2018 report.
A large number of Muslim religious prisoners—some estimate as many as 10,000—“continue to serve lengthy sentences in harsh conditions on dubious charges,” the report states.
“Also, during the year, Christian minorities experienced constant harassment in the form of raids, literature confiscations, short-term detention and torture. The most accurate picture of religious freedom conditions in Uzbekistan remains uncertain and incomplete due to intense government surveillance, intimidation and fear of reprisals among religious believers for speaking out.”