Uzbekistan: Fined Baptists Appeal Sentence
Tashkent – Prior to the hearing of the appeal scheduled for 4 December on the sentencing of three Baptists in Uzbekistan, the European Baptist Federation (EBF) has demanded that the country’s President, Islam Abduganievich Karimov (Tashkent), assure a fair trial. General-Secretary Tony Peck (Prague) and Christer Daelander (Stockholm), Chairman of the EBF’s working group on religious freedom, express in their letter concern that the charges brought during the initial trial were fabricated solely with the intention of placing the Baptists in a bad light.
On 29 October, three Uzbek Baptists had been slapped with huge fines for supposed tax evasion and the religious instruction of children without parental permission. The Union’s President, Pavel Peichev (Tashkent), was accused of failing to pay taxes on income from two church-run summer camps. Yet Peichev denied that his church had many any profit on the camps. The President, the bookkeeper Elena Kurbatova and Dimitry Pitirimov, the camp’s Director, are being fined a total of 11.500 euros. The fine amounts to the equivalent of 260 times the legal minimum wage. The Baptist Union must also pay the camp’s allegedly unpaid taxes. The three will also be deprived from holding any church office during the next three years.
Peck and Daelander report that the Prosecutor’s office had contacted the parents of some children and requested that they sign completed statements condemning the “Joy” Baptist camp. Most refused, but one witness did sign under pressure. Yet on her day in court, she made clear that she had no intent of accusing the Baptists.
In a letter addressed to Karimov, the German “Federation of Evangelical-Free Churches” also criticised the ruling as a violation of religious liberty. General-Secretary Regina Claas (Elstal near Berlin) and President Hartmut Riemenschneider (Marl) ask Karimov to utilise his authority so that his country might contribute to religious stability within the region.
Baptist World Alliance (BWA) General-Secretary Neville Callam (Falls Church near Washington/DC) also expressed “deep concern” regarding developments. According to reports cited by Callam, court proceedings were intended to “undermine or curtail religious activities within Uzbekistan”. The EBF has called on its member churches to pray for the convicted.
It has also become known that burglars broke into Dimitry Pitirimov’s flat when he and his wife were spending a night with their daughter. Apparently, nothing was stolen although items of value were located in the flat. A Christian calendar lay wadded up in the toilet; documents on the children’s camps were burnt on the balcony. The burglars had opened the gas valve in the flat. Dimitry Pitirimov assumes the intent had been to blow up the building. Friends of the family believe Uzbek extremists hoped to keep Dimitry Pitirimov from launching an appeal. The police then spent an entire day searching the flat for evidence. Police circles are now assuming the couple engineered the break-in themselves in order to heighten their chances of a successful appeal. The couple repudiates all such claims. They regard themselves as victims, not as perpetrators.
Officially, religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Uzbekistan. But religious groups complain that new religious legislation contradicts the constitution and that violations of human rights and religious freedom frequently occur. Ninety percent of Uzbekistan’s 25 million residents are Muslims, 4,7% are Christian. The country’s Baptist Union consists of 37 congregations with a membership of roughly 3.800.