Uzbekistan (MNN) – A power vacuum along with uncertainty looms for Uzbekistan in the wake of the death of its president, Islam Karimov. His death from cerebral hemorrhage came very near the 25th anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union.
For 27 years, Karimov governed like a dictator over his regime. Now that he’s been inhumed, the country is waiting to see what’s next. His style’s been compared to that of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Of the five post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia, Uzbekistan’s is widely regarded as the most obstreperous. Will Karimov’s successor continue down that path? Who has been tapped to lead? What is ‘Plan B’? Right now, it’s assumed that Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev will assume the office of the President. Here’s what’s disconcerting: he’s already reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin and let him know he’s interesting in more strategic relations with Moscow.
Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan as well all other Central Asian countries. Any instability there can easily spread to the core of the region, connecting eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan.
Uzbekistan also has one of the harshest responses to anything seen as opposition or deviation from the norm. Christianity is regarded as an alien and destabilizing factor. Christian converts from a Muslim background (Muslim Background Believers, MBBs) experience additional pressure from their social and cultural environment. Todd Nettleton, a spokesman with the Voice of the Martyrs USA explains, “They face persecution from their Muslim family members, from radical Muslims within the society, and from the ‘monument’. The leaders of Uzbekistan, as well as some of the other Central Asian former Soviet Republics, were men who grew up under the Communists, and so they grew up with the philosophy that religion was something to be not trusted and to be controlled.”
In fact, “They (the government) very much would see Christians and radical Muslims as being two parts of the same problem.” Under Karimov, Uzbekistan enacted a “Prevention Law” aimed at prohibiting the practice of religion without state permission. “The government position, it wasn’t so much ‘anti-Christian’ as it was just control. The government also worried about radical Islam, so any religion was something to be brought under government control. Part of that was suppressing and persecuting the Church.” This law empowers the enforcement of religion laws. It also requires them to report those they suspect might be guilty of religious crimes, such as “teaching” religion or storing religious materials without permission.
From their perspective, they’re responding accordingly to a destabilizing threat. In the beginning were the changes in registration. “If you had a church, you were supposed to register. That registration process, firstly, was very onerous. Secondly, it put all the names of you members in the hands of the government.” Even if you did register, it didn’t guarantee that your church’s application to be legal would be accepted. Then, the ban on extremist literature distribution came into play. According to Forum 18, over the summer, Uzbekistan has been raiding homes and confiscating ‘contraband’. An Open Doors report from May shared Majid’s (not his real name) arrest for distributing extremist literature: the evidence? A Bible and some Christian literature. His story was not unique. Nettleton warns, “It’s more than just discrimination or a little bit of pressure. It is persecution against the Church.”
Christians represent a mere 0.75 percent of the majority Muslim population. Following global trends, Uzbekistan’s Muslims are also being radicalized. Unfortunately, as radicalization advances, so does the intolerance of Christianity. Nettleton says the impact is what you’d expect. “As far as the Gospel work that is going on there, there have been some challenges over the last couple of years. Foreign NGOs have been kicked out. Foreigner visas have not been renewed, so there have been a significant number of Christians who have been forced to leave the country.” However, that has left the Gospel work in the hands of Uzbek Christians. “Obviously, they are uniquely qualified. They know the culture. They know the language. That gospel work is going forward, but it has looked a little bit different in the last couple of years.”
In a time of transition and uncertainty, a lot of things can go right, or they can go really, really wrong. The Voice of the Martyrs encourages you to “Pray for believers in Uzbekistan who are living victoriously and courageously for Christ despite persecution. Ask God to protect and encourage them.” Please pray with us for Christians in Uzbekistan, since it is uncertain what is awaiting the church there after the arrival of a new leader. For the nation as a whole, pray, as they grieve the death of their leader and face an uncertain time ahead. Remember the Uzbek church today.