Features

Old days are here again

"Old days are here again" Continued...

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

Disruptions persist in surrounding nations: Though lawmakers in Belarus rescinded some legal punishments for unregistered churches, pastor Yuri Petrevich reported that police raided his unregistered church in February, and that authorities imposed a hefty fine.

Lawmakers in Tajikistan passed a law requiring religious organizations to register or re-register by January, but authorities have mired the process with delays. Some religious groups that have applied for re-registration now face the threat of prosecution because authorities haven't processed their applications and they are now considered illegal, according to Forum 18. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) added Tajikistan to its "watch list" in 2009, saying religious freedoms in the country were deteriorating. The commission noted that the country's new law also prohibits proselytizing and private religious education.

USCIRF also added Russia to its 2009 watch list, noting that the country established a new body in the Ministry of Justice with unprecedented powers to control religious groups. Though oppression levels vary widely across the vast nation, some churches are reporting increased scrutiny from government officials looking for signs of perceived extremism or antagonism toward the government.

Long-standing governmental crackdowns on independent media-and notorious cases of assassinated reporters and human-rights lawyers-underscore the government's desire to retain tight control over public perceptions.

In at least two former Soviet republics, persecution isn't a new development: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have long been on USCIRF's list of "countries of particular concern" for egregious religious freedom violations. The commission cited "persistent and severe problems" in Turkmenistan, including a 2003 law that banned most unregistered religious activity. Even registered religious groups can't meet in private homes, and they face bans on printing or importing religious literature. Registering with the government often brings another set of problems, including increased scrutiny and financial restrictions.

In Uzbekistan, USCIRF noted that a restrictive law severely limits the ability of religious organizations to function. The group said strict oversight of Muslim practice has led to the imprisonment of thousands of people in recent years, and that some prisoners report torture. A court in Uzbekistan recently sentenced Baptist pastor Tohar Haydarov to 10 years in prison on drug charges that are bogus, according to church members.

Mark Elliott, founding editor of East-West Church and Ministry Report, says conditions for religious freedom in Russia and former Soviet republics are still better than they were during the communist period, but "compared to 10 years ago, it's much more difficult and restrictive."

Elliott says a fear of radical Islam does prompt restrictions, but he says the restrictions sometimes create "a self-fulfilling prophecy" for governments: "These people may have been fairly moderate, but the government by clamping down on Islam radicalizes an element of the population."

Bob Provost, president of the Slavic Gospel Association, an Illinois-based group that serves indigenous churches in Russia and former Soviet republics, recently returned from a trip to Georgia, where he says religious oppression remains intense. He says local Baptist pastors report that Orthodox Church leaders regularly denounce Baptists as cultists and harass local meetings of evangelicals.

Still, Provost says, indigenous pastors are more focused on their work than on their opposition. "No matter what is going on politically or economically, they never talk about it," he said. "When things around them are bad and growing worse, they're focused on the gospel."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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