Some American Christians claim government oppression because they are no allowed to use public schools or courthouses as means to propagate their particular understanding of faith. I occasionally get Facebook invitations to “Put God back in our schools” or something similar.
Such places must remain non-sectarian, of course, because it’s part of our constitutional DNA. Both freedom of religion — and freedom from religion — are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. And for every complaint about officials prohibiting Bible verse banners on the field at football games or monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, there ought to be three cheers for a country where citizens are free to follow their own convictions and not impose them on others.
That is not the case in the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan, where three Baptist leaders were recently convicted of running a summer camp — called Camp Joy — where activities included Bible study. The case has been publicized regularly by Forum 18, an international religious freedom watchdog, but Uzbek authorities seem not to care about international condemnation.
The three men, including Pavel Peichev, president of the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan, were arrested last July and charged with teaching children about religion without their parents’ permission, and of tax evasion, since the government doesn’t recognize the camp as a religious non-profit. The men were recently convicted, fined about nine times the average annual income of Uzbeks, and barred from administrative or financial activity.
The accused insist that parents know the camp is operated by Baptists, and that the government is mainly trying to disrupt Baptist activity in the country by handcuffing its leaders.
The Uzbek constitution contains provisions guaranteeing religious freedom and separation of church and state, but a separate law restricts religious expression to groups that are registered with the government. In a thinly veiled Catch 22, groups not in favor with the government are not allowed to register, rendering their activities “illegal” despite the official stance of religious freedom. Reportedly, no Baptist groups have been permitted to register since 1999.
Although the population of Uzbekistan is predominantly Muslim, there are many different Muslim groups, and thousands of Muslims who disagree with the governmental restrictions have also been imprisoned. Groups that are not in favor with the government are routinely portrayed as extremists who are dangerous to the public welfare.
A government that gives special privileges to the favored religious group while restricting others is not upholding religious liberty. I hope the U.S. can find a way to pressure Uzbek leaders to allow more religious freedom in their country — and that we’ll be wise enough to maintain true liberty of conscience in our own.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.