Pavel Peychev, president of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists of Middle Asia in Uzbekistan, and two other Baptist leaders, were convicted and fined for evading taxes and involving children in religious activity without their own or their parents’ consent.
The verdict was handed down on Oct. 29 in Tashkent, the central Asian country’s capital, in what Forum 18, a religious freedom watchdog organization based in Norway, described as “a high-profile trial.”
The other two were Elena Kurbatova, the Baptist union’s accountant, and Dmitriy Pitirimov, director of the Joy Baptist Children’s Camp. The three were fined 260 times the monthly minimum wage in the country, totaling about $17,280. Back taxes are expected to be paid as well.
Forum 18 reported that the three rejected the charges laid against them. “The three vehemently deny that the Union profited from church-run summer camps, that they evaded paying tax and that they taught their faith to children against their parents’ wishes,” Forum 18 reported on Oct. 15.
Furthermore, the “parents cited in the indictment as victims told the court that their statements had been fabricated by the investigator.” Pitirimov, the camp director, was quoted as stating that the “real intention of the court case was not to fine the Baptists but remove the three … from the leadership of the Baptist union.”
Up to 80 members of various Baptist congregations gathered outside the court in support of Peychev, Kurbatova and Pitirimov during the trial, which began on Sept. 24 and concluded on Oct. 19. Only close family were allowed inside the court.
In May and June, government agents inspected a camp center operated by the Baptist union near Tashkent. Two unflattering reports by a government-run news service, allegedly operated by the National Security Service secret police, were published in July. The allegations contained in the reports were denied by the union as false and spurious.
Formal charges were later filed against the three persons, including unlawfully using Baptist property for a children’s camp; involving underage children in a religious organization and teaching them religion against their or their parents’ will; and selling vouchers for the camp in cash.
Baptist World Alliance (BWA) General Secretary Neville Callam stated that “the Baptist World Alliance views with deep concern recent developments in Uzbekistan.” The international Baptist organization “is disturbed by reports suggesting that the charges and court trial were aimed at undermining or curtailing religious activities within Uzbekistan,” and that “the latest developments appear to be part of a pattern in Uzbekistan of actions by the state and others against various religions and religious leaders.”
The European Baptist Federation (EBF), one of six regional fellowships of the BWA, which includes Baptist unions in central Asia, stated, “We have heard that most of the accusations are based on fabricated charges” and it appears “the authorities want to limit the activities of the Baptists and stop the leaders.”
Christer Daelander, EBF religious freedom representative, expressed concern that the three Baptist leaders may be prevented from holding positions of leadership in the Baptist union or any other organization. Baptist unions in the EBF are being mobilized to pray for the Baptists in Uzbekistan as well to make representations to Uzbek embassies in their respective countries.
Uzbekistan has had a checkered history in the practice of religious freedom. In 2006, six Baptists were detained and fined in the southern town of Karshi, and Bibles and hymnals burned.
In February 2008, a Baptist in the eastern city of Fergana was fined the equivalent of nine months’ wages after a raid by state officials on his house where approximately 40 Baptists were gathered for Sunday morning worship. He was charged and convicted for holding “illegal religious meetings in his house.”
A Baptist pastor and members of his congregation were severely beaten and jailed in April 2008 after police raided a house church meeting in the city of Samarkand.
Freedom of religious expression and association is officially protected under the Uzbekistan constitution, but religious groups complain that the country’s religion law is harsh and does not conform to the constitution or international standards of human rights and religious freedom.
Nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the Council of the European Union and the U.S. State Department, have repeatedly cited Uzbekistan for its human rights violations.
Reports from these bodies maintain that the violations are most often committed against independent groups and civic organizations, including members of religious communities, and include torture, arbitrary arrests and various restrictions of freedoms.