Uzbekistan’s authorities continue to heavily censor religious material.
Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country in Central Asia, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
According to a story by Mushfig Bayram of Forum 18 News Service, two shipments of Bibles and Children’s Bibles totaling nearly 15,000 copies – seized by Tashkent City Customs on the instruction of Uzbekistan’s Justice Ministry and State Religious Affairs Committee in 2008 and 2010 – are still under confiscation.
Forum 18 said officials have given numerous reasons for refusing to release the literature, but particularly objected to Bibles in Uzbek and Karakalpak, a language spoken in north-western Uzbekistan. The authorities are stepping up pressure on the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, to which the literature was sent, to return the shipments to the sender at its own cost.
A Tashkent City Court on Jan. 12 fined Natalya Pitirimova, the Bible Society’s accountant, in a hearing in her absence, and obliged the Bible Society to re-export the literature, Pitirimova told Forum 18.
Members of the Bible Society also told Forum 18 that Justice Ministry officials summoned Oleg Muhamedjanov, the Bible Society’s then President, and Aleksey Voskresensky, its new director, in Dec. 2010. Over a four-hour period, officials at first questioned the two separately, and then together.
Forum 18 reported officials warned that, “there is no need to import Bibles into Uzbekistan since there’s an electronic version on the Internet.” (They did not explain why it was not wrong to read the Bible on the Internet but illegal to acquire a printed copy.)
The officials also gave the Bible Society other warnings, Forum 18 was told, leading some to fear that the government is seeking to close down the organization altogether.
“I will not answer any questions”
The Religious Affairs Committee and Justice Ministry officials refused to discuss the issues with Forum 18.
Asked why the Religious Affairs Committee does not allow 15,000 Bibles, the text of which it has already approved, to enter the country, and why the Uzbek authorities put pressure on the Bible Society, its Leading Specialist Begzot Kadyrov told Forum 18 he would not answer any questions.
Numerous times beginning on Feb. 11, Forum 18 tried to reach Akborhon Nabirayev, head of the Justice Ministry’s Department responsible for religious organizations. Forum 18 said they were told he was busy and to call back.
Finally, on Feb. 17, an official said that Nabirayev could not come to the phone, and asked what the question was. Asked by Forum 18 why the Bible Society was pressured and 15,000 Bibles were confiscated by the authorities, the official hung the phone up.
Tight religious literature censorship
Religious literature in Uzbekistan is under tight state control, Forum 18 said. The import and production of literature – including the Koran and the Bible – is strictly controlled, with mandatory prior censorship by the state Religious Affairs Committee. Only registered communities can ask for permission to print or import material. Relatively little literature about the majority Islamic faith is allowed to be published, and none is imported officially.
Religious literature is often confiscated during police and National Security Service (NSS) secret police raids. Courts then often require that such religious literature – including copies of the Bible – be destroyed, as was ordered by Fergana Criminal Court in Oct. 2010 to literature confiscated from three Protestants, who were also fined.
Tashkent Court fines accountant and obliges Bible Society to re-export Bibles
According to Forum 18, Pitirimova, the Bible Society’s Accountant, was tried on Jan. 12 at Tashkent’s Chilanzar District Criminal Court, in a hearing chaired by Judge Dilshod Suleymanov, under Article 227-13 of the Code of Administrative Offences (violation of the procedure for placing goods in storage, storing or conducting operations with them).
According to the decision, a copy of which Forum 18 has seen, responsibility was put on the Bible Society “to return the confiscated two shipments of literature … to the sender in the Russian Federation.” Pitirimova was fined 316,505 Soms (or 189 US Dollars at the “inflated” official exchange rate).
As seen from the Chilanzar Court decision, the first shipment of books to the Bible Society arrived at Tashkent City Customs on May 18 2008 from the Russian Federation in eleven parcels. The court decision does not indicate the number of books.
However, Pitirimova told Forum 18 that there are 12,000 books in the shipment – roughly 5,000 Russian Bibles as well as roughly 7,000 books – mostly Children’s Bibles – in Uzbek and Karakalpak languages (the figures on the literature in Uzbek and Karakalpak were confirmed by the Religious Affairs Committee).
The second shipment from the Russian Bible Society arrived on Jan. 15 2010. The court decision indicates that 2,990 books in three pallets were sent from the Russian Federation to the Bible Society. Pitirimova said that the second shipment consisted entirely of Bibles in Russian.
Court hears case in Bible Society’s absence
Forum 18 said the court heard the case in the absence of the Bible Society’s Director and Accountant Pitirimova. It claimed – as seen in the decision – that “although Pitirimova was informed of the time of hearing she did not appear before the court without giving the reasons for failure to appear, and therefore the Court deems it possible to conduct the hearing in her absence.”
Pitirimova denied this, insisting that Judge Suleymanov made only one phone call to summon her on Jan. 12, the day of the hearing.
“I told him that at that time the Director of the Bible Society was out of town and I could not appear before the Court as I do not hold a leading position,” she told Forum 18.
She added, “I asked the judge to postpone the hearing for a couple of days until our Director returns, but he would not listen to me. He said he would go ahead and hear the case in our absence.”
Judge Suleymanov would not tell Forum 18 why he only summoned Pitirimova for the hearing by telephone on the day of the hearing, and not in writing.
Bible Society files appeal
Pitirimova complained to Forum 18 that the District Court violated several points. It did not send the Bible Society a written summons to the hearing. In its decision it speaks of the Bible shipments as “confiscated” literature, whereas no literature was confiscated from Pitirimova or the Bible Society, . In addition, the court decision is not clear about how exactly Pitirimova allegedly violated procedures.
She said that the Bible Society filed an appeal against the Chilanzar District Court decision on Feb. 3 to Tashkent City Criminal Court. However, the Court has not responded yet to the appeal. She has not yet paid the fine.
Judge defends religious censorship
Judge Suleymanov told Forum 18 that the “Bible Society did not present requests on time to the Religious Affairs Committee from churches in Uzbekistan that they need the literature, and subsequently as time passed this violated customs procedures.”
Accountant Pitirimova denied this, pointing out that neither the Religion Law nor the Bible Society’s charter obliges it to collect requests from churches to import literature. However, she said that in Sept. 2010 the Bible Society sent a letter signed by Pastors of 38 churches to the State Committee requesting the literature “so that the authorities would have no excuses” not to release the literature.
However, Pitirimova said, the State Committee was not satisfied and demanded that the Bible Society collect individual requests from churches. She said, “Churches are closely monitored by the local authorities, and they afraid are to give details of how many new members they have, and how many more Bibles they need.”
Forujm 18 said she added, “It took quite some time to receive requests from 26 churches, and we sent those a few days ago to the Committee.”
Pitirimova said that the Bible Society received notification on Feb. 15 that the requests reached the State Committee.
Forum 18 said asked why the Court fined Pitirimova and obliged the Bible Society to re-export the literature while the literature was not confiscated from her or her organization, Judge Suleymanov said that Pitirimova has already appealed his decision.
Forum 18 asked Suleymanov why the officially registered Bible Society cannot receive and have in store Bibles for future use in Uzbekistan, and why residents of Uzbekistan who are not members of any church or are not Christians should not have the opportunity to obtain Bibles from the Bible Society.
He said, “There is an official directive that religious literature must be imported based on the requests from religious organizations.”
Pitirimova said that she was not aware of such a directive.
Forum 18 said Suleymanov declined to comment on why residents of Uzbekistan should have to ask for special permission from the State to obtain and read religious literature in their native languages.
H said, “This is the first time I have come across such a case, and I cannot comment over the phone.”
He asked Forum 18 to send further questions to the Supreme Court.
Why won’t authorities release the Bibles?
In a Dec. 16 2010 response to the Bible Society, seen by Forum 18, Sh. Irisbayev, Deputy Chief of Tashkent City Customs Authority, said that based on letters from the Religious Affairs Committee, the Bible Society was refused permission to import the concerned literature, “as until now requests from religious organizations on the necessity of demand for this literature were not sent.”
Forum 18 said Irisbayev added, “Taking this into account you need within five days to present all the documents to re-export this religious literature.”
The letter does not, however, specify whether both shipments or only the first must be sent back.
Forum 18 reported Pitirimova said that in 2010, customs officials showed her and Director Voskresensky an official letter signed by the Religious Affairs Committee banning the release of the two shipments, which said that one of the shipments has “Christian literature in the native languages.”
Pitirimova said that later on Jan. 18, Officer Anvar (last name unknown) from the Customs Investigation Division summoned her without giving reasons. When she arrived, she was questioned by another Officer Jamshid (last name not given) and asked which Customs official showed them the Religious Affairs Committee’s letter banning the import of the literature.
Among other questions, Forum 18 said Officer Jamshid asked who else told the Bible Society that literature in the native languages may not be imported into Uzbekistan. Pitirimova said she believes that Officer Jamshid could be from the NSS secret police.
Reached by Forum 18, Anvar (he did not give last name) noted Pitirimova’s name, but when asked why he summoned her, claimed “It’s a wrong number” and hung the phone up.
Officer Nadyr (he did not give last name) from the Investigation Division said that he “personally did not invite Pitirimova, and Anvar is on vacation now.”
He referred Forum 18 to the Chief of the Division saying that “only he could comment on this case.” Subsequent calls to the Investigation Division went unanswered on Feb. 11.
Will Religious Affairs Committee release second shipment?
Asked why the Bible Society ordered a second shipment of Bibles from Russia while they could not receive the first shipment, Forum 18 reported one Bible Society member said, “There are thousands of Christians in Uzbekistan, and the Churches need Bibles.”
The member said that they ordered Bibles only in Russian in 2010 so there would be “no excuses by the authorities.” However, the customs authorities did not release this shipment either, the member said.
Artyk Yusupov, Chair of the Religious Affairs Committee, told the Bible Society in a Feb. 4 letter – seen by Forum 18 – that the 2008 shipment “cannot be imported into Uzbekistan, and must be sent back to the sender, because the literature in Uzbek and Karakalpak languages was presented as literature in Russian language, and at the same time no requests necessary to receive the literature were sent by the existing religious organizations.”
Yusupov continued to say that the “second shipment may be released under appropriate procedures if the Bible Society positively resolves the issue with the abovementioned shipment.”
One Bible Society member told Forum 18 that “If we send the first shipment back, then how can we be assured that we will receive the second shipment? Who can guarantee, for instance, that the State Committee will not place the books in the libraries instead of releasing it to us?””