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“Stay Neutral.” Life of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Uzbekistan

There are more than 140 thousand residents in the town of Chirchik, Tashkent region, including 500 followers of the religious organisation, Jehovah’s Witnesses. They cannot get registered in any other town of Uzbekistan, therefore, the information about their exact number in the country is not available.

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*This publication was prepared as a series of cabar.asia articles dedicated to raising awareness on religious diversity in Central Asian countries. The authors do not seek to promote any religion.

The only place of worship of the community – a simple, unpretentious Kingdom Hall is located here in Chirchik.

Photo: Z. Milibaeva
The sign “Kingdom of Hall” was allowed by the authorities only 2 years ago. Photo: Z.Milibaeva

According to the representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Nikolai Korolev, their followers have resided in Uzbekistan since the 1950s. During the Soviet Union, they conducted activities in secret, and the first Jehovah’s witnesses – Serafim Yakushen, Yekaterina Kobzar from Fergana were arrested and sent to the camps in 1957.

The communities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses emerged in the towns of Angren, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand, Fergana, Chirchik, Navoi, Zarafshan, Uchkuduk, Karshi and Bekabad from 1960 to 1990. According to Korolev, back then the witnesses shared the Good News informally with neighbours, relatives and workfellows.

Only in 1994 the Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially registered as a religious organisation in Chirchik. But, according to Nikolai Korolev, they were not protected by it.

The law enforcement bodies of Uzbekistan had previously detained many times the Jehovah’s witnesses for their illegal involvement of local residents to their community and secret meetings in various regions of the country. By law, they have a right to hold meetings only in the Kingdom Hall, while religious propaganda is prohibited. According to the Uzbek laws, the people in detention are brought to administrative responsibility and fined for up to 100 minimum wage rates (nearly 2,300 dollars).

– We can judge about the situation of religious minorities by our example. In the past, there used to be 15 arrests per month, now their number has decreased, and has even subsided in some regions. These changes are due to the fact that the government wants to build a civil society, which is impossible without respecting the minorities. However, we don’t see it at the level of legislation.

Nikolai KorolevPhoto: Z. Milibaeva

The Jehovah’s Witnesses still cannot register in other towns of Uzbekistan. The procedure of registration of religious organisations is as follows: first one should get a legal address certificate at the mahalla board, and then gather a package of documents to submit it to the ministry of justice. But getting a mahalla certificate is a formidable obstacle.

The ministry of justice and the committee for religious affairs argue that the mahalla board is an independent body and they cannot intervene. They [mahalla board] say the people oppose [to their registration]. In Fergana Valley, [the mahalla board] wrote that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were radically dangerous and they filed a lawsuit against them, and soon the fourth trial would take place. In Bukhara and Kashkadaria, they wrote to us we had a church, and didn’t need another one. In Urgench, they wrote that citizens met and refused to register them.

We didn’t get a single reasonable reply from the seven regions where we applied for registration. Recently, an initiative group of 100 people in Nukus applied for registration. We went to Karakalpakstan and met with the citizens, but encountered a conflict.

The second issue that hinders the free activity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Uzbekistan is the missionary work and proselytism. This is prohibited in Uzbekistan and we don’t receive religious literature but read electronic magazines for 10 years already.

Photo: Z. Milibaeva

Nigora, 26 years old:

NigoraPhoto: Z.Milibaeva

– I was a student of the economic university when I decided to receive baptism. My parents feared so much that I would quit the university, wouldn’t get married and become segregated from the society. They just didn’t understand the essence of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and what kind of religion it was.

The Committee for Religious Affairs didn’t understand me either. When I came to their office, they persuaded me I was a Muslim and should read the Quran. And the head of the department advised my father to lock me in the house.

Once, the representatives of the National Security Service took me right from the lecture hall when I was defending my thesis and interrogated me as if I were a criminal. When they found out I didn’t do any illegal things, they apologised and let me go. But I still have a negative feeling. I felt awful before my fellow students and instructors. 

Living according to one’s conscience

According to Nikolai Korolev, the Kingdom Hall exists out of donations. Any Jehovah’s witness may contribute as much money as they want during the meetings. The organisation uses this money to pay for utilities, taxes and to maintain the building.

Photo: Z. Milibaeva

No one receives any flat wage here; volunteers get food here and compensation of their travel expenses.

19-year-old Malika officially joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was 15:

Малика. Photo: З. Милибаева

– I was about 5-6 years old, my mother was studying the Bible with other representatives of the community. I knew my mother’s choice was not my own choice. I had questions to ask so I studied, read, explored the Bible myself and found logical answers to my questions.

Then I decided to become the Jehovah’s witness. At first, my father was strongly against it, my relatives had biased opinion about that, and my schoolmates used to bully my faith. I follow the Biblical principles so I didn’t celebrate any holidays at school. My schoolmates used to call me a holy roller. It was an offensive joke.

We visit the Kingdom Hall once a week for meetings and assemblies. I graduated from a college and on weekdays I have a part-time job as a caregiver and improved my English. Now my father sees the Bible is changing my life for the better. He sees I am a happy person satisfied with my life.

The Jehovah’s witnesses work at state institutions, development companies, hospitals, schools, study or receive pension. The only sphere they don’t and can’t exist is the military. Their religion prohibits their participation in military actions regardless of the nature of the war, aggressive or defensive. In other words, the military service, but unarmed service, is unacceptable for them.

According to Nikolai Korolev, this issue doesn’t cause sharp contradictions between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the authorities:

– When our followers refuse to participate in the military service, they can easily refer to their faith and a certificate of religious education issued by our centre. As a rule, the military commission dismisses them from military service.

Many people try to discredit our community by saying we are against the authorities. But this is not true. The Jehovah’s Witnesses stay neutral in Uzbekistan. Patriotism is not about thumping one’s chest and saying I love Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s witnesses are unlikely to kiss the flag, but won’t spit on it either. They try to live according to their conscience, they love their country, people and respect the traditions they grew up with.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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