By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
TASHKENT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Uzbekistan on Monday, February 28, still refused to release some 15,000 Bibles that were seized earlier by customs authorities and the Bible Society of Uzbekistan said one of its staff members was fined for “violating procedures.”
In statements, the State Religious Affairs Committee and Justice Ministry officials said they ordered the Bible Society to return the books to Russia at their own cost as “There is no need to import Bibles into Uzbekistan since there’s an electronic version on the Internet.”
Christian workers say however that since the average income in Uzbekistan is about $10 a day, Internet access “may not be very accessible to the average person.”
Additionally Natalya Pitirimova, an accountant for the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, was fined by a local court for “violating procedures” on January 12, over the import of two shipments of Bibles and children’s Bibles, BosNewsLife learned.
The Slavic Gospel Association, which is supporting churches in the former Soviet Union, said the latest developments are part of a wider crackdown on evangelical Christianity in the region.
“This is pretty much just part and parcel for the steady increase of restrictions on evangelical churches and religious bodies in Uzbekistan. And it’s certainly very troubling to see this happen,” said Joel Griffith of Slavic Gospel Association in an interview with Christian broadcaster Mission Network News.
Only registered churches may request permission to print or import material and religious literature is often confiscated by police during raids and later destroyed, according to rights groups.
The reported crackdown on devoted Christians has been linked by critics to attempts by perceived autocratic President Islam Karimov to tightly control, and increase, his power base in the predominantly Islamic nation of nearly 28 million people.
Western observers have said that Karimov takes a “ruthlessly authoritarian approach” to all forms of what he regards as “religious extremism” and those opposing his rule over the former Soviet republic.
Uzbekistan ranks number 11 on the annual World Watch List of 50 countries that advocacy Open Doors says are allowing persecution of Christians. Griffith said he knew personally of “a few cases where some of our sponsored church planters and pastors have been receiving difficulties from police there.”
He acknowledged that this makes it more difficult for devoted Christians to evangelize or distribute Bibles. “Anybody that’s doing ministry in that part of the world, and especially in places like Uzbekistan, they really need to operate as discretely as possible.”