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Uzbek Police Seek Missing Pastors of ‘Unregistered’ Churches

by Peter Lamprecht

3/02/2007 Uzbekistan (Compass Direct News) – Two pastors in Uzbekistan ’s autonomous Karakalpakstan region face imprisonment for missing their first hearing this week.

Salavat Serikbayev, 32, and Makset Djabbarbergenov, 26, did not make their court date on Monday (February 26) in the regional capital of Nukus to face charges of leading an unregistered religious meeting. The pastors declined to make public the reason for their absence from court.

“Police have come to my house twice to take me by force this week,” said Serikbayev, who was not at home on either occasion. Djabbarbergenov was also absent when police came to his home to arrest him on Wednesday (February 28), Protestant sources told Compass.

Both pastors face certain imprisonment for the duration of the trial if they attend the next hearing on Monday (March 5), Serikbayev said. The pastor said that Uzbek law gives police the right to jail criminal suspects who fail to attend their court hearing.

Serikbayev, pastor of Bethel Church in the village of Muinak , and Djabbarbergenov were among 18 pastors detained during a January raid in the village of Kaskol-2 near Nukus.

Uniformed police led by two officials from the city prosecutor’s office burst into an informal gathering of church leaders from Nukus area’s various Protestant denominations at 7:30 p.m. on January 15. Abbat Utemuratov and Umirbai Kudaibergenov, assistants to the Nukus prosecutor, had the group video-taped before hauling the Christians to the police station.

The pastors were subjected to racial slurs and verbal abuse in police custody and told to write out and sign statements that the meeting had been a Christian gathering.

Uzbek law forbids unregistered religious meetings. Protestant denominations along with all other non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups have been denied registration in Karakalpakstan, essentially outlawing their existence.

Serikbayev said that pastors who signed the statements were quickly released, while he, Djabbarbergenov and several others who refused were held past midnight.

Previous Imprisonment

During the following two weeks Serikbayev was twice called into the prosecutor’s office. The second time, he said he was notified that a case had been opened against him for “holding illegal meetings” and “inciting religious separatism.”

Articles 216 and 244 of the Uzbekistan Criminal Code prescribe five and three years imprisonment for each crime respectively. According Serikbayev, Djabbarbergenov is only charged under article 216.

“The police investigation report says that I was leading the meeting and that Makset was helping me,” Serikbayev said. “But we were just eating plov [an Uzbek national dish], and we didn’t have any religious literature with us.”

Nukus prosecutor’s assistant Utemuratov was unwilling to comment on the case when contacted by religious freedom watchdog Forum 18. Utemuratov said that his colleague Kudaibergenov was handling the investigation, but Kudaibergenov hung up each time he was contacted, Forum 18 wrote in a February 22 article.

The first convert from Christianity to Islam in his home town of Muinak when he became a Christian in 1994, Serikbayev is no stranger to persecution. In 1999 he spent four months in jail for his religious activities, as well as trumped up charges of taking another man’s wife.

He said his jailors discriminated against him as a Christian during his imprisonment, refusing to allow him to receive food from his family. At the same time, his wife was fired from her job because of the notoriety of his situation.

The pastor said that if he were arrested again, it would be especially hard on his wife and five children, between the ages of 11 months and 10 years.

But despite his previous experiences, Serikbayev said that he was not worried. “Worrying is when you lose your appetite and can’t sleep,” the pastor said. “I’m just praying and asking God what his will is.”