Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Missionaries Lure Youngsters

The authorities' crackdown on Islamic radicalism appears to have prompted many young Uzbeks to join the growing number of Christian groups in the country.
By Ulugbek Khaidarov

Government intolerance of Islamic fundamentalism is driving scores of Uzbek youth into the arms of new Christian groups practising in the Jizak region - some of which offer financial incentives to their followers.

"President Islam Karimov's regime discriminates against Islam and Muslims under the guise of fighting religious militancy and international terrorism," said convert Rano Pirmatova, a student at Jizak Pedagogical Institute. "But a human being needs to believe in something.

"Islam is strongly discouraged, so we chose Christianity. However, if the Uzbek constitution means what it says, surely we are free to worship any way we choose."

Mainstream religious practise, tightly controlled by the state, does not always appeal to the younger generation, some of whom are increasingly drawn to the more fundamentalist branches of Islam.

In this devout Sunni Muslim country, non-traditional Islamic groups are viewed with suspicion by the authorities. Some of the more radical groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir and the Wahabbi movement have been banned, and a large number of suspected members have been imprisoned.

Following the September 11 attacks in America, radical Muslim groups have become associated with terrorism, which in turn has also discouraged young people from joining their ranks.

This has left an ideological vacuum that many new Christian groups are seeking to fill.

Other young converts, however, point to very different motives. Another student at the institute, who declined to give her name, told IWPR that many were lured by financial gain.

"Missionaries paid me 50 US dollars when I converted, and promised more later. To earn

more, my task is to preach Christianity to other young Uzbek Muslims," she said.

Educated young people are the main target of the evangelising groups, with significant numbers of students at educational institutes in Tashkent reportedly abandoning Islam in favour of the Christian faith. But there are also suggestions that older Uzbeks, usually the parents of new members, sometimes join too.

This was the experience of one 65-year-old Jizak woman who did not want to be named. "I followed my daughter's suit and converted to Christianity. I feel relieved now, having left Islam behind. Islam never worked for me," she told IWPR.

Uzbekistan, with a population of around 25 million people, has long been acknowledged as the most religious country in Central Asia, and has been the historic centre of Islamic education in the area.

Islam was the dominant religion in the country until the 19th century when the conquering Russians settled in the area and began to practise their own faith.

While Russian Orthodoxy is now established in Uzbekistan, the missionary groups have only had a presence in the country since the mid-Nineties. So far the Religions Committee of Uzbekistan has registered 60 Korean Protestant, five Catholic and four Evangelist churches. Most of the new Christian organisations are active in the Fergana valley, traditionally Uzbekistan's most Islamic area.

There are now signs of growing unease at government level over the proliferation of non-traditional Christian groups.

Aqmal Saidov, director of the National Centre for Human Rights, told IWPR that the authorities have placed constraints on visiting missionaries from Protestant groups such as Word of Faith and Mission of Mercy, both of which were denied official registration.

Such moves, he wrote, were aimed at preventing "outbursts of religious intolerance among members of Uzbekistan's traditional denominations, Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity".

Local authorities in the Jizak region are also concerned about the growing influence of the missionaries, with assistant regional prosecutor Tuychi Khaitmatov saying the number of Uzbeks converting to Christianity was "alarming".

"Our office has received numerous complaints with people urging us to take a stance on foreign religions and prevent young Muslims from defecting," he said.

Last month, three meetings were held in Jizak where local government officials asked parents to be vigilant and discourage their children from joining Christian groups. The city prosecutor has also issued "warnings" to more than 30 prospective converts, urging them to reconsider.

Jizak assistant prosecutor Nikholboy Normatov believes people are tempted to convert because it is "easier" to follow Christian commandments than to be a good Muslim.

Another pedagogical institute student told IWPR that regional National Security Service agents paid frequent visits to the campus.

"They hold meetings, cautioning us against Christianity," he said. "However, we can remember them holding similar meetings cautioning us against Islam and showing footage of radical Muslim violence."

Ulugbek Khaidarov is an independent journalist based in Uzbekistan