Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took over as President in 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan has been experiencing something of a Spring.
The new President has opened up the country to tourism by relaxing the visa regime, has begun to tackle corruption and cronyism, and has lifted the heavy hand of persecution of religion.
In 2019 a number of churches were registered with the government, including two majority Uzbek-speaking churches, in Syrdarya and Samarkand. This is a historic development, as before now the government has tried to hinder churches from attracting ethnic Uzbeks, forcing Uzbek believers to meet secretly and face punishment for doing so. Some changes to the law on religious associations have also been made, such as reducing the cost of registering a church, and stripping the Ministry of Justice of its power to annul a church’s registration. A church can now only lose its registered status through the decision of a court.
Religious leaders have now requested that the number of members needed to found a church be reduced from 100 to 10; and that the current requirement, for the local neighbourhood committee to agree to a church’s registration, be waived. These local committees are often strongly prejudiced against Christians. However, frustration has been expressed at the secrecy and apparent lack of progress in the consultation process which closes on 1 July.
The new outward-looking, friendly-faced government of Uzbekistan is being severely tested in 2020. And as the Uzbek churches continue to emerge from a long wearying period of persecution, they too find themselves faced with new challenges and opportunities.
First, the Covid-19 crisis began to paralyse the economy, as quarantine restrictions hit wage earners both inside Uzbekistan and abroad, primarily in Russia. Many families suddenly found themselves with no income as day labourers could no longer work. Migrant workers in Russia could no longer send back remittances.
Then, at the end of April, a hurricane struck the west of the country, particularly causing damage in Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan) and over the border in eastern Turkmenistan. The newly constructed Sardoba reservoir in the region of Syrdarya overflowed, and the dam collapsed, causing massive flooding. The reservoir was the largest in Central Asia, providing irrigation water to a vast area of farmland in the region. More than 70,000 people had to be evacuated from the area.
Christians have been caught up in these disasters along with everyone else. In response, the churches have organised relief efforts. In Tashkent, Uzbek churches organised a central collection point to which food and clothing could be brought for those who lost their homes in the Sardoba flood. Christians then took this aid to Syrdarya and distributed it. This gave many opportunities to share the gospel with those in need. In Karakalpakstan, Christians have organised distribution of food relief to families with no income. To date, over 80 believing families have been helped. Many testimonies of God’s miraculous provision have been shared, and the effort has been noticed by the local authorities. Local church leaders in Karakalpakstan are praying that this will also bolster their efforts to register one church in the city of Nukus; currently there are no registered churches in the whole of Karakalpakstan.