What initially was considered to be the most difficult task is now complete, and the International Religious Liberty Association is in the process of making an IRLA chapter in Uzbekistan a reality.
Most religions have a problem obtaining official recognition in Uzbekistan, according to Mitch Tyner, legal counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist world church.
“They fear a very militant form of Islam. All the countries of central Asia consider it a threat and therefore they’re doing everything possible to minimize the influence of religion in general,” he explains. “So in order to be facially neutral, they make it difficult for everybody.”
Tyner says that a religious denomination is required to have a physical presence—at least 100 members in eight or nine provinces throughout the country—before they can be recognized as having corporate status. The Adventist Church, and most denominations, do not meet those criteria, he says.
This is the reality that Tyner and Victor Krushenitsky, secretary-general for the IRLA chapter in the Euro-Asia region of the Adventist Church, faced when they met with several Uzbekistan government officials in May, but they were surprised at what they found.
First, they met with Shoazim Sh. Minovarov, chairman of the Committee of Religious Affairs, Republic of Uzbekistan. “We told him who we were, what we were about, that we are not a proselytizing agency—we are an inter-religious agency,” Tyner says. “We told him all about the IRLA. He said, in essence, ‘Welcome to Uzbekistan.’ He stopped short of saying ‘We’re going to do everything we can for you,’ because you can’t expect him to say that. But he came as close as he could to giving us the green light. He said, ‘We’re happy to have you here. All is well. Go ahead with what you’re doing.’”
Tyner and Krushenitsky also had good reception from Ahmet Erozan of the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). “We met with Baptists, Mennonites, Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics and A. Yunusov, deputy chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. Again, we got a very warm reception,” Tyner says.
“So here, all of a sudden, in central Asia, where we have, as a church, marginal legal existence, we have open arms for an IRLA chapter.”
Asked why he thought the IRLA received a good reception, Tyner says, “I’m not sure, unless they think that what we’re saying is true, that we can help diffuse some of the potential hostility. And that’s worked.”
Tyner points to Azerbaijan, where an IRLA chapter was organized in October 2002. “The head of the local committee is the Imam of the largest Mosque in town. Here’s this guy arguing our arguments—separation of religion and government, religious freedom, cooperating with all these different Christian organizations—it’s going beautifully. That’s the kind of thing we promote. If we can do that out there [Uzbekistan], we’ve done ourselves some good and done the country a service too.”
The IRLA chapter in Uzbekistan should be established by the end of this year. The IRLA was founded in 1893 by Adventist church leaders and has developed into a non-sectarian organization dedicated to safeguarding religious civil rights around the world. There are some 66 international chapters and affiliated associations of the IRLA worldwide. More than 3,440 Adventist church members worship in 52 congregations in the church region that includes Uzbekistan.