BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan Christians in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan have been told not to meet for worship without registration, but government officials are making it nearly impossible for churches to receive approval.
Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet nation of about 5.4 million people, is 75 percent Muslim and 20 percent Russian Orthodox. In January a new religion law was enacted, and since then officials have checked up on or raided many minority religious communities, telling them they have no right to gather, according to a report by Forum 18 News Service. Officials also are cracking down on the distribution and possession of religious literature.
Forum 18, a religious freedom watch group based in Norway, said pastors and church members have been summoned for questioning regarding their worship services. The religion law requires all approved religious organizations to have no fewer than 200 members, which means church groups must collect 200 signatures in a climate where many are reluctant to be identified as Christian.
Also, in order to obtain a permit to meet in a specific building, the law says the building must be 1,090 yards away from any school and more than six miles from any mosque. Some sources have noted to Forum 18 that the large number of mosques in the country make the guidelines particularly challenging.
Church groups also have difficulty finding space to meet because public buildings are not allowed to rent to them and private owners hesitate to rent to religious organizations, the news service said. Government officials even have sought to keep house churches from meeting in private residences.
Regarding literature, the religion law imposes censorship, stating that "Religious organizations and missions can import religious literature and other printed, audio, and video materials into the Kyrgyz Republic only after passing examination by a state religious expert."
The religion law also bans, without defining, "aggressive action aimed at proselytism," Forum 18 said.
Most recently, Kyrgyzstan established a Coordinating Council on the Struggle against Religious Extremism "for the purpose of ensuring concerted action and coordination of activity of state agencies and local governments of Kyrgyzstan in prevention of the spread of and resistance to religious extremism, fundamentalism and conflicts on religious grounds."
The decree, issued Aug. 5, allows "suppressing the ideas of various extremist and destructive groups."
A representative from the State Agency for Religious Affairs in Kyrgyzstan told Forum 18 that the council is still formulating its policy but that it is concerned with the "abnormality" of a rising number of people changing faith, especially young ethnic Kyrgyz joining Christian churches.
The same representative said none of the existing registered religious organizations are considered extremist, but he refused to discuss groups that are unregistered or are threatened by the new religion law.
Forum 18 said various religious organizations in Kyrgyzstan have expressed concerns about the council. One pastor said he didn't understand why the council is necessary.
"We already have law enforcement agencies in the country to detect who breaks the laws. I am afraid they are trying to tighten the noose around our necks," the pastor said, adding that he believes the council was created to "make life hard" for Protestant churches in the country.
Another pastor told Forum 18 that his house church is in an illegal situation because they don't have a permit to meet and will either have to go underground or "unite with other groups, despite confessional differences, to gain legal status."
Joel Griffith of the Slavic Gospel Association told Mission Network News that churches in Kyrgyzstan seemed to have little difficulty meeting for worship and holding children's ministries until the 2005 presidential election. The same candidate was reelected this summer, ushering in added suppression.
"They're purposely wanting to make it very difficult for new places of worship to be registered," Griffith said. "So if they institute an impossible requirement like that, then they effectively have been able to put their thumb down on any new group of believers that would want to come together and form a church."
One government official told Forum 18 that he didn't see why religious groups needed to spread out across the country. Instead, they could all gather in one place and achieve the 200-member threshold, he said.
"Now of course, logic says if you have a group that lives in one part of the country, how in the world could you try to bring somebody from the other side of the country to gather in one place to try to worship?" Griffith said.
The Slavic Gospel Association, Mission Network News said, partners with 64 registered Baptist churches in Kyrgyzstan, which have a membership of more than 3,000. Griffith said there is hope that the Kyrgyz Parliament could reconsider parts of the religion law, and he asked Christians worldwide to pray for the situation in Kyrgyzstan.
"When you look back over history, the more pressure they try to apply on the churches, the more the churches grow," Griffith told Mission Network News. "We have hope and trust that the Lord's going to continue to build His church in those countries and that they are going to continue to see growth, even if they have to function underground, as many of them do. They're going to continue proclaiming the Gospel and worshiping the Lord no matter what."