Uzbek official accuses two Christian groups of illegal proselytizing

Tashkent, Uzbekistan - An Uzbek official has accused two Christian groups of illegal missionary activities in the predominantly Muslim former Soviet republic.

Bekhzod Kadyrov, of the State Committee on Religions, said in an article posted Monday on the government-run Web site, that followers of the Pentecostal Church and Jehovah's Witnesses were organizing illegal gatherings and private religious lessons.

President Islam Karimov, who has led the nation of 25 million since before the 1991 Soviet collapse, bars religious activity of any kind _ including the practice of Islam _ outside state-controlled institutions. About 2,000 religious organizations are registered in Uzbekistan.

Kadyrov said the Pentecostal missionaries held sermons in Uzbek and Tajik languages in order to convert local Muslims. He accused Jehovah's Witnesses of holding non-sanctioned religious gatherings to celebrate religious holidays.

Human rights groups say thousands of young men have been jailed in recent years as part of a government campaign against independent Muslims, which authorities say is aimed at stemming extremism.

Three years ago, an Uzbek court convicted a Jehovah's Witness of inciting religious hatred and gave him a three-year suspended sentence. The case drew international condemnation as an abuse of religious freedom.