In Uzbekistan, religion is victim of war on terror

Imagine the police forcing a gas mask onto your head and shutting off the air supply - because you are "guilty" of hosting Bible studies in your own home. Imagine having to organize worship services in deep secrecy, meeting outdoors far from any inhabited spot. Imagine being fired from your job as a schoolteacher because you refuse to renounce your religious beliefs.

This is not a good time to be a Protestant Christian or a devout Muslim in Uzbekistan. The country's neo-Soviet regime is apparently counting on its newly strategic location - just north of Afghanistan - to win the Bush administration's tacit consent to its gross violations of the rights of both Christian and Muslim believers. But those violations risk producing just the result that both governments want to avoid: another bloody, fanatical Islamic revolt.

Traditionally Muslim Uzbekistan, like other former Soviet republics, has constitutional provisions and treaty commitments that ostensibly guarantee freedom of conscience. But it regularly violates that freedom in practice.

For evangelical Protestants in particular, life has recently been getting worse: A judge ordered the burning of 211 copies of a Baptist magazine confiscated by customs officials. Police detained 10 Baptist women overnight, ignorantly accusing them of "Wahhabism" (a fundamentalist form of Islam) - roughly like calling the Dalai Lama a Presbyterian. A Pentecostal leader told Igor Rotar of the Forum 18 News Service that Protestants in his town live like the catacomb Christians of pagan Rome.

Recent months have seen a spate of new attempts to suppress independent Protestant churches. In late September, officials broke up a Sunday service of the nondenominational Friendship Protestant church near Tashkent, wrote down the names of all present, and sealed the church to prevent further services.

Uzbek officials told Mr. Rotar that their policies toward Protestants are essentially a side effect of their policies toward Muslims. He quoted "senior officials" as saying privately, "We can't create one law for Muslims and another for religious minorities. So we have to fine 10 unfortunate old ladies - Protestants holding a service in a private apartment - although we fully understand that they are absolutely harmless."

The official Uzbek view is that harsh policies are necessary to prevent the country from being taken over by Muslim fanatics like those overthrown two years ago in Afghanistan. That is why the state has, in effect, taken over Islam in much the same way King Henry VIII took over Christianity in England almost five centuries ago. The state makes clerical appointments, censors religious literature, and even requires pre-clearance of sermons. Uzbek towns are dotted with mosques that have been forcibly closed.

After seven decades of Soviet rule, Uzbek officialdom is so secularized, tone-deaf to religion, and addicted to power that it has proved unable to keep its fight against Islamic extremism from becoming a fight against Islam itself.

Uzbeks who wear clothing or hairstyles associated with Islamic piety, or who obey the command to pray five times daily, risk suffering discrimination in school or at work - or even unwelcome attention from the police.

In some respects, the situation for Muslims has improved since 2001. No new cases have been recorded of students being dismissed from university because of their traditional dress - though no students previously dismissed have been reinstated. Seven policemen were convicted in 2002 for torturing Muslim prisoners, and hundreds of such prisoners have been granted amnesty.

But progress remains far from systematic or continuous. This year has seen no new prosecutions for torture, and the regime refuses to publish its most recent list of amnestied prisoners - thus actually showing less cooperation with human-rights monitors than in 2001.

Though the State Department is reluctant to formally label Uzbekistan as a "country of particular concern" under America's International Religious Freedom Act, the alternative of quiet diplomacy hasn't been a striking success.

The fall of Afghanistan's extremist Taliban regime weakened Uzbekistan's own Muslim extremists, many of whom had used Afghanistan as a base and even fought directly for the Taliban against the US.

President Islam Karimov now has less excuse for trampling on the legitimate rights of religious believers, Muslim and Christian alike. He should be pushed harder to take freedom seriously.