Despite provisions for religious freedom in the Uzbekistan constitution, a harsh new law bans all religious activities not certified by the government and threatens the closure of small churches.

Under the new legislation, it is illegal for anyone in Uzbekistan—except government-certified clergy—to talk about religion. Private religious instruction, including Sunday school, home Bible studies, and summer camp, is also formally banned. Any church with fewer than 100 members must close its doors and stop all activities.

The Ministry of Justice required churches and religious organizations to register formally by August 15. Church leaders who failed to comply could be subject to criminal charges, including heavy fines, jail sentences, and eventual confiscation of church property.

Uzbekistan's 15,000 Protestants in a nation of 20 million people are trying their best to meet the state's stringent legal requirements. But they are also preparing to campaign vigorously against the inevitable closure of most, if not all, of their churches.

"The government has told us repeatedly to stop evangelism to the local, indigenous Muslim people," one church leader points out. "Somehow, Muslim extremist leaders have convinced our government that Uzbek converts to Christianity are a problem, and that this must be stopped." (The country is about 65 percent Muslim.) For this reason, most of the small Uzbek convert fellowships meeting quietly in the country have not even attempted to register.

"This law is very discriminatory," one pastor concludes. "I think we'll have a hard time."

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