Azamat became a Christian in the early days of Uzbekistan’s independence, soon after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, when, he says, the country “was a much freer place than it is now”.
He embraced his new faith, setting up a network of house churches, and finding teachers for Sunday schools. But the state soon noticed, and its interest led to an abduction that he describes as “the longest seven minutes of my life”.
Azamat, now in his 40s with a wife and two children, talks about how the heady days of his new-found faith turned into a long-running battle to keep the church running under severe oppression from the Uzbek authorities.
“I was born a Muslim, but I had some Christian friends. They had converted to Christianity. At first, they had been like me, drank and smoked, but they changed.
Warned off joining the Christian ‘sect’
“They invited me to a Christmas party; I was curious and decided to go. My parents warned me not to join their sect.”
Azamat didn’t know what to expect. At the party, there were children and adults from very different backgrounds – Russians, Germans and a few Uzbeks. They sang Christmas songs and recited poems.
In the early days, “after communism,” Uzbekistan was a much freer place. Today, other nationalities are still allowed to openly practice their Christian faith, but Uzbeks visiting such parties would be in danger. Uzbek Christians run a high risk of being jailed for their faith, and their persecution was predicted to become “even worse” under the country’s new leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
People prayed for Azamat at the party and, although he soon wanted to know more about Christianity, he wouldn’t read a Bible. “I was a Muslim after all. So instead I learned more about the Muslim prayers.”
Soon after the Christmas party, Azamat became sick with terrible pains in his stomach. He went to a New Year’s party where Christians prayed he would be healed, but it appeared to make no difference.
“I went to the doctor the day after for tests. I visited a week later expecting his diagnosis, but instead he told me I was healthy and accused me of wanting an excuse to not work!” he says.
Azamat went home. Not knowing what to do next, he decided to pray, making a commitment to Christianity. That night his stomach pains went away.
The first few months, he hid his Bible and said nothing about his faith to his parents. But his life changed, he says, when he was robbed on the way home from a Christian conference.
“I had to tell my parents where I had been and what had happened. They were unhappy, to say the least, and the word about my faith quickly spread.
Swore at on the street
“Even my parents were harassed for my faith. People swore at us on the street. Sometimes people would throw rocks at our house. Once, an old lady – a friend of my grandmother – knocked loudly on our door and just screamed. My mother was upset and asked her to come inside. The lady kept yelling, ‘how could you let your son become a kafir?’ My mother was angry and defended me.
“Unfortunately the lady died a few years later, but her son, daughter and two grandsons are now members of our church.”
Azamat joined his friends’ church, but the congregation shrank when the Germans decided to move back home. “It was just three old ladies, seven teenagers and myself.”
Three students who used to belong to the church went to a Bible school, and Azamat hoped that one would return to lead the church. But someone in the church told Azamat that he should lead, despite his lack of theological training. He accepted the role, and the church grew to more than 100 people.
The Uzbek authorities noticed the membership growth. Police and security officials raided the church when Azamat wasn’t there. Members were forced to write statements about who they were and why they were there before being let go.
The next day Azamat went to the police station to find out what had happened. An assistant to the chief of police told him: “I’ve closed thirteen mosques already. I will close your church too.”
He was then summoned to the station daily: “They held me responsible and told me that someone needed to be punished,” he said.
Police tried to force him to write a statement about the church and why the members met.
“I knew it was a trap and the police would use it against me in court, so I refused. The questioning often went on from two until 10 pm. They wanted to know how often we met, how big our meetings were, and what we discussed. They threatened to put me in jail for 15 days. In the end, I wasn’t sent to prison, but our church registration was withdrawn. This meant that our church was officially closed.”
Azamat and the other church leaders decided to meet in small groups in homes instead. But, he feels, the security officials hadn’t forgotten how stubborn he had been during their questioning.
Not long after the official closure of the church, he was walking home when a black car stopped. He expected the driver just wanted directions. Instead, the back door swung open and he was quickly pushed inside.
He was paralyzed with fear but just managed to ask where he was being taken.
His abductors didn’t reply and drove on for half a kilometer. They stopped and he was dragged out of the car onto a deserted street where he was beaten.
“We know everything!” they yelled. “You didn’t understand. You need to stop with your ministry. Think about your wife and children. Something much worse will happen.”
While talking about the ordeal, Azamat put his arms around his head to show how he tried to protect himself. “I couldn’t talk to them. It hurt so much. I felt so much fear and hatred. They beat and kicked me for seven minutes. Seven minutes only, but they were the longest seven minutes of my life. Then they left. I picked myself up and walked home.”
When he got home, there was nobody there. He sat on the grass and broke down in tears. “It was an explosion of emotions. I couldn’t control myself. That month, ever since the police had raided the church service, had been so stressful. And now this happened. When my wife and children came home, I didn’t tell them anything. I still haven’t told my wife about what happened that day. I don’t want her to panic. I only shared my story with a handful of leaders in our church,” he says.
Church goes underground
After what happened to Azamat, some leaders were so scared that they left the church. He offered to leave the country to take the pressure off, but others wanted him to stay during the transition from a legal church to an underground church.
Azamat decided to stay – if he’d sought refuge in another country it would have meant telling his wife about the beating, which he wasn’t ready to do.
When Azamat’s church closed he decided to start up special house groups for children, teenagers and youth, even though teaching religion to children in Uzbekistan is forbidden.
“Not even registered churches are allowed to have a Sunday school. They can have classes for children, where they can watch cartoons or do crafts but nothing religious,” he says.
Children are under further pressure at school.
“Teachers will ask if their parents read from the Quran or the Bible, if they pray at home and how, and if they go to the mosque or a church,” Azamat says.
“If anything points towards Christianity, the children are encouraged to report their parents to the authorities. So we have to teach our children ourselves both about Jesus and about security. What do you say and what don’t you say? My own teenage daughter doesn’t even know that I am a pastor. I can’t burden her with that information yet.”
Azamat continues his ‘underground’ work in poor health. He has constant headaches and needs surgery on his nose because he can’t breathe properly, he says.
He feels his health issues are related to the stress, and sometimes feels he can’t go on.
“The last time I was questioned by the police, I thought I should just give up. I wanted to sign a paper that said I wouldn’t serve as a pastor anymore. But I didn’t give up.”
Uzbekistan regards Christianity as alien and destabilizing: its authorities closely monitor religious groups. The country was ranked 16th on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.