Uzbekistan is an unlikely poster child for religious freedom.
Open Doors currently ranks the Central Asian nation as No. 16 on its 2018 list of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a Christian. The US State Department named Uzbekistan again this year as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC)—a notorious list of religious freedom violators that the former Soviet republic has been included on since 2006.
And yet, four key members of the Uzbekistani government were in Washington on Wednesday, on the sidelines of the State Department’s first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, in order to showcase the country’s newfound commitment to take religious freedom seriously.
“Uzbekistan has a centuries’ old history of respect and tolerance toward religious groups,” said foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov. “Our government treats religious values with profound respect. There are 140 nationalities and 16 religious faiths in our country, with operation of more than 2,000 religious organizations. All these stand as our greatest historical, cultural, and civilization heritage.”
Kamilov said the CPC designation marked a low point in Uzbekistani-American relations—the US had shortly beforehand shut down its military bases there—but he believed that the nation’s modernization could bring the two closer together.
“Our country stands ready for a broad international cooperation in this sphere of religious freedom,” he said.
Uzbekistani senator Sodiq Safoyev suggested that behind the government’s policy change was a belief that addressing the issues of the modern world required economic and political transformation, and that religious freedom would play a role in making that happen.
Kamilov and Safoyev were also joined by Uzbekistan’s minister of justice Ruslanbek Davletov and Akmal Saidov of the nation’s Supreme Assembly. (President Shavkat Mirziyoev visited the White House in May, the first such visit since 2002.)
“That [panel was] different than anything you’ve ever heard from almost any place in the former Soviet Union,” said Chris Seiple, president emeritus of the Institute for Global Engagement, who organized the panel and will lead a delegation to Uzbekistan this fall. “… They’re institutionalizing the process of change. That’s the key. The process is the goal.”
Much work remains before Uzbekistan leaves the CPC list. Unannounced raids on religious meetings will have to cease. A number of people also remain in jail on charges of religious extremism—a designation that some fear may be overly broad.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee