Christians in a remote village of Uzbekistan are being beaten, publicly humiliated and hounded out of their homes and jobs for converting to Christianity.
Kaldibek Primbetov, leader of the beleaguered group of Protestants in Janbashkala village, near Turtkul in southwestern Uzbekistan, said one man is orchestrating this harsh opposition against their small congregation.
"There is no place here for Christians," Primbetov was warned two years ago, when the village's most wealthy and influential man mounted a vicious campaign against fewer than 100 Protestant believers.
"Our whole population here is Muslim," village strongman Tokhtabay Sadikov told the families who had converted to Christianity. "So you'd better go to Kazakhstan or Russia, if you want to be Christians."
As the most powerful man in the village, Sadikov since early 2004 has pressured local police and civic officials, the prosecutor's office, the secret police and Muslim clerics to impose punishing measures against every villager known to have "abandoned the Muslim faith of their parents" to become Christian.
Protestant believers in the predominantly Kazakh village of 12,000 are now refused access to drinking water for their homes, with men, women and even children subjected to severe beatings for their faith, Primbetov told Compass. Others have lost their jobs or businesses, had their homes attacked or confiscated and faced astronomical fines for participating in house church meetings.
Relatives of the targeted Christians, under threat of attack themselves, admit they are afraid to help them.
In the face of overt opposition, more than half of Janbashkala's Christian families have fled the village, located in the Uzbekistan's autonomous region of Karakalpakstan. Only 20 of the remaining church members still dare to meet for worship with Primbetov, the first man in the village to become a Christian five years ago.
Sadikov's crushing campaign began one cold winter Friday early in 2004, when he ordered all the Christian villagers to attend a meeting with local community officials and Muslim mullahs. But the gathering was held when Primbetov was at the prosecutor's office to prevent him from attending.
Sadikov first targeted Primbetov's wife, Kurbangul, shouting off a list of insults against her and vowing to break her leg or arm if she did not return to Islam. When she refused, he railed against her for an hour, trying to humiliate her before the other Christians and community leaders.
In tears, Kurbangul Primbetov finally asked her accuser to stop so she could change and breastfeed her baby girl, whom she held in her arms as she stood encircled by the crowd. Both Sadikov and Sapargul Fazilova, leader of the local district committee, scoffed at the mother, declaring they didn't care if her baby died. But when she still refused to recant her Christian faith, they finally let her go.
Then Sadikov targeted a well-to-do businessman, owner of two drug stores in the village. Dragging him before the crowd, Sadikov insisted he also abandon his Christian beliefs, but he refused. Since then, the drug store owner has lost all his customers and had his medicines and supplies confiscated, forcing him to close both his shops. "He lost everything," Primbetov said.
In that first confrontation, Sadikov also forced 200 villagers to sign a written appeal accusing local Christians of plotting to blow up a local school and generally opposing the government.
By the end of February 2004, Sadikov had convened a total of eight such meetings to denounce Christians, forcing all the believers to attend. Finally several families decided to leave, most selling their homes and moving to Kazakhstan to escape Sadikov's wrath.
But as leader of the shrinking Protestant congregation, Primbetov felt compelled to stay, despite the serious, ongoing consequences.
In one late-night attack, Sadikov's son Makset came to his house with several other men, thrashing Primbetov and his brother in a drunken rage and breaking their windows. Producing a 20-liter can of gas, the attackers demanded, "Accept Islam right now, or we will set your house on fire."
"We prayed hard," Primbetov said, "and God saved us. Makset was drunk, and he started fighting with his friends, so they left the house and forgot about us."
In a later incident last December 7, Primbetov was again beaten by some of Sadikov's relatives when alone at his home. The attackers confiscated the deed to his house and then forced him out as he bled profusely. The house is now occupied by Sadikov's son, forcing Primbetov and his family to move in with his wife's parents.
This past June, Sadikov ordered village authorities to turn off water services to all the known Christians in the village. "Our children have to drink dirty ditch water," Primbetov said, "so they all get sick." Despite pleas to the water company and local doctors, no one has dared to oppose Sadikov's orders.
Court Fines and Jail Sentences
Both Primbetov and the drug stores owner have been ordered by a local court to pay fines of $75, equivalent to 15 months' minimum salary each, allegedly for participating in "illegal religious activities" and distributing Christian literature. Neither of the men has funds to pay his fine, so both have appealed the decision to a higher court in Nukus, capital of the Karakalpakstan region.
Subsequently, the owner of the drug stores has been accused of "speaking disrespectfully" to the prosecutor in the case, for which he faces a possible fine of 200,000 som (equivalent to 50 months' minimum salary) and four months in jail.
At least two government delegations have come from Tashkent to meet with Sadikov in the past two months, apparently in response to the official complaints Primbetov has filed. "We heard they took so much money from Tokhtabay [Sadikov]," Primbetov said, "but these visits didn't do anything to solve our problems."
Officially, Uzbekistan's repressive religion law bans all unregistered religious activity. So none of the 20 Protestant churches or dozens of house church groups in the autonomous Karakalpakstan region have legal status.
Fired from his administrative job in a local school because of his faith, Primbetov is now farming, raising rice, while his wife, an accomplished seamstress, attempts to supplement their income by sewing clothes for their neighbors.
During his first three years as a Christian, Primbetov said, he and the growing number of his relatives and neighbors who became Christians and quietly met for worship were never disturbed by other villagers.
"The source of our persecution for the past two years is this one man," Primbetov said, noting that fellow villagers tell him privately that no one objects to their house church meetings. "They say if Tokhtabay is made to stop, then our problems will stop."
Primbetov concluded, "We have nothing to lose to tell the world about this."