Christian Camp Joy Case, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
Compiled and translated into English by CCI/Russia
At the end of a high-profile trial in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, judge of Yakkasaray District Criminal Court found Pavel Peichev, Head of Uzbekistan Baptist Union, Yelena Kurbatova, Chief Accountant of the Union, and Dmitry Pitirimov, Director of Shattyk (Joy) Baptist Children's Camp, guilty of evading taxes and involving children in religious activity without their or their parents' consent (see details here). Each of them was fined. Pastor Peichev and his colleagues were also deprived of a right to lead any organization's administrative and financial activity for three years. Moreover, the Baptist Union will have to pay to the State Budget the allegedly unpaid taxes on their āincomeā from the Camp. The three have consistently insisted that the charges were fabricated.
Uzbekistan continues to encourage intolerance of people exercising religious freedom. Sharing Christian beliefs is a criminal offence in Uzbekistan, and the state-run media are suggesting that this is the same in "many other" countries.
The first sign of trouble for the Baptists of Uzbekistan were two articles both titled Grievous and Criminal Acts of āJoyā published on the government-sponsored Gorizont.uz news agency. Both articles attacked the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan for running children's camps.
Azamat Karimov, the author of the article, depicts a fifth grader Askarās experience at the Baptist camp. Karimov claims that although "good people" offered Askar's mother a voucher at "a symbolic price of 5 US Dollars for her son to attend Camp Joy" the end result of it was that his parents have been in "shock ever since". After the camp Askar is claimed to have "dramatically changed, became serious, taciturn, a little absent-minded, and stopped associating with friends". The article claims children are exposed to Bible lessons at the camp thus becoming psychologically traumatized and their parents do not know it is a Baptist camp. It also claims that Askar had to live in "brutal conditions" of camp where sanitary and fire-prevention rules are non-existent and children are underfed. After several paragraphs of fabricated statements the author concludes that "optimal conditions have been created in Uzbekistan for representatives of various faiths, who live in peace and accord. However, the concept of freedom does not mean a āparadiseā will be created for all kinds of missionaries, who draw the youth of this country into their ranks by deceitful ways".
The Baptist Union of Uzbekistan used their property in Tashkent Region for outdoor activities for their adult members and their children. They call it Shattyk (Joy) Summer Camp. Local authorities inspected the camp in May, pointing out to Dmitry Pitirimov, Camp Director, a few shortcomings in the area of fire-prevention. On 26 June they paid another surprise visit to the camp. There were 21 of them including the District Prosecutor, Chief Police Officer, Head of the local Health Department and others. As a result camp was closed and three Baptist leaders were prosecuted.
Trial started in July 2009 in Yakkasaray District Criminal Court, Tashkent, Uzbekistan. On 29 October Judge Nodyr Akbarov pronounced the sentence that Pavel Peichev, Head of Uzbekistan Baptist Union, Yelena Kurbatova, Chief Accountant of the Union, and Dmitry Pitirimov, Director of Shattyk (Joy) Baptist Children's Camp, were found guilty of evading taxes and involving children in religious activity without their or their parents' consent. Each of them was fined 8,747,700 Soms (3,900 Euros or 5,760 US Dollars). The Court also claimed that the Baptist Union owes in unpaid taxes on their āincomeā from the Camp 3,620,200 Soms (1,615 Euros or 2,380 US Dollars). The ruling of the court also deprives Peichev and his colleagues of a right to lead any organizationās administrative and financial activity for three years.
They filed an appeal and an appeal case is to be heard on 4 December 2009 in Tashkent City Criminal Court.
As I think of all that happened to us, Iām constantly reminded of the word āmisunderstandingā. Itās a good word related to the word āunderstandā. Indeed, a situation when people willing to do a good thing within their constitutional rights find themselves in the dock, moreover, for a criminal offence can't be called anything but misunderstanding. And Iām sure the reason is that they not quite see what we do and what our real motives are. Thatās why I wanted to dedicate my last plea in the court to establishing mutual understanding. And no matter what the verdict will be I would like to take this step.
I was born in 1955 in the city of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. When I was 11, a massive earthquake took place here. Many of us, children, were taken to various regions of the Soviet Union for summer vacations while Tashkent was recovering from this disaster. I was sent to West Ukraine where I spent three months that seemed incredibly long to me. Firstly, it was my first time in 11 years to be far away from my parents. Secondly, there were quite a few juvenile delinquents in our group from Tashkent. I have no idea why they were a part of the group, but it was really hard to get along with them. Not because they beat or humiliated me, but they did anything they wanted and blamed us for doing that. Our things and money got stolen constantly. So I had a bad time there in Ukraine.
Then something happened that changed my whole life. One night God knocked on my heart and I realized He was near me. Rather I didn't understand it was God, I just realized it was Someone kind and I could trust Him. For example I could tell Him how much I missed my Mom, ask Him that my parents would be all right, and so on. I didn't call it prayer. But since that very night I started talking to God, that is, praying. It was such an intimate experience that I didn't tell anybody. My parents were not believers. And I didn't know anyone who talked to God. Therefore I didn't share my revelation with anyone; I was afraid theyād call me crazy.
Years passed, I became adult, served my term in the army, got married, but all through the years I kept my secret. At last, when atheism collapsed I found my way to church where I could publicly profess my faith. The most important thing was that I found people like me, people who knew God, trusted Him, prayed to Him, and served Him. For 26 years I believed in God outside of church and now itās been 17 years since I became a church member. So for total of 43 years Iāve been believing in God and having fellowship with Him.
Itās not a short time. Surely, during the time I lived far from church I made many foolish mistakes. But generally I can testify God has kept my life from destruction. He has restored things I had lost and gave me a new chance. Iāve lived with my wife for 29 years and never was unfaithful to her. I don't drink or smoke. Our two daughters were brought up in a Christian home and got married to believers in church as virgins. I have three grandchildren growing in the atmosphere of love and purity, where there is no bad language, rude, drunk or depraved behavior. And because of that their Grandpaās heart is full of happiness. Please understand, for people of this world where depravity, drunkenness, deception, and disobedience rule, my life is a rarity. God granted me opportunity to raise children and allow them to get education: both of them are college graduates. But thatās not all. In 17 years of my church membership I have witnessed many real miracles, including miraculous healings of my family members, my motherās and my youngest daughterās in particular. Doctors said she couldn't give birth, but, thanks to God, she was able to bear and give birth to an absolutely healthy child. As I speak these words my heart is filled with love and gratitude to God. My grandson is a marvelous gift from the Lord. Iām saying all these things so you can understand that I value my relationships with God. Iām saying this so that you understand it is inconceivable for me to take money from people, especially children, and misappropriate it. Do you know why? Not because Iām a good man by myself. But because God would not like it. I love Him and by no means want to harm my relationships with Him.
Now why I was running the Joy recreation zone all those years? How do I articulate my reasons for doing that? What goals was I trying to reach? The answer is simple: I just wanted to show people a piece of the world where God rules. Especially I wanted the ones who have never met God in their lives or who have recently started their journey of faith to see that. I wanted to show them there is a world where people can talk without cursing, where thereās no humiliation, where people give, not take away, where you don't have to fight to make you way in life, where you are loved and cared for. And, you know, many times I heard campers say: āI see such relationships for the first timeā or āI never thought you can spend a whole week and hear no obscenitiesā. However, let me emphasize that it was not our goal to demonstrate ourselves as good people. My dream was that campers would meet God there and build strong relationships with Him. So the goal I had before me was to provide an opportunity to meet with a beautiful, loving, fair, and caring God.
Perhaps Iāll reveal something new to somebody, but I must tell you that God has no nationality. Heās neither Russian, nor Uzbek, nor Jew, nor Arab. Moreover, God doesn't belong to any religion, which means heās neither a Muslim nor a Christian. And of course Heās neither Baptist, nor Orthodox, nor Pentecostal. There is no Baptist religion and Baptist God. God is one therefore by getting a person of any nationality familiar with Him we didn't belittle their national dignity or faith.
In fact, any kind of cross-religious and cross-confessional arguments at our recreation zone were forbidden, not to mention interethnic dissension. I believe it helped people learn to respect othersā opinions and fostered tolerance, patience, mutual respect and understanding. That is why involving people, especially children, in a religious organization contradicts the essence of our work at the recreation zone. And I believe God was glad seeing us live there in peace and love.
When I met God at the age of 11 I didn't become a member of an organization, but years after as an adult I made my deliberate choice and got baptized by faith in a Baptist church. Again let me emphasize that when Iām talking about making people familiar with God I do not mean classes and program. By the way Iāll speak the raw truth if I note I have always been a consistent opponent to any kind of program. I believe the best way to get a person familiar with God is to demonstrate through your life that you know Him. No classes can replace a testimony of personal living.
For that reason we had no teachers, counselors, or leaders at the recreation zone. Adult campers simply looked after campers of a younger age while other adults went to get food, cooked meals and cleaned up the site.
By the way, I want to emphasize that in the process of judicial investigation they didn't present a single evidence that children at our recreation zone stayed without parents or adults accompanying them. I insist that at all times at our recreation zone we kept the ratio of one, two, or three children at the most to one adult. On a regular basis all years and every camp session we submitted lists of our campers specifying their age, home address, and phone number to the police department of Charvak town, where the ratio was exactly as I described.
Misunderstanding always comes together with prejudice and biased views. Having a biased view is making judgments, decisions, and actions before considering all the arguments. Prejudice is being convinced even before considering all sides of a matter. Prejudice always features disparity of actions.
For example after our recreation zone was unexpectedly visited by a commission of 21 including the District Prosecutor, Chief Police Officer, Head of the local Health Department and others, our puzzled neighbors were asking me: āWe wonder what horrible things you are doing there; we didn't notice anything strangeā. Itās an example of prejudice and disparity.
Another example is found in the indictment that says our work was aimed to injury the economy of Uzbekistan. Did you know similar statements were used in the times of Hitlerite Germany when Jews were accused of injuring German economy? It allowed fascists to begin the Holocaust in their country. So all that investigator Anatoly Tadjibaev and journalist Azamat Karimov and others had to do is to call: āBeat Baptists, save Uzbekistan!ā and innocent blood could be shed. What is this if not stirring up hatred (done by responsible officials by previous collusion and in the way that is threatening to others), which is qualified as intentional crime by the Criminal Code of Republic of Uzbekistan (Article 156, p. A and D).
Unlawful use of the Article 184 of Criminal Code of Uzbekistan (tax evasion)
One other example of their biased position is the report of financial operations of the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan they made, the document that has no common sense. The report shows only the income and ignores necessity of presenting the profit figure that taxes are collected from. They didn't calculate expenses at all. Why? Simply because if they calculated expenses theyād find them exceed the income and there would be no profit to be taxed at all.
Iād also like to add that the Baptist Union of Uzbekistan is a religious organization, whose operations are tax exempt except for commercial activities that bring profit. However the work Union did at the Joy recreation zone was a not-for-profit activity because camp vouchers were free as well as use of the site and equipment was free. Campers only had to pay their transportation and food expenses. They didn't present any evidence to the fact that Baptist Union staff collected money for vouchers from campers. Thus this article of Uzbek criminal code was applied unlawfully.
Finally, according to the law of Uzbekistan criminal proceedings for tax evasion can only be instituted against the CEO of an organization, its chief accountant, or staff given authority to deal with organizationās finances. Iām neither the Head of the Union, nor its Chief Accountant, nor its staff member, and I certainly have no authority to deal with Unionās finances. Therefore this article of Uzbek criminal code was applied to me unlawfully.
Unlawful use of the Article 145 of Criminal Code of Uzbekistan (involving children in religious activity without their or their parents' consent)
Another example of their biased position is accusing us of involving under-aged children in religious organizations and teaching them religion without their or their parents' consent. We have camp vouchers signed by campers and their parents that say:
Let me say something special here. Imagine parents who are responsible to raise their children. They care for their kidsā morals, they donāt want them to join drug addicts or criminals. They wish kids a happy family life. But how do you instill basics of well-being in a child from an early age so they don't depart from the right path for their entire life? Where are those steadfast principles that are not changed in time? There is only one answer: in proper relationships with God! People understand it. Thatās why sooner or later they begin to get closer to God and bring their children. People whose lives were crippled by sin dream that kids don't repeat their mistakes and search for the power from God to fight sin.
There is no doubt Islam has a strong tradition allowing people to fight sin and live a highly moral live. But Uzbekistan is a multinational country with population representing different religious confessions. Many mosques as well as churches are registered in our country, including Baptist churches. Therefore the Constitution of Republic of Uzbekistan guarantees its citizens a right to profess any or no religion as well as a right to freely change oneās religion, doesn't it?
So now imagine a mother who came to a house of prayer for the first time. She liked the sermon, the atmosphere, and the people. She left the house of prayer with tears and decided to come more often. In a while she came again; it was summer and everybody was talking about childrenās vacations. Here she hears an announcement: āYou can receive a voucher for your child to go to the Joy Christian recreation zone. The voucher is free, but you should have a certain amount to pay for transportation and foodā. The mother is thinking: āWhy don't I send my kid there or even go myself? Am I doing something against the law? The church is officially registered and this Union of churches is too. The voucher says the recreation zone exists to provide vacation opportunity for people that are close to church and for their children. Iām getting close to this church and to God so I fit. So whatās the problem? Money? Not really, the amount is small.ā This way people who were not Baptist church members and their children came to the Joy recreation zone because our houses of prayer are open to everyone.
Time passes, letās say that lady never became a church member: as life got better she had no more time for sermons. Suddenly she is summoned to the State Education Department and to the prosecutor's office to hear that her child went to an illegal Baptist camp and he may have problems at school. They say: āYou must write an explanatory note.ā She responds: āBut what can I write? I didn't know they were doing something wrong!ā āOkay, so that you have no problems write you didn't know it was a Baptist camp. Also write they taught your child Baptist religion against your will.ā āBut they did not teach him anything.ā āIt doesn't matter. Just write that all that was happening there was against your will. You don't want problems, do you?ā So she writes everything they tell her and signs it. This is exactly or almost exactly how they squeezed evidence out of the witnesses of this criminal case. This statement is proven by what the two female witnesses said in court on October 5, 2009.
Depending on how frightened a witness was they could be forced to write anything. And we thank God for those who refused to give negative evidence despite the pressure. And those who could not stand psychological pressure but broke now find it difficult to admit they had gone to Baptist church and personally took a voucher because now they are afraid of those ubiquitous agents and investigators like Tadjibaev who threaten ordinary citizens from ābehind every bushā.
Officials like Tadjibaev who was smart enough to falsify nearly each document of this case and pseudo journalists like Azamat Karimov undermine simple peopleās confidence in justice and power of our countryās Constitutional system. Yes, the Bible teaches us there is no authority that is not from God. But God by His mercy gave Uzbekistan the Constitution. That is why everybody that takes away peopleās constitutional rights and liberties goes against God and the Constitutional system.
As for myself I have not broken. I still believe in the triumph of the Constitution. I was often asked why I wasn't afraid to work in the Joy recreation zone all those years in view of persecutions occurring everywhere and officialsā neglect of law when dealing with Christians. I always answer that I believe in the triumph of good. And as long as the Constitution permits me to do Godās work in Uzbekistan Iāll continue using my rights. And if my rights are violated I will assert them by means of Constitution and will call for Godās help believing Heāll deliver me from evil powers.
You know, Joy recreation zone has always been a clear and bright spot in the whole picture depicting state of human rights observance in our country. And Iām glad we could make our feasible contribution to creating a positive political image of Uzbekistan. Iām really sorry theyāve now put so much dirt on that clear spot.
I was also asked why we didnāt refute false articles of Azamat Karimov in press. I want to answer now. Any newspaper and internet polemics make no sense before the court brings the verdict. But when the court acquits us and next year we come back to our recreation zone to continue serving God and people there (I strongly believe it is possible) it will be the best refutation of any lie, demonstration of Godās glory and a real triumph of the Constitutional system of Uzbekistan.
We have certainly made some mistakes, most of which were provoked by local authorities. Particularly, now I understand we should have continued to look for registration in the land cadastre. Yet the Joy recreation zone work was and still is a wonderful example of how people with pure hearts serving God can use God-given Constitutional rights to make feasible contributions in forming a civil society and bright future of their country.
Dmitry A. Pitirimov
I don't want you to think I write to defend myself only. But I believe that considering my situation will help you to see the picture in whole. I have ministered in Joy Summer Camp as a public figure, not as managerial employee of the Union. Therefore it wasn't my responsibility to close the accounts to tax agency, sign financial documents and so on. My responsibility was to maintain order in the camp. The court knows it. Why it is important? Because Article 184 Part 2a and 2b (tax evasion) of Criminal code can be invoked only in relation to officials, not public figures. Nevertheless they sentenced me to absolutely the same penalty: fine + deprivation of a right to lead any organization's administrative and financial activity for three years. In relation to me it is a nonsense. But why did they do it?
In conclusion I want to make a special emphasis on something very important. In the sentence the judge confirmed that our criminal deeds are aimed at undermining economy of Uzbekistan! It reminds me the notorious allegation of āChristians burning Romeā. It rings a bell!
Dmitry A. Pitirimov
By Dmitry Pitirimov, December 5, 2009
Dear friends, Yesterday Tashkent City Court Chamber having considered our appeal delivered their judgment. City Court decided the verdict of Yakkasaray District Criminal Court on our case was correct, however being guided by principles of humaneness City Court decided to apply an amnesty. It means now we don't have to pay the huge fines, nevertheless we are still adjudged guilty of committing the crimes. It means all the false articles published this summer were true, particularly saying that Baptists cripple children psychologically against their parents' will and keep them underfed in brutal conditions of camp. Besides the amnesty keeps the banning all three of us from any position of administrative and fiscal authority for three years. It means Pavel Peichev will have to resign his Union Chairman position, and Elena Kurbatova must leave her Union Accountant job. We don't have a unanimous opinion on what to do next yet. Please continue to pray for us.