CWN.com - In the central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, Christian churches are growing, and they're coming under increasing pressure from the government.
Still, they're staying strong in the faith.
In the scorching desert heat of western Uzbekistan, Christians are breaking the law. Their crime? holding a religious gathering without their church having official registration
Soon after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Uzbekistan, which includes a key section of the historic Silk Road, went back to repressing any group considered a threat to the government's grip on power.
"During last years, we have big problems with our Christian freedom in Uzbekistan. Every time, government tries to push under pressure Christian churches and christian leaders, and each year it's become more strong and heavy," said Baptist Pastor Ivan Bickkov.
Bickkov was expelled from Uzbekistan because of his Christian activities among children and church planting. He was falsely accused of being a terrorist and sent to Russia.
In the past eight years, only three churches have received registration in Uzbekistan. In one year, more than 2,500 mosques gained registration.
"Thirty-eight churches lose license. It's mean if don't have a license as a church you can not pray, you can not preach, you can not sing. More than three people together, even if it's family, parents, children.all churches who don't have license, it's against the law," said one pastor.
Arrested for Owning Bibles
He is located in the southern part of the country and needed his identity hidden for security reasons. He says in the past couple of years, apartments and churches have been raided more frequently by police and Christian literature is confiscated.
"If you have more than one Bible at your home, you are in big trouble. They go to your work and ask the leaders of your office to stop your Christian activities. It's getting worse."
Another influential Christian leader and pastor in Uzbekistan, "Anwar" (not his real name), says there are several reasons for the government's crackdown on evangelicals.
"The government feels that Christians are people that are connected with the west, so because of that the government oppresses Christians," he explained.
"One police officer told me, 'you Christians here in Uzbekistan are a group of people who are independent, you can't be controlled by the government, so you are dangerous,'" he said.
Pastor Anwar says another reason for the clamp-down on evangelicals is that they are active in sharing Christ with Muslims. In fact, not doing so is disobedience to God and a sin, he says. Almost 98 percent of Uzbek's claim to be Muslim.
"The Gospel came to Uzbekistan mainly after the Soviet Union collapsed. There has been a powerful evangelization of the country, and many people from a Muslim background became believers. The government is afraid this could bring inter-religious strife," he said.
In spite of their hardships and difficulties for the followers of Jesus Christ, the church in Uzbekistan is growing.
The believers there say they have much to rejoice about, they have their relationship with God and each other and will continue to bring the message of God's forgiveness, hope and love.