TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to a wave of independence and religious freedom for much of central Asia.
But now, many Christians in the region say the harsh treatment they are receiving is reminiscent of the persecution they experienced during the Communist era.
While many people in the former Communist countries returned to their Islamic roots, others like Sergey Mironov of Kazakhstan embraced Christianity. Mironov says he's often punished for that decision.
A New Way of Life
Mironov's conversion followed a drug addiction that caused him to lose everything -- his family, home, business, and health.
One day, a Christian visitor approached his hospital bedside as he suffered from tuberculosis.
"He was a friend of mine. We used to share needles in our arms. Suddenly, I saw him as a different person," Mironov recalled. "I saw his eyes and they were different eyes. I saw that he was a new man, a happy man. So, I wanted to learn how he changed his life around."
Mironov came to Christ and escaped his addiction at a drug rehabilitation center in Almaty. The center is one of eight owned and operated by the Evangelical Alliance of Kazakhstan.
Residents at the centers learn skills like automobile engine repair and refurbishing cars that can be sold to benefit the rehab center.
The facility is self-supporting. Chickens provide food, cows milk and beef. Even piglets are fattened up and either sold or eaten. Fruits and vegetables are also grown.
But there's also spiritual nourishment. Residents pray together and attend regular Bible study.
Religious Freedom for All?
Mironov left and started a similar rehab center in another Kazak city. But he got in trouble with the government when he started leading Muslim residents to Christ. Police eventually raided his rehabilitation center.
"We were all together holding worship. Suddenly the special forces climbed the fence," he said. "They stormed into the house and started filming our meeting and our singing. They told us we were doing prohibited religious activity."
Mironov was ordered to stop praying and talking about Christ with the residents -- and was fined more than 25 times his monthly salary. Six months later, the facility was raided again and Mironov was ordered to pay another massive fine.
Yet Kazakhstan's constitution guarantees religious freedom.
"They rejected Kazak people giving up their traditional faith and accepting something new." Mironov explained. "They feel their traditional national faith is being pushed out by the new faith and thinking somehow it will destroy their culture. But the Christian faith is actually enhancing it and it's never against it."
Of all the former Soviet Republics, Uzbekistan is where Christians suffer the worst treatment.
House churches are raided, Christians are jailed and fined excessive amounts -- often as much as 50 to 100 times their monthly salaries. Uzbek language Bibles and Christian literature are often confiscated and Christian religious education is also prohibited.
Felix Corley of the Forum18 News Service regularly monitors religious freedom violations in former Communist countries.
"Senior officials have inherited it in their genes. They do not believe in pluralism. They do not believe in religious freedom," Corley said. "And they remember the heritage of suspicion of religion and atheist propaganda that they lived through in the Soviet Union."
Because more Uzbeks are accepting Christ, government officials fear Christians may lead an uprising. About 99 percent of residents filling the unregistered evangelical churches are former Muslims.
"Timor," a Muslim background believer, told CBN News about his experience. We concealed his identity to protect him.
Timor and his pastor were jailed after police raided their house church meeting. While imprisoned, they were surprised when police asked them to sing Christian songs.
"The Holy Spirit was present and we understood that the peace of God filled the hearts of every policeman and people who were hearing us," he recalled. "Later, two policemen opened the jail and they called us and said, 'Please can you tell us more about your faith and this Lord you were singing about.'"
Guards and inmates heard the gospel that day. Some eventually joined Timor's illegal house church.
"Before I experienced jail I was afraid. But when I was sent there, joy came to my heart and I felt that God was close to me, very close," Timor said of his journey. "I was a partner with Jesus in His persecutions. It was a privilege and I am happy."
*Originally broadcast on July 16, 2010.