Pastor arrested in Uzbekistan for converting Muslims to Christianity

Uzbek authorities have arrested a Pentecostal Christian pastor on charges of illegal proselytizing and running an unregistered religious organization.

Dmitry Shestakov led an underground Charismatic Pentecostals church in the eastern city of Andijan and was converting Muslims to Christianity, the State Religious Affairs Committee said Tuesday, without specifying the date of his arrest.

Shestakov was not affiliated with the officially registered Full Gospel Pentecostal Church, calling him an "impostor," the committee said.

Andijan was the site of a May 2005 uprising, which authorities said was organized by Islamic radicals and was brutally suppressed by the government.

Last week, the Norway-based religious freedoms group Forum 18 said that Shestakov was arrested in January and was facing up to 20 years in jail for inciting religious hatred, insulting Islam and distributing banned literature. The group said police had raided Shestakov's church and house, seizing books and tapes with religious content, the AP reports.

In recent months, Uzbek authorities have closed or fined several Western-funded aid groups and churches for alleged attempts to convert Uzbeks to "a religion of a Protestant character."

The Russian Orthodox Church that caters to a significant Russian-speaking minority enjoys official recognition in the predominantly Muslim state. However, many small Protestant denominations that mushroomed in Uzbekistan after the 1991 Soviet collapse have faced increasing official pressure.

President Islam Karimov's government also harshly persecutes peaceful Muslims practicing outside state-sanctioned mosques, branding them radicals. The crackdown on all forms of dissent has intensified since the Andijan revolt.

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, who speak in tongues and believe in healing through prayer, are considered the fastest-growing stream of Christianity worldwide.

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