Rome (AsiaNews) – Caritas’ life in Uzbekistan is not easy because of "strict government controls. Whatever we do is monitored, and we are not allowed to register, and this hinders our work,” said Fr Francis Stopkowic, executive director of Caritas Uzbekistan, who is currently in Rome for the organisation’s general assembly, where he spoke to AsiaNews.
"Several times in the past ten years, we filled out all the paperwork for Caritas to get the right permits. We filled out many forms, all in the Uzbek language. But we never got them because the government keeps changing the rules to prevent us from registering. There is nothing we can do."
The Uzbek government is hostile to religion, the priest said, not only against Christianity but also against Islam. Yet, although Caritas cannot operate as such, local Christians have found other ways to help people in need.
"We can work in the parishes,” Fr Francis said, “because they comply with the rules.” For example, “In recent years, in Tashkent, we offered computer and music courses for young people."
In Uzbekistan, about one in five people (or more than 5 million people) live on less than a dollar a day. In the countryside, 70 per cent of the population suffers from poverty.
In Tashkent, the Sisters of Mother Teresa "provide economic help to poor families”. Yet “One day, the cops showed up and told the nuns that, because they are registered as a charity and not as a religious organisation, they were not allowed to show their religious symbols or wear religious clothing, and so had to take them off.”
"The sisters asked that the order be put in writing, and the cops left. However, the next day, they discovered that their bank account had been blocked."
In Fr Francis’ parish, St John the Baptist, in Samarkand, some initiatives have been undertaken with the help of Catholic Relief Service (CRS).
"Our educational programmes have attracted the attention of neighbourhood kids, who started to come to the church instead of hanging out in the street. None of them is Christian,” the priest said. “The majority are Muslims who do not convert."
"Very often I have been accused of proselytising, but that is not true. I do not make efforts to convert people; I help anyone in need."
Every Tuesday in Samarkand, Caritas Antoniana hands out food and medicine to about 150 of the city’s poor and sick. When "some neighbours got suspicious, they called the police who wanted to know where the money came from”. However, because “Controls are very strict, we cannot use money coming from abroad,” Fr Francis said.
Uzbekistan’s Catholic community numbers about 3,500 members. "Of all the people we help, hardly any is Christian or seeking baptism,” said the priest.
In fact, “I have been in this parish for 15 years,” he added, “and I probably baptised, given and take, ten people.”
For this reason, “Many people ask me why I do not leave. My answer is that, however few they may be, someone might need my spiritual assistance. Even if there was only one, I would still not leave.”