By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
ALMATY/FRANKFURT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– A Protestant pastor who faced deportation from Kazakhstan to his native Uzbekistan and up to 15 years imprisonment for leading an unregistered house church has been flown to safety, his supporters confirmed late Wednesday, December 5.
Makset Djabbarbergenov, 32, and his family flew to Frankfurt, Germany on Wednesday, December 5, after the pastor was reportedly freed from jail in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital Almaty the previous day.
Facilitating his release and asylum in Europe was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said Forum 18, an advocacy group supporting the pastor.
No more details were given about his exact whereabouts in Europe, amid security concerns.
Kazakhstan initially wanted to fulfill a request to extradite Djabbarbergenov to Uzbekistan where he was wanted for leading an unregistered church, a charge that carries up to 15 years imprisonment.
The Kazakh government was earlier criticized by the United Nations Committee Against Torture for sending back to Uzbekistan 29 Muslim asylum seekers who alleged they would face torture.
Kazakh officials reportedly insisted to the UN that they “have checked that none was tortured in prison in Uzbekistan.”
In published remarks, Djabbarbergenov’s friends said UNHCR officials picked him up from the prison December 4 and brought him to the Almaty airport, where they saw him and his family safely through passport control.
“The family took only the luggage they could check in and carry on the plane. About twenty members of Djabbarbergenov’s church in Almaty gathered at the airport to see the family off,” Forum 18 added to BosNewsLife.
Given Uzbekistan’s record of “seizing wanted individuals in other neighboring countries” the pastor’s friends had concerns about the plane’s stopover in Astana en route to Frankfurt but “were relieved to hear he had safely reached Germany,” Forum 18 added.
His arrival ended a long ordeal for him and his wife Aigul Tleumuratova, who are expecting their 5th child.
Makset Djabbarbergenov, 32, fled to neighboring Kazakhstan in 2007 after police raided his home in the Uzbek city of Nukus while holding a Christian meeting there, according to rights activists and Christians.
Uzbek Prosecutors claimed Djabbarbergenov invited 11 people to his home “without specialized religious education” and without official permission from a recognized religious organization.
The Uzbek pastor “financed” and wanted to set up an illegal “sect” named ‘Isa-Masih’ or ‘Jesus Messiah’, according to court documents.
Evangelical Christians in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet nations say they are often forced to gather in underground house churches as authorities refuse to recognize their congregations and groups.
Uzbek laws ban “teaching religious beliefs without specialized religious education and without permission from the central organ of a [registered] religious organization”.
Other prison-carrying crimes includes “teaching religious beliefs privately” and the “creation, leadership or participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organizations.”
Following a request for his extradition, Kazakhstan detained the pastor September 5, and he was held some three month’s at Almaty’s pre-trial detention center before authorities backed down after apparent UNHCR mediation.
The controversy over the pastor came at a sensitive time for the region, BosNewsLife reported earlier. This year autocratically ruled Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan celebrated 20 years of diplomatic relations, which began shortly after the countries broke away from the Soviet Union.
His eventual release was welcomed by local human rights defender Denis Dzhivaga, who heads the refugee program at the International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law. “This was a good step,” he said in a statement, but he added the pastor should have been allowed to remain in Kazakhstan.
Friends say the pastor still hopes to return one day to Kazakhstan, where he has been banned till at least 2017.