CAFE Convicted

by Nathan Hamm on 5/23/2006 · 19 comments

Two Central Asia Free Exchange (CAFE) offices have been closed following the conviction of employees for proselytizing.

It was proven in court that organization employees were engaged in proselytism, which is prohibited by the Uzbek law on the freedom of worship and religious organizations. For instance, they tried to convert local residents into Protestantism by giving them bicycles for free.

From a press release on CAFE’s website:

Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFE) is one of the original and largest NGOs in Central Asia, having served Uzbekistan since its independence 15 years ago. CAFE is an international organization, with workers from over 20 countries. It has contributed more than $25 million in humanitarian aid and technical assistance to the people of Uzbekistan. The vast majority of CAFE’s funding comes from private donations from all over the world. Each of its projects are carried out in cooperation with the people and government of Uzbekistan.

One of CAFE’s strongest values has always been that the rendering of assistance not be based on religion or creed. CAFE has adhered to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Code of Conduct, namely Article 3, which states that “we will not tie the promise, delivery or acceptance or distribution of assistance to the embracing of a particular political or religious creed.” CAFE has always operated in an open and transparent way and looks forward to many more years of service to the people of Uzbekistan.

Frankly, I am surprised the whole organization was not shut down many years ago. Right or wrong, proselytization is not allowed in Uzbekistan, and CAFE has long benefited from a wink and a nod regarding the parts of their mission that do not show up in their mission statement. I believe that they are sincere in saying they do not require conversion to receive services, and I think that they have done some great things. But I have heard enough to be convinced that part of the price of admission is to hear the Good Word. (For what it’s worth, Peace Corps Volunteers were advised to avoid all contact with CAFE to avoid accusations of involvement in missionary work.)

I have refrained from commenting on Christian missionaries in Central Asia because I tend not to hold them in very high regard. Christianity is a missionary religion, and I certainly am sympathetic to that aspect of the faith. But I am less than impressed with the way evangelicals execute their mission. Amira discussed this thorny issue a few months ago.

A major complaint about evangelicals is that they entice members with all sorts of financial assistance. This is a tricky one to deal with. While I don’t necessarily feel a greater obligation to people of my own church, many Christians do, and I don’t think that’s unreasonable. I wish there were a greater sense that this issue needs to be handled carefully because so many people have this negative perception of Christian churches. But financial enticements should never be used to get converts. It’s beyond me why any church would want to do this anyway.
What I’d really like to see is more respect and understanding on both sides. Proselytizing should not be done illegally. It should unquestionably done respectfully when it’s legal, and Christians have a lot of room for improvement in this area.

There’s much more to her post, including the point that converts are in a very difficult position (a point that I would stress quite a bit more). As a thoroughly unreligious person, I do not entirely agree with her on everything on this issue, but I think she hits the nail on the head in calling for proselytization to be done legally, transparently, and responsibly. Unfortunately, and not necessarily through the fault of either CAFE or GITE, this cannot really be done in Uzbekistan.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Laurence May 23, 2006 at 2:08 pm

CAFE had a very nice English library in the center of Tashkent. Does anyone know what will happen to it? BTW no one ever asked me if I were a Christian when I used it…

Nathan May 23, 2006 at 3:24 pm

They also made have done some excellent translations of books into Uzbek, if I recall correctly, and I think that they/someone affiliated with them has a great Uzbek-English/English-Uzbek dictionary coming out soon. It’s just that that’s not all they do, even if they don’t require any particular faith to enjoy their services.

Brian May 23, 2006 at 3:33 pm

An rep from a evangelical aid organization in Dushanbe that was doing extensive work in Afghanistan put it to me this way: “We don’t proselytize, but if someone wants to come talk to us about [Jesus] then we’ll be open to talk.” But that sounded a bit suspicious to me, as was the fact that almost all their local Dushanbe staff were Christian. They were extensively funded by USAID and ECHO, which probably has anti-discriminatory hiring rules, so that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Jonathan P May 23, 2006 at 4:27 pm

I’m sure the library will be donated to somebody/someplace in the country if the Tashkent branch gets shut down. It was a nice place. Good place to meet smart, eager, open-minded local students.

I am not entirely unbiased on this issue, as I worked with a CAFE member on a dictionary project for about a year. (I was never affiliated with him or the organization – some of the funding for the project came from CAFE.) Through him, I met some other CAFE workers, and I was impressed with most of them. They all knew Uzbek very, very well (some even spoke with regional accents). I never met one who was not qualified to be there, working on whatever project they were working on. In the case of the dictionary, I was the one who was least qualified. The CAFE guy was a well-trained linguist.

This is probably not entirely accurate, but I came to see CAFE as something like a visa clearing house for (mostly Christian) aid organizations and individuals. Many international aid organizations are “Christian” or have Christian wording in their literature. This makes it hard for them to get into some countries, so CAFE helps them get in, provided they agree to abide by CAFE’s rules. I never had any first-hand experience with seeing or hearing any “proselytizing,” but I did hear the rumors. And toward the end of my time in Uz, a CAFE worker I’d heard of was “asked” by the government to leave the country after he was accused of holding Bible studies for nationals in his apartment. I heard later that it was true. But the fact that he was the only one accused during my three years there tells me that either they’re a bunch of super-secret covert types, or they generally don’t actively proselytize.

Anyway, on one occasion I spoke with one CAFE guy (who is no longer in the country) about why he was “really” in Uz. He is from South Africa and he did aid work in pre-Taliban northern Afghanistan before coming to Uz. (I found out later that this was the case for a surprising number of CAFÉ people, actually.) He is a “Christian” in some sense. So I asked him why he was there, and he said that he loves doing aid work and he loves Central Asia. He said he was more reluctant to mention his faith in Uz than in Afghanistan, but that he did tell people when they persisted in asking. He said that he knew of a few “conversions” that had taken place, but that it was CAFE policy that people who express an interest in Christianity be referred to a “national believer” ASAP.

I don’t have a problem with that at all. It does not sound “suspicious” to me. That’s just being an honest person. If a Christian person goes to Uz and does some legitimate work and people ask if he’s a Christian, is he supposed to say no? If they persist in inquiring further, is he supposed to run away? I ask this because I went to Uz and I’m a Christian person. I was not affiliated with a Christian organization and I did not go there to be a “missionary.” (I went there to avoid “growing up” and, more importantly, graduate school.) But I was often asked by students about my religious beliefs. And I told them the truth. Is that proselytizing? On two separate occasions and with two separate people, I even had students ask me to go to the International Bible Society office and purchase New Testaments for them in their own language so they could get a copy without being seen. I did that with a clear conscience, believing that I was not in violation of the law on proselytizing.

I’d feel the same way if I were in North Korea and someone asked me to tell them about Democracy. I wouldn’t go around preaching on the streets, but if people approached me and asked, I’d tell them. If they asked me to sneak them a copy of the Economist, I’d sneak it in for them.

In Afghanistan, I probably wouldn’t go around preaching about the glories of a pluralistic society with freedom of religion. But if someone asked me, I’d talk till I was blue in the face.

So… What I do have a problem with is people who go to Uzbekistan for the sole purpose of converting people to Christianity. I didn’t get that impression about CAFE. Maybe I was wrong. But … I doubt it.

Nathan, I have a theory about why CAFE lasted so long: It was legit.
It was/is also privately funded and took no money from any government agency, by the way. That probably helped.

Nathan May 23, 2006 at 4:54 pm

Thanks for the additional info. I really do think the line dividing proselytization and just giving information can be a bit blurry. My feeling is that if talking about one’s faith is incidental to one’s reason for being in the country and is done solely in the form of providing information, it’s not really proselytization.

All things considered, there are a number of things I do quite like about CAFE. For one, unlike with just about every other aid organization, their people speak Uzbek. They do great projects, and if the dictionary I just saw is the one you worked on, it’s awesome. Even if some of their members were proselytizing (and I wouldn’t be surprised if some were despite the organization’s stance–goodness knows we didn’t always follow our organizational policies out in the field), I certainly think the agency is more responsible than some of the other Christian aid organizations working in Central Asia.

For what it’s worth, part of our rule on staying away from CAFE had to do with Peace Corps going to incredible lengths to avoid giving anyone any grounds for accusing us of wrongdoing.

Jonathan P May 23, 2006 at 9:20 pm

if the dictionary is arranged by “word sets” instead of alphabetically, then that’s the one. My name is in there somewhere (misspelled, ironically enough).

You know what’s funny … I went in to Uz in 1999 with a group of teachers and one of the “old-timers” (he’d been there for three or four years) told us to stay away from “CC and PC.”

CC was Campus Crusade for Christ (sometimes known as “Coca-Cola” in country), which had already been banned but was sneaking people into the country somehow to conduct “church-planting” and other illegal proselytizing-type things.

PC was Peace Corps. He told us we’d be labelled CIA if we hung out with Peace Corps people. 😉 His warning didn’t stop me, of course. But I thought you might get a kick out of it.

Amira May 23, 2006 at 10:16 pm

You’re right that I should have emphasized more the precarious position of converts in countries where proselytzing is illegal. I find it appalling that Christians would encourage people in China, Uzbekistan, and all sorts of other places to do anything that is illegal and dangerous. And even where it is legal, those Christians have to think long and hard about the responsibilities they have to those who join their church.

Nathan May 23, 2006 at 10:30 pm

Amira, it’s not that I think you necessarily should have emphasized it more, but that I would do so were I writing the same post. And I actually would emphasize a different position that converts find themselves in–that of outcasts.

I only met (and only briefly, though his story was told to me by someone who knew him well) one Uzbek who had converted to Christianity. He suddenly found himself spending a lot more time with fellow Protestant Koreans than with Uzbeks after that. And a professor here from Kyrgyzstan who studies religious issues mentioned the increasingly common problems coming with villages and families suddenly divided along religious lines. But I think you do hint at that by noting the responsibility to new converts.

Brian May 23, 2006 at 11:18 pm

Some of that isolation I think is not unusual though, a convert to Islam likewise might find himself/herself hanging out with different friends in America. With that said I agree with Amira that illegal prosletysing can be very irresponsible. In an extreme example, the aid organization in Dushanbe that I mentioned was closely affiliated with the NGO that had 4 members arrested by the Taliban in early 2001 for converting Muslims to Christianity in Afghanistan. The penalty for foreigers for proseltysing: 10 days in jail. The penalty for Afghans they converted: death.

They did pretty good construction work, though, and I should mention that the chapter based in Dushanbe claimed no affilation with the NGO (of the same name and same origins) that was arrested.

anonymous May 24, 2006 at 12:58 am

I think CAFE does get little bits of USAID money. Remember that this is the faith-based Bush administration.

Regarding dictionaries and fluent Uzbek speaking personnel, remember that it’s kind of a fundamental rule for missionaries to speak the language well, and also that having good dictionaries is a prerequisite for having well translated bibles.

Having said all that — I feel this emphasis on “legal” vs. “illegal” proselytism a bit off. Freedom of religion and expression are supported by international human rights norms. What I do think is that if someone wants to go into a country and break they law, they should be prepared to face the consequences. It’s called civil disobedience. But simply to succumb to all unjust laws, no matter what country you’re in (and here I’ll admit my anti-state bias) is nothing to brag about.

david walther May 24, 2006 at 6:17 am

I feel kind of bad, I’ve had some info on CAFE and on the trials sitting in my inbox for a week and I’ve been too busy to get to posting this stuff.

I worked pretty closely with several CAFE people at the orphanage from which my project (a school) drew its kids, and I hope I can add a little clarity to the debate and some new information (though I can’t post all of it right now).

First of all, I guess I’ll mention that in addition to the “ground” workers, I also was pretty well acquinted with the CAFE’s Tashkent director (until he left last fall about the same time I did), who was a retired business executive from South Africa and a very professional, very qualified person.

Until they are kicked out entirely, I don’t feel at liberty to talk too much about CAFE’s employment policies and that sort of thing, but I do want to flatly contradict
any ideas that are floating around about CAFE requiring people to listen to evangelism, join a religion, or otherwise engage in or even be exposed to any type of religious activity or material in order to receive a service, assistance, or use CAFE library or academic materials.

While obviously I can’t speak about what some individuals may have done on their own, I know that CAFE policy for many years has expressely FORBID

david walther May 24, 2006 at 6:54 am

[sorry, hit the wrong key]

expressely FORBID members/affiliates from mixing public CAFE projects with religious material. For most of the three years that I worked in Tashkent, CAFE workers whom I knew told me about policies that CAFE’s central leadership made (and confirmed by people I knew in their leadership)
that officially discouraged or even forbid members from even speaking personally about their faith or beliefs while in the workplace.

Responding to the question about why CAFE survived for as long as it did… I think there are two answers: firstly, they worked very closely with the government at all levels and were always careful to cooperate legally in all matters (in the years that I was there, anyway). Secondly, they were able to survive, and should have been able to keep surviving, because they were doing really good things for the communities they served in.

At the risk of sounding especially pro-CAFE (they had many policies or even projects that I didn’t necessarily agree with), I think that the years that many people affiliated with the organization put into the country, learning its languages, cultures, and serving its people, deserves at least to be judged on the basis of what they really did or didn’t do. Forcing people to convert, be evangelized, or giving them some kind of econimic incentive to do so was not something that I ever saw CAFE engage in, and I know it was expressely against their policies.

I promise to post some of the firsthand information that’s been passed on to me soon. The trials, particularly the one in Khokand, appear to have been as tied to real life facts as all the other trials of human rights defenders or aid workers in the rest of the country.

Jay May 24, 2006 at 9:27 am

From my prespective it feels more like an Uzbek govt. political reaction and they are using any excuse to get rid of NGO organizations versus actually seeking the truth. It is part of their fear and control issue. What a second, why would they care about the truth or justice anyway. What was I thinking!!

Jonathan P May 24, 2006 at 9:44 am

Here’s an excerpt of an e-mail I got last night from an American CAFE worker in Ferghana:

“The charges were that under the guise of conducting humanitarian activities, CAFE employees were actually doing misssionary work among the local population. We were also accused of giving humanitarian aid (specifically bicycles, cell phones, and money) in exchange for people changing religion. These accusations are totally false, as we as an organization have always been extremely careful to make sure that our projects are not used as vehicles for evangelism or inducements to faith.

The court proceedings were held this week and moved extremely quickly, with no regard for the law or due process. Our Fergana director was in court for three hours, without a lawyer as the court refused to adjourn because the lawyer could not come. He was accused by witnesses whom he had never met, from a place he had never been to, about activities he had not carried out. The judge pronounced her sentence flanked on either side by representatives from the SNB (the equivalent of the KGB). We were ordered to close our office within 20 days. This situation is very serious indeed and compounds with others in other parts of the country; probably our whole organization with over a hundred workers is at risk. Out of 11 CAFE offices in the country, seven of them are currently under investigation on various charges.”

That sounds pretty much like I expected it would…

Rustam May 24, 2006 at 10:19 am

Yes, it is really, really and REALLY SAD. I used to spend whole days, especially during the summer vacations, sitting in the library that you were talking about, “Mustaqillik Library” (how ironic) which was situated in Chorsu. What I liked very much about this library was the sheer abundance of different kinds of books, I loved reading Britannica, first time I saw the collection of essays of Greek Philosophers there, books on economics and other so called reference only TOEFL, GMAT and GRE stuff and even sometimes when I wanted to discover something new I used to take a book on random and at least check out the photos in it. I remember once there was an American guy, I guess from Texas, and he used to play the guitar really good, I liked it very much because up until that moment never heard anyone play a guitar and I remember an old lady from New Zealand, she was so comforting, truly an old women and she honestly liked Uzbekistan, she used to bye 2-3 tomatoes and apples from the Chrosu bazaar next to the library and tell that in Uzbekistan they are delicious and grown in environmentally healthy way, something that she could not find back home, she was one of us, Uzbeks, walking in the bazaar, being close to them, watching peoples problems and day to day survival.
I really used to enjoy watching BBC 24, news that I could not receive anywhere else. I should say that it really helped me and a lot of boys from where I lived and those who studied mainly at the Institute of Foreign Languages to be acquainted with English, the level of their English was poor from how they spoke, which showed that Institute was doing really shit service, I appreciated what they were doing because from all the organizations that I knew, such as British Council, ACCELLS, Soros and etc, only they opened their library at the heart of the old city, Chorsu, I really hated others because they were paying attention to all those economically well off people, like British Council, situated in the Cosmonauts, when I used to go there I used to feel myself like I am in London because very often contingent of people there was very wealthy, people who already visited UK, US or Europe, dressing in stylish way and all the stuff, people working there as well were so called russified Uzbeks, they could not even speak Uzbek properly, while CAFE with its Mustaqillik library came to US, to old city, no longer people like me had to travel hours in the heat and pay money for travel, which was in very, very short supply considering economic status of our families, teaching these guys what it is an English language, showing that you can meet foreign people, have a chat, relax, watch a movie in English, to show them that they can do it, that they are not alone, that they have so many people like them from different schools and universities.
Now, did I ever felt that there was a hint of religion involved I do say for 100% that there it was. I felt on numerous occasions that they were trying, to let the boys think about the religion and life, it was mainly done in the conversation classes, if I can remember twice a week in that library, you could come and sit there and talk about different issues with the representative of the CAFE and very often these issues were touched upon. BUT, I never saw and never heard anyone of them openly kind of championing the Christianity, be it Catholicism or Baptism, what they were doing is they were making those guys, when the discussion touched these issues to think about them twice a week in about one hour conversation classes.
I personally have always been interested in Theology, have always been interested with all religions, although my family has conservative secular religious foundation, therefore I liked very much to discuss these issues in these classes, I deliberately would touch these issues, I used to ask direct questions about the details of Christian religion. So is it bad that they touched these issues or made these young Uzbeks think about world out there, to tell them to look at the sky once in a while, I truly believe that it was correct for 100%, why Karimov can come out and say, for example in opening Islamic Institute in Tashkent, that religion should be approached in academic way, that in his books he writes that we have to fight against the fundamental, dogmatic conception of Islam that all the boys that were condemned as being “wahabies” fell a victim to foreign villains as a result of their youth and total absence of wider worldview. If it is so, if what Karimov says is a state policy, which is undoubtedly so, then why what CAFE was doing is wrong? WHY all these boys should be severed from the opportunity of being able to enjoy the libraries and computer classes that this organization was providing? What all this mass of young people will do now, no job, no book to read, what else?
I totally disagree with the policy of shutting these organizations for this reason because what they are providing is far outweighs the alleged open and directed policy of proselytization. What Karimov is doing is a policy of a paranoid person and nothing else, he for sure could not careless about one guy from let’s say Kitob region of Kashkadarya region turning into Christianity as opposed to Islam, I believe that he would truly be happy if in five minutes all the Ferghana Valley would accept Christianity as opposed to Islam. Why he is doing this, he is personally responsible because all the policy and actions concerning the NGO’s and especially funded by evangelical sponsors keeping in my that he is well aware of their support in Washington goes through him and him only, could be explained by his fear of these young minds being contaminated by concepts like democracy and civil liberties, that they could find power in themselves to demand more than the poverty and desperation that they see every day crossing Chorsu bazaar on the way to this library. In Uzbekistan and in Tashkent now no one cares if someone turned to other religion or not, it is not Kabul which only yesterday was under Taliban regime, it is a country which lived for a long years under secular, Soviet atheistic regime, country the people of which now are more worried about how to feed their children and cover their basic needs, people of which still as of today prefer Russian school to Uzbek school. If one will not come up to them during the Friday prayers and will agitate that one guy has decided to chose Christianity and leave the religion of all his prior generations and you people as the backbone of the religious Uzbek society are obliged to say something, no one will say anything and even the situation with the mosque will not happen in every mosque, only in some mosques with hard core believers.

Rob May 25, 2006 at 2:40 pm

Well, I read lots of good staff about CAFE from your blogs guys. I interacted with CAFE people for more then 10 years; I have not been discriminated or required or asked about changing faith whenever I used their services. However, only Christians would go there to help people who really need help; there are too many risks involved for the ordinary mortal person to spend a few years there…

However, I want to make a small note for Nathan.

Nathan, have you ever been to Uzbekistan. If yes, have you talked to people who are allegedly were bought by byciles. If not, do you know the law system back in Uzbkeistan? If not, here is one simple note: Laws work in a completely different manner back there. I suggest you reading some history about 1930’s back in the USSR. May be then you will have some perspectives about how law system works now.

Well as a person who did a lot of investigation in this case, and who actually talked to people, talked to authorities, talked to ministry of justice, talked to those foreigners, been to USA, read the history, lived in Uzbekistan, know all languages that Uzbek population speaks I can make a statement:

This case is not about freedom of religion or about converting.


Nathan May 25, 2006 at 3:11 pm

Rob, I was going to ignore your comment, even though it irked me a bit. (It’s pretty easy to discover, even from pages on this blog, that I lived and worked in Uzbekistan.) But, you had to go and say this.

However, only Christians would go there to help people who really need help; there are too many risks involved for the ordinary mortal person to spend a few years there…

Eat me. At least two of us in this discussion are not Christians and worked there. To help people even… (The attitude that Christians have a monopoly on charity is extremely insulting.)

Forgive me for doubting, due to the ignorance of your above statement, your mildly condescending tone, and your lack of attention paid to grammar and spelling, your claims to all-encompassing expertise.

To everyone else, thanks for all the info on CAFE. Suffice it to say that I now think that any negative parts of its reputation are and were undeserved.

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