UZBEKISTAN: Mahalla and Mullah block Jehovah's Witness registration
The latest instance known to Forum 18 News Service of a religious minority being barred from gaining state registration – thus rendering its activity illegal – is a Jehovah's Witness community in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent. Following open hostility against the community from the head of the city's Yaksarai district, a subsequent meeting of local residents (the Mahalla committee), presided over by the local Mullah (Islamic clergyman), reversed a decision to allow a Jehovah's Witness congregation to apply for state registration. Under Uzbekistan's complex registration procedure, which institutionalises obstacles to religious minorities, the approval of both the Mahalla committee and the head of the district administration is necessary before a religious community can even apply for state registration from the Ministry of Justice. The Mahalla committees, theoretically independent but in practice under state control, are used to maintain controls over religious believers of all faiths.
Under Uzbek law, a religious community only has the right to operate if it has been registered with the Ministry of Justice. Uzbekistan's registration procedure institutionalises discrimination against religious minorities as, in a complex procedure, all applications must have the prior written consent of the committee of the Mahalla (a local self-governing agency that administers a city sector and is the lowest level of government) for the district in which the religious community intends to open a place of worship. This permission must also be certified by the Hakim, or head, of the district administration. Significantly – and in defiance of Uzbek international human rights commitments - the government has banned all unregistered religious activity and participants in such activity risk penalties under the Administrative or Criminal Codes.
The Mahalla committee where the Jehovah's Witness congregation is based approved the registration of their place of worship at the end of 2004. However, it remains unclear why Muladjanov demanded new written permission from the Mahalla committee, Andrei Shirobokov of the Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 24 November. Additionally, speaking in the presence of the head of the Mahalla committee, Muladjanov declared that he personally opposed the registration of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Forum 18 tried to reach Muladjanov at the Yaksarai district administration to find out why he had revoked the earlier Mahalla committee approval and was demanding that it be considered again. However, on 1 December his aide Alisher (who did not give his last name) said that Muladjanov was away on a work trip. Alisher claimed to know nothing about the case.
Shirobokov told Forum 18 that, the day after Muladjanov's openly declared his opposition to Jehovah's Witness registration, the head of the Mahalla invited Jehovah's Witnesses to a residents' meeting, presided over by the local Mullah. All those who spoke at the meeting said that Jehovah's Witness teachings were against Islam and that therefore Mahalla residents did not want a Jehovah's Witness place of worship on their territory. "This Mahalla's population is made up mostly of Uzbeks. Let them open their church in a Russian Mahalla," people told the Jehovah's Witnesses at the meeting.
Shirobokov insisted the meeting was prompted by the authorities, pointing out that a year earlier the same Mahalla committee agreed to the registration of their community. "The authorities are actively exploiting the Mahalla system of self-government which is theoretically independent, but is in fact completely controlled by the authorities," he complained to Forum 18. "Although the Mahalla leadership has changed since last year, we shouldn't have to keep going to them for permission."
Begzot Kadyrov, from the government's Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18 that the Jehovah's Witnesses had already complained to him about the Mahalla meeting. But he defended the power of the Mahalla to veto the opening of places of worship of faiths the people do not like. "If residents of the Mahalla don't want a Jehovah's Witness church on their territory, we cannot make them change their minds," he told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 24 November. "The Mahalla system is an ancient institution of Uzbek society. Mahalla residents have together resolved their own problems for many years. Current Uzbek laws reinforce the Mahalla system of self-government at a juridical level."
Although the Mahalla leadership is formally elected by local residents, in practice it is appointed by the government and is often used as an instrument of state control. Mahalla committees have long played a role in supervising, controlling and restricting religious activity and often refuse to approve religious communities' registration applications, whether for mosques, Christian churches or places of worship of other faiths. The Mahalla committees are also used to control Muslims (see F18News 20 May 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=58).
Until last January, Mahalla committees even had to approve which local Muslims could go on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca (see F18News 19 January 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=493). In late October, the head of a Mahalla in Tashkent's Mirobad district, Olga Bedrina, was sacked for having allowed a Full Gospel Church to function (see F18News 11 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=686).
Shirobokov also maintains that "NSS [National Security Service] secret police officers tell us [Jehovah's Witnesses] openly that our work is not wanted in Uzbekistan." He stated that Jehovah's Witnesses in Karshi [Qarshi] in central southern Uzbekistan are in the most difficult position of all their communities (see F18News 21 November 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=692), their situation having deteriorated sharply since August. "For example, a police officer struck Jehovah's Witness Guzal Buzurukova while she held a small child in her arms," he told Forum 18. "He told her husband that he would imprison him if he did not renounce his faith."
Kadyrov said he knew nothing about the incident in Karshi. "Of course, if a policeman did strike a woman, that is a matter of concern. Why didn't the Jehovah's Witnesses tell us about it straight away?" he told Forum 18. "I'm always telling them that they should contact us as soon as they encounter problems with the police. But in fact we often only find out about the Jehovah's Witnesses' problems during court cases." (END)
For a personal commentary by a Muslim scholar, advocating religious freedom for all faiths as the best antidote to Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=338
For more background, see Forum 18's Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=546
For an outline of what is known about Akramia and the Andijan uprising see 16 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=586
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki
21 November 2005
Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses inside Uzbekistan have told Forum 18 News Service of ongoing post-Andijan uprising repression. Mahmud Karabaev, pastor of a Full Gospel Pentecostal church, faces up to three years in prison for "participation in the activity of an illegal religious organisation," following a joint police, NSS secret police and Public Prosecutor's office raid on his home. Latif Jalov of the Public Prosecutor's office refused categorically to confirm or deny to Forum 18 the charges, stating that "there is such a thing as a secret investigation." The church's lawyer, Iskander Najafov, believes the situation for Christians in Uzbekistan has worsened. "Instead of catching terrorists the authorities are persecuting Christians," he complained to Forum 18. Najafov's view of a nationwide crackdown is echoed by Andrei Shirobokov of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who told Forum 18 that the "facts suggest that the state's religious policies have become more severe since the Andijan events."
17 November 2005
Turkmenistan has today [17 November] jailed a Hare Krishna devotee, Cheper Annaniyazova, for seven years on charges of illegally leaving the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Before being sentenced, she was compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital. "Cheper tried to get an exit visa to go to Kazakhstan to stay in the temple in Almaty, but was refused," a source close to the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18. "She went anyway, crossing the border to Uzbekistan." Despite a claimed abolition of exit visas, Turkmenistan is to Forum 18's knowledge preventing three religious believers - two Protestants and a Hare Krishna devotee – from leaving the country. Forum 18's source insists that the heavy sentence was imposed at the behest of the MSS secret police to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. Turkmenistan also has the religious prisoner of conscience with the longest jail sentence in the former Soviet Union, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah who is on a 22 year jail sentence.
14 November 2005
Uzbekistan's Post Office routinely opens parcels of religious books and magazines sent from abroad, sends examples to the state Religious Affairs Committee, then collects them with a Committee decision as to whether or not to ban the title, writes to the sender and the failed recipient to explain why titles have been rejected, and (sometimes) returns them at Uzbek Post Office expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kural Tulebaev, Director of the main Post Office which receives foreign parcels, as well as customs officials have both denied that this is censorship. "We're just following the law," Tulebaev told Forum 18. His Customs Service colleagues were just as adamant: "The law requires that all of it is checked by the Religion Committee," a senior inspector told Forum 18, "the law is the law." The Religious Affairs Committee has refused to explain how it makes censorship decisions, or why it censors religious literature in defiance of international human rights commitments.