19 January 2005
It remains unclear why the Uzbek government is limiting the number of adult Muslims who can go on the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca that Islam requires. This year, only 4,200 of the more than 6,000 Uzbek citizens who wanted to make the pilgrimage were permitted to go, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The numbers are controlled under an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, by which the Saudis only issue haj visas to Uzbeks whose names are on a list drawn up by representatives of the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the state-controlled muftiate, or Islamic religious leadership. Uzbek state control is further ensured as, unlike in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where haj pilgrims can travel privately, Uzbek Muslims have to travel to Saudi Arabia by air using only the state-run Uzbek Airways. This cost of these flights is prohibitively expensive for most Uzbeks. The minority Shia Muslim community also experiences problems in making the haj with Sunnis.
9 September 2004
Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.
10 June 2004
Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.
9 June 2004
Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.
27 May 2004
It is not yet certain who killed Baptist pastor Sergei Besarab in Isfara, but reliable sources insist to Forum 18 News Service that a previously unknown Islamist group called Bayat was behind it, a group said to be associated with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan's Taliban. The authorities state they have arrested a group of Bayat members for the murder and other crimes, but some local Muslim politicians have denied to Forum 18 that Bayat exists. Echoing a local newspaper attack on Besarab just before his murder, Isfara's mayor, interviewed by Forum 18, attacked Besarab's missionary work, referring to his past criminal convictions and alleging that the killing was solely drug-related. The mayor produced no evidence for his allegations and Tajikistan's Baptist Church has firmly refuted them, pointing to the spiritual rebirth Besarab underwent when he became a Christian in prison, and his subsequent active growth in faith. The man thought to have carried out the murder, Saidullo Madyerov, is the son of the former imam of Isfara's central mosque. Isfara is one of the most devoutly Muslim regions of Tajikistan.
21 May 2004
As the city authorities in the capital Dushanbe order the local Jewish community to vacate their century-old synagogue by July to clear the site for a new presidential palace, the synagogue's rabbi has pleaded to allow it to remain. "The authorities could meet the Jews half-way and not demolish Tajikistan's only synagogue," Mikhail Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 News Service. He stressed that the synagogue had been built by believers and that today's remaining Jewish community is too small and poor to rent a new building or build another synagogue. The city's senior religious affairs official told Forum 18 the synagogue is of "no historic value" and that there was no way it could be included in the reconstruction plan "because it would spoil the entire layout of the complex".
16 February 2004
In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.
11 February 2004
Ethnic Uzbek Imams leading mosques in southern Kazakhstan have resisted state pressure to come under the 'Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan', Forum 18 News Service has found. Pressure followed a 2002 attempt to change the law on religious associations, which the Constitutional Council ruled contradicted the constitution. Kazakh officials have frequently privately told Forum 18 that the region is the country's "hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism". However, Kyrgyzstan is the only state in Central Asia where Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which seeks to unite Muslims worldwide under the rule of a Caliphate) is not officially banned, and most Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in South Kazakhstan region are ethnic Kazakhs. Commenting on this ethnic difference, a local NGO told Forum 18 that "Uzbeks in Kazakhstan live much better than they do in Uzbekistan," so they "are not interested in seeking open confrontation with the authorities."
28 January 2004
Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".
21 January 2004
State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
14 January 2004
In the wake of the shooting to death late on 12 January of Baptist pastor and missionary Sergei Besarab, who was gunned down while he prayed, fellow Baptist pastor Rashid Shamsizade has told Forum 18 News Service it is too early to determine whether he was killed because of his religious activity. However, Besarab, a reformed criminal, had been working in the northern town of Isfara in a district noted for the devoutness of its Muslim population. Only a week before his death, a local paper published an attack on Besarab's missionary work. A deputy interior minister is leading the investigation into the killing.
20 November 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Tajikistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the confusion that leads to officials wrongly insisting that registration of religious communities is compulsory. Unregistered religious communities do encounter difficulties with the authorities, but Forum 18 has been told that excesses "are not as a rule state policy, but simply the arbitrary actions of local officials." Compared to neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan generally follows a more lenient policy towards unregistered religious communities. This may be because Tajikistan, after a civil war, is not able to exert such harsh controls as Uzbekistan can. The Tajik authorities are most concerned with controlling Muslim life, because Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the country's population, and because of the aftermath of the civil war. The possibility exists that government pressure on believers may intensify in the near future, under a proposed new law on religion.