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16 February 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Family concerned over imprisoned former Chief Mufti

Increasingly concerned about the fate of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah is his extended family, who live in the northern region around Dashoguz [Dashhowuz], Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We have never once been allowed a meeting, never once have they accepted parcels for him and we don't even know where he is being held," one relative complained. No verified information on the whereabouts or state of health of the 59-year-old Nasrullah has been received since he was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment at a closed trial in Ashgabad in March 2004. Relatives say rumours he was freed at the time of last October's prisoner amnesty are not true. No officials have been prepared to discuss Nasrullah's case with Forum 18. Forum 18 knows of no other individuals currently imprisoned for their religious activity.

16 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: How many forced closures of religious communities?

Uzbekistan tries hard to camouflage its religious freedom violations and one way it does this is through statistics. Comparing February 2007 figures from the state Religious Affairs Committee with October 2002 figures, Forum 18 News Service notes that a net total of six Christian churches are indicated to have lost registration, along with one Jehovah's Witness, one Hare Krishna and one Baha'i community. The figures cannot be independently verified and conceal denominational differences, with an increase in Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic communities disguising loss of legal status of Protestant churches. Religious believers inside Uzbekistan indicate that the reality may be much worse. Some Protestant churches have recently calculated that 38 of their congregations were closed down by the state between 2000 and 2006. Over 100 religious communities of various faiths are thought to have tried unsuccessfully to gain registration. The Religious Affairs Committee asserts that "there there are no restrictions on or hindrances to registration." Without state registration, all religious activity is illegal and religious believers are subjected to harsh state action.

15 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Government closes another Jehovah's Witness congregation

Jehovah's Witnesses are deciding whether or not to appeal against a decision to strip legal status from their congregation in Fergana, eastern Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The government's decision means that all Jehovah's Witness activity in the city is now illegal and subject to harsh penalties. All but one of the more than 30 Jehovah's Witness communities in Uzbekistan have been persistently refused legal status. An Uzbek-based lawyer told Forum 18 that the Jehovah's Witnesses have virtually no chance of successfully appealing, as the regional Justice Department simply carries out instructions from the Uzbek government. An official in the Parliamentary Ombudsperson's Office, Maruf Usmanov, told Forum 18 that "It is your personal opinion that any registered or unregistered religious communities are being persecuted. We've had not one single complaint from religious believers." But this claim is contradicted by a letter Forum 18 has seen from the Ombudsperson, Sayora Rashidova, in response to complaints about the criminal case launched in 2006 against Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is now awaiting trial.

14 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Where is Kazakh visiting Pastor being held?

Concern is mounting about where Uzbekistan is holding a visiting Kazakh pastor, Rishat Garifulin, who has not been seen since his arrest by police in Samarkand on 8 February, after Christian literature was found on him. "Now it's almost a week later and we haven't heard anything about him or his whereabouts," Greater Grace sources told Forum 18 News Service. Samarkand police, who arrested Pastor Garifulin, have refused to confirm the arrest to Forum 18. His arrest comes as Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is awaiting trial in solitary confinement, is facing increasing attacks in the state-run media. Uzbek authorities are taking greater steps to isolate local religious communities from foreign contacts and have refused visas to and deported foreigners suspected of contacts with local religious communities. Uzbekistan is also continuing to crackdown on foreign religious charities. Christian charity World Vision, which works on HIV/AIDS projects, is the latest target for potential closure.

8 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Trial imminent for Andijan Pentecostal Pastor

The trial of Uzbek Pentecostal pastor Dmitry Shestakov may be imminent, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He faces up to twenty years jail, if he is found guilty and receives maximum consecutive sentences for the charges of stirring up inter-religious hatred, leading an "illegal" religious organisation and distributing religious extremist recordings. Prosecutors in Andijan have completed their case against Pastor Shestakov, but have refused to answer questions from Forum 18. Much of the indictment – which Forum 18 has seen - is a defence of Uzbek government policy, and attacks "religious/political extremist organisations which under the guise of meeting religious needs began to strive to seize power", naming Islamic groups and "Charismatics/Pentecostals". These are alleged to want to promote "true Islam" and to turn individuals into zombies. The authorities' harassment of Pastor Shestakov appears to have begun as a reaction to some ethnic Uzbeks becoming Christians.

1 February 2007

UZBEKISTAN: Prosecutors refuse to say why Protestant pastor faces trial

Andijan city Prosecutor's Office has refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why local Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov is due to face trial or when. But the Prosecutor's aide, as well as independent sources, confirmed to Forum 18 on 1 February that the Pastor is still in investigation prison. Shestakov was arrested on 21 January during his Full Gospel Pentecostal congregation's Sunday service and is said to be accused of stirring up religious hatred and illegally producing literature spreading dissension. "Prosecutors and the police are accusing Dmitry of stirring up aggression against other religions, but he was not aggressive at all," one source told Forum 18. Another Andijan Protestant pastor was fined in late December 2006 for his religious activity.

20 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Government attacks on Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims continue

Uzbekistan's last legal Jehovah's Witness congregation is being threatened with closure, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. If this happens, it would make the faith illegal in the country and liable to harsh penalties. Also, several Protestant churches have been closed in the past month, while raids, fines and police interrogations continue. Some churches have had to give up holding full church services and can meet only quietly in small groups. On 18 December a Pentecostal in Tashkent was set upon by four men and brutally beaten. "The local imams turned to the mafia and they became involved," one Protestant told Forum 18. The attack follows state TV encouragement of religious intolerance and attacks on religious freedom – targeting Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular. Meanwhile, further restrictions – for examples obstacles to the practice of daily prayer – have been imposed on the Muslim population of the strongly Islamic Fergana Valley area.

19 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Government tries to deny religious freedom reality

Uzbekistan increasingly claims that it is a country of religious tolerance, where religious freedom is respected, Forum 18 News Service notes. This is despite the state TV company's attacks on religious tolerance and religious freedom, the persecution of independent Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses, and tight restrictions on members of other communities. In an echo of Soviet-era practice, religious leaders have increasingly been co-opted to support false claims of religious freedom. A "non-governmental" opinion poll centre has claimed that it has carried out a poll proving that "only" 3.9 percent of respondents had said their religious rights are restricted in Uzbekistan. Marat Hajimuhamedov, who was involved in the survey, laughed and declined to comment when Forum 18 asked him how the survey accorded with religious believers' experience of police raids, fines, imprisonment and harassment of religious communities.

19 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Prime-time state TV incites intolerance of religious minorities and religious freedom

Protestants across Uzbekistan have expressed great concern to Forum 18 News Service about two prime-time national TV attacks on Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses. "Almost the whole country watched it," one Protestant – who preferred not to be named for fear of reprisals for talking publicly about religious persecution – told Forum 18. "We were accused of everything, including turning people into zombies and driving them to psychiatric hospitals. Everyone points at us on the streets." The programme openly encouraged religious intolerance and attacks on religious freedom. Although they "had no impact on people without television or who have satellite TV or Russian channels," one Tashkent Protestant told Forum 18. "But everyone else with only Uzbek channels who saw it was talking about it. This has led to an increase of intolerance." The Protestant believes the programmes were screened to prepare public opinion for another clampdown on religious freedom.

7 December 2006

UZBEKISTAN: State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.

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