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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.

28 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Despite official denials, religious freedom violations continue

Repression of religious communities from the majority community Islam to religious minorities such as Christians has increased, Forum 18 News Service notes. Protestants have been attacked in state-controlled mass media, such as a student, Tahir Sharipov, accused of holding "secretive meetings with singing," and pressure is applied to stop ethnic Uzbeks attending Protestant churches. Andrei Shirobokov, a Jehovah's Witness spokesperson, told Forum 18 that he has had to leave the country as "my friends in the law enforcement agencies warned me that an attempt was to be made on my life." Religious minority sources have told Forum 18 that schoolteachers have been instructed to find out the religious communities schoolchildren attend and where their parents work. US designation of Uzbekistan as a "Country of Particular Concern" for religious freedom violations has drawn a harsh response. Forum 18 has itself been accused of trying "at every opportunity to accuse Uzbekistan without foundation of repressing believers."

27 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Court fines Baptists and burns Bibles

Following a raid on a Baptist church in the southern Uzbek town of Karshi, two visiting Baptists were on 25 October given massive fines of over 45 times the country's minimum monthly salary each for participating in unregistered religious worship, while four local church members were given smaller fines, Protestant sources told Forum 18 News Service. The court ordered Bibles and hymnbooks confiscated during the raid to be burnt, a regular official practice. The judge refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. After 30 police officers raided a Pentecostal church in the capital Tashkent on 13 November, one church member has so far been fined. A senior policeman told church members complaining that he was smoking in the church "It may be a church to you, but to me it's nothing. I'll smoke where I like." The Karshi Baptists called for Uzbekistan's harsh Religion Law to be brought into line with the religious freedom guarantees in the country's Constitution and international human rights standards.

14 November 2006

KAZAKHSTAN: Punished for preaching in mosques

Members of the Tabligh Jama'at international Islamic missionary organisation face increased fines across Kazakhstan for trying to give lectures in mosques without state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Provisions in Kazakh law punish "missionary activity" without special permission. Also punishable is any activity by religious communities that do not have registration, with Baptists and other Protestants so far bearing the brunt of such fines. Secret police official Askar Amerkhanov denied to Forum 18 that the Kazakh authorities now regard Tabligh as extremist: "Tabligh's problem is that its supporters are preaching without having registered with the authorities." Tabligh supporter Murad Mynbaev told Forum 18 in Almaty that the group does not attribute its problems to the central Kazakh authorities but to local authorities "who in their ignorance think we are a political organisation".

2 November 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Systematic repression of Muslims since Andijan

Muslims in Uzbekistan – the majority religious community - have noted systematic changes in the state's repressive policy against religious believers, Forum 18 News Service has been told by Islamic sources. All faiths in the country are suffering from an increase in state pressure and tightened restrictions on their activity. One of the most significant changes, Muslim sources state, has been an attempt to reduce Islamic religiosity among young people and children. State instructions have been given to imams about the undesirability of children attending mosques, and the police have on occasion prevented children from attending Friday prayers. Since the crushing of the Andijan events, no medressahs [Islamic religious schools] have been opened in Uzbekistan. Publication of religious literature – already under strict government censorship – has also become more difficult. It remains unclear how many pilgrims the authorities will allow to go on the haj to Mecca.

16 October 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Sunday morning a favoured time for raids

Sunday morning worship services have recently been a favoured time for police raids on Protestant churches, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Three separate raids on Sunday morning worship have taken place in recent weeks, on churches in the capital Tashkent and the nearby town of Angren. Also, Zamira Shirazova, a dancer in a folk group in north-west Uzbekistan, has been fired because she is a Protestant. Some sources suggest that Pentecostal churches have been banned from preaching in Uzbek, despite it being the state language, although this ban has apparently not been extended to other Protestant denominations or other faiths. Other religious minorities also face severe pressure – both official and social. One example is the small number of Hare Krishna devotees in the Khorezm region of north-western Uzbekistan.

11 October 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Sentenced for Wahhabism – or independence?

Human rights activist Surat Ikramov has denounced the 17-year prison sentence on charges of "religious extremism" imposed in September on former Tashkent imam Ruhiddin Fahrutdinov, one of a group of Uzbeks deported back to their homeland by the Kazakh authorities in late 2005. He was "an educated and influential imam who did not hide his independence from the authorities", Ikramov told Forum 18 News Service. "This sums up his sole crime." Jamshid Saidaliev, the lead judge at Fahrutdinov's trial, refused to discuss the case with Forum 18. Although Uzbekistan has suffered from Islamist-related violence, it is very difficult to establish independently how true government accusations against individual suspects are. The Uzbek authorities refuse to allow independent mosques to function, forcing all to be subject to the state-sponsored and controlled Muslim Board.

10 October 2006

UZBEKISTAN: Quantity of mercy constrained

About a dozen foreign charities engaged in humanitarian programmes in Uzbekistan have been closed down this year as part of the authorities' drive to shut down religiously-affiliated charities or those they suspect of being religiously-affiliated. Alleged missionary activity by staff members was often cited as the reason for closure. One source told Forum 18 News Service that "several hundred" foreign Protestants working in such NGOs have been forced to leave the country. Surviving recent Justice Ministry check-ups – often the prelude to such closures – have been Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity and the local branch of Hungarian Interchurch Aid, the aid arm of Hungary's Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Uzbekistan's former chief mufti told Forum 18 that the Kuwait-based International Islamic Charitable Organisation is the only foreign Islamic charity still able to work in the country. Forum 18 could not find out from government officials why foreign religious charities are mostly barred from working in Uzbekistan although this is not banned in law.

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