16 March 2005
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.
25 February 2005
There has recently been an increase in trials in which Muslim religious convictions form part of the case against devout Muslims, Forum 18 News Service has noted. Thus, unusually, Uzbekistan has this month jailed two followers (adepts) of Sufi Islam, a movement which was supported by the authorities but which they now view with great suspicion. Also jailed were eight Muslims whose only crime seems to have been forming a kind of "club" of like-minded people, who discussed religion and read the Koran, as well as Mannobjon Rahmatullaev, who was kidnapped from Russia and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment. The trial of 23 Muslim businessmen, who are accused of belonging to an Islamic charitable organisation continues. Before now, devout Muslims put on trial by the authorities were usually only accused of terrorist activity without any convincing evidence. Protestant Christians, the relics of Russian Orthodox saints and martyrs, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses, have all also recently been targeted by the authorities.
21 February 2005
An Uzbek former teacher of Arabic in a Russian mosque, kidnapped in 2004 and illegally taken to Uzbekistan without the consent of the Russian authorities, has been given a lengthy prison sentence on a wide range of terrorist-related charges, which his lawyer told Forum 18 News Service are "absurd". Mannobjon Rahmatullaev was sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment on 20 January, his lawyer telling Forum 18 that only one offence, under article 223 (illegal exit abroad or illegal entry), when he travelled on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1992. The imam-hatyb of the Saratov central mosque, Mukadas Bibarsov, where Rahmatullev worked, said he had been "shocked" by his colleague's abduction. "If Rahmatullaev had really been involved in politics then I would have been in favour of his deportation from Russia," Bibarsov told Forum 18 from Saratov on 17 February. "I knew this man well and I can testify that he was an honest faithful Muslim who never committed any crime."
16 February 2005
Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim prisoner's wife, has been freed after two months in jail and given a one year suspended sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Local human rights activists have told Forum 18 that she was framed by prison staff, after she refused to accept their claims that she dressed like a "shahidka", a term widely used for a female Muslim terrorist. As a devout Muslim, she wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body. The Prosecutor had demanded that she be given a three year jail sentence, which demand Judge Zainuddin Begmatov did not accept. He told Forum 18 that he had "imposed an extremely light sentence" and couldn't understand why human rights activists were not happy with the situation. But local human rights activist Ahmajon Madmarov commented to Forum 18 that "an innocent person was not vindicated and spent almost two months in prison. So the authorities have once more demonstrated that they can punish believers at their discretion."
16 February 2005
The Protestant Peace Church, just outside the capital Tashkent, and the capital's Jehovah's Witness congregation are the latest victims, which Forum 18 News Service knows of, of the state's refusal to grant registration to religious communities it does not like. Both communities are now at risk of prosecution, with the possibility of large fines and jail terms. The reasons given to the Peace Church for the decision, in a letter which contained grammatical mistakes seen by Forum 18, included the claim that the application contained "many grammatical and spelling mistakes." None of the reasons given are specified by Uzbekistan's religion law. A Jehovah's Witness spokesperson told Forum 18 that the impact of the decision on Jehovah's Witnesses will be "a never-ending cycle: the police periodically fine our believers because of the activities of unregistered religious congregations, while the justice authorities simply ignore our attempts to register those religious congregations."
15 February 2005
Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"
14 February 2005
Local people Forum 18 News Service has spoken to reject Uzbek government and foreign press allegations that an Islamic charitable organisation, called by the authorities 'Akramia' and by its members 'Birodar', was set up by people who wanted to use violence to set up an Islamic caliphate. Twenty three businessmen prominent in Islamic-inspired charitable work – whom the authorities accuse of being members of a "criminal" and "extremist" organisation – are currently due to be tried. One local human rights activist, Lutfullo Shamsuddinov, told Forum 18 that he believes the authorities have deliberately chosen to stage the trial in a small town, which is hard for human rights activists and foreign observers to reach. No date has yet been set for the trial to begin. The father of one of the detainees, Shokurjon Shakirov, insisted to Forum 18 that the arrested businessmen used the money in the mutual benefit fund that they had established to carry out charitable work and regularly transferred money to children's homes and schools.
21 January 2005
Halima Boltobayeva, a Muslim whose husband is in jail, was told by prison staff when visiting her husband that she dressed like a female Muslim terrorist, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Boltobayeva, who for religious reasons wears the hijab headscarf and a long garment that covers her entire body, retorted that she would dress as she believed was fitting. According to a local human rights activist, prison staff then decided to show her "who is boss here." She is now on trial accused of being a member of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though she has stated that "she hated Hizb ut-Tahrir as her husband had ended up in prison because of the organisation."
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.
10 January 2005
Both the South Korean-led Synbakyn Protestant church and the Ahmadi Muslim community in southern Kazakhstan have come under pressure from south Kazakh authorities recently, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Late in 2004, the authorities tried to close down the Synbakyn church's seminary, and both foreign Protestant and foreign Ahmadi Muslim missionaries have encountered visa problems. The regional local authority's chief specialist on religious affairs, Vladimir Zharinov, told Forum 18 that "all our region's authorities are trying to do is to ensure that religious associations operate in accordance with the laws of Kazakhstan." But Zharinov could not say in what precise ways religious believers were breaking the law.
13 December 2004
In a continuing campaign in north-western Uzbekistan against Christians, a Protestant medical student, Ilkas Aldungarov, has been expelled from the Nukus branch of the Tashkent Paediatric Medical Institute, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The expulsion was allegedly because of poor academic performance, but in reality seems to have been because of Aldungarov's Christian faith. The dean of the Medical Institute, Bekbasyn Absametov, categorically denied to Forum 18 that religious persecution happened, but was unable to explain the persecution of Christian students by his colleagues. Expulsions of Protestant students have also taken place at another local higher education institute, the Berdah Karakalpak State University. "Each time, students are expelled for their supposed failing performance. My daughter used to be a good student, but since the campaign against Protestant students began, she has suddenly become a failing student," a local Christian told Forum 18. It is thought that the student expulsions from both institutions may have been organised by the NSS secret police.
8 December 2004
Following earlier state pressure to force mosques to join the central Spiritual Administration of Muslims, a government official has denied to Forum 18 News Service that there is any state involvement in the Spiritual Administration's campaign of compulsory re-attestation of imams in South Kazakhstan region. But it has been claimed to Forum 18 that the re-attestation is taking place at the prompting of the state, following the discovery of terrorist training camps in the southern region, which borders Uzbekistan. It is not clear by what authority the re-attestation campaign is taking place, especially as the Spiritual Administration is reportedly using the campaign to try to control whether imams from mosques not in its organisation stay in their posts.