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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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KYRGYZSTAN: "Medieval khan" closes mosques

The regional Muslim leader has accused Asan Erinbayev, head of Karadarya district in southern Kyrgyzstan, of "blatantly arbitrary" action in closing six out of nine local mosques. "He behaves like a medieval khan," Dilmurat haji Orozov told Forum 18 News Service from Jalal-abad. He said the Muslim community would be campaigning for the return of the mosques to believers. When Forum 18 visited the district on 9 May, Erinbayev arrived by car within ten minutes and forced Forum 18's car to stop. He made no attempt to deny the closures, but claimed the mosques had been built on state-owned land. "Now that the mosques have been closed, I can monitor the activities of the imams on my territory," he told Forum 18.

KYRGYZSTAN: Islamic headscarves arouse school director's anger

Six Muslims whose daughters have encountered problems for wearing the Islamic headscarf, the hijab, in school in Karasu have appealed for help to the imam of the town's central mosque, his son Roshad Kamalov told Forum 18 News Service. School director Khalima Ibragimova invited the girls to the staff room, where she and a police officer with responsibility for minors searched the girls' bags and confiscated religious literature they found there. Ibragimova then told the girls she would exclude them from school if they did not stop wearing the hijab. Ibragimova defended her actions, telling Forum 18 she could see nothing unlawful in them. She maintained that school uniform does not allow girls to wear the hijab. However, Kyrgyzstan's senior religious affairs official disagrees. "The schoolgirls have the right to wear the hijab to school," Mumurzak Mamayusupov told Forum 18.

KYRGYZSTAN: No prayers in school, Muslim children told

Muslim pupils who perform daily prayers complain they are now being persecuted in schools in Bazar-Kurgan in southern Kyrgyzstan. Local resident Salimakhar Batirova told Forum 18 News Service how the director of her daughter's school had entered the class and asked who practised Islam. Five pupils came to the front of the class, whereupon the director wrote down their names and left. "Then the teacher, Mashrapkhan Isakulova, started to hit the children on their heads and faces. She told them to conceal the fact that they were carrying out Islamic practices. She kept the children in after lessons and sent for their parents." The head of the district administration categorically denied that any order had been given to find out which pupils are studying Islam. "We are simply concerned about the activity of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party," Khaldarabai Shamsuddinov insisted to Forum 18. "Its activity has become much more dangerous since the launch of military action by the United States and Great Britain."

CENTRAL ASIA: Only limited censorship of religious websites

Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.

CENTRAL ASIA: Fergana Valley responds to Iraq war

A week-long investigation by Forum 18 News Service across the Fergana valley – the most devoutly Muslim region of Central Asia that straddles Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – has revealed widespread popular hostility to the US war on Iraq, which one local called "a war of civilisations". Yet there was no evidence that this hostility to the war – which enjoys the tacit support of the Uzbek government – will lead to new instability in the Fergana valley. "While the situation will quickly become strained in the rest of the Muslim world, here everything will stay virtually unchanged," a local Muslim leader told Forum 18 in the Kyrgyz town of Osh. Even members of the banned Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir conceded that people are more concerned about surviving in the harsh economic climate than about their fellow-Muslims. "You must understand that our people are asleep," Uzbek Hizb ut-Tahrir members told Forum 18. "Even the co-operation between [Uzbek president]Islam Karimov and the US and the extermination of Iraqi Muslims have not awoken Uzbeks."

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