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TAJIKISTAN: President signs repressive Religion Law

Tajikistan's President, Emomali Rahmon, has signed a repressive new Religion Law, but Presidential Administration officials refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why the Law was signed when it violates the Tajik Constitution and the country's international human rights obligations. Akbar Turajonzoda, a member of Parliament's Upper House and a former Chief Mufti told Forum 18 that "I regret very much that the President signed this Law, which will severely restrict the rights of both Muslims and non-Muslims." He said he is already drafting amendments to the Law, which he hopes to submit to the Lower House of Parliament within the next month. Deputy Culture Minister Mavlon Mukhtarov, who oversees religious affairs in the government, claimed to Forum 18 that: "There are no restrictions on religious activity in the new Law." Asked why the new Law imposes limitations on where and how many mosques may be opened, imposes state censorship of religious literature, and enforces state restrictions and control on religious education, he denied that these restrict religious activity. The Law has been criticised by many, including the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

TAJIKISTAN: "This Law will worsen the situation with religious liberties"

Tajikistan's restrictive new Religion Law, approved by both Houses of Parliament with little debate this month, could go to President Emomali Rahmon for signature within days, Akbar Turajonzoda, an independent member of Parliament's Upper House, told Forum 18 News Service. "This Law contradicts Tajikistan's Constitution and international norms," he insisted. "I voted against." Protestant communities are also concerned, with one pastor telling Forum 18 that "this Law will worsen the situation with religious liberties". The new Law favours the Hanafi school of Islam over other schools, restricts the number of mosques, requires the state to name all imams, restricts religious education, imposes compulsory censorship of religious literature and imposes wide-ranging state control over the activity of all religious associations. Officials reject the possibility of allowing debate on the Law. "We have already had enough public debates," a parliamentary official told Forum 18. "What we need is just to finally adopt it."

TAJIKISTAN: Islamic school of thought banned

Even though a Tajik official has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that adherents of the Salafi school of Islamic thought have committed no crimes, the country's Supreme Court has banned Salafism and the import and distribution of Salafi literature. Saidbeg Mahmadulloev of the state Religious Affairs Committee insisted to Forum 18, however, that Salafis may be "harmful" in future. Tajikistan's Supreme Court – which has refused to release the text of the decision – reportedly imposed the ban to protect the constitutional order, strengthen national security, and prevent conflict between religious confessions, even though restricting freedom of religion or belief for these reasons is impermissible under Tajikistan's international human rights commitments. An Ismaili imam, who did not wish to be identified, told Forum 18 that "Salafis do not constitute any threat for the country. It does not matter whether one is Sunni or Shiite, Ismaili or Salafi, we are all Muslims." Hikmatullo Saifullozoda of the Islamic Revival Party told Forum 18 that he was concerned about the consequences "if the authorities keep repressing people like this and not allow them to peacefully meet and worship." The ban on the Islamic school of thought comes into force on 9 February.

TAJIKISTAN: "No rights to organise prayers"

Tajikistan is continuing to close down places of worship in the capital Dushanbe, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Unregistered mosques have been closed down by city authorities, the country's only Jewish synagogue has been bulldozed, while Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses find it difficult to use their places of worship. Defending the closures, Shamsiddin Nuriddinov of the City Executive Authority told Forum 18 that the mosques they closed were public halls, and people had "no rights to organise prayers" there. Members of Dushanbe's Grace Sunmin Protestant Church told Forum 18 that they may be evicted from their building "within a couple of weeks". The Jehovah's Witnesses and one Protestant organisation are still suspended, under decisions imposed in late 2007. The Tajik parliament is still considering a new draft Religion Law, which would impose sweeping restrictions on freedom of religion or belief.

KYRGYZSTAN: President's signing of restrictive Religion Law condemned

Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has signed the restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Tursunbek Akun, the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that "this Law is not in accord with international human rights standards," as it "imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing." Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova, of the Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection agreed, stating that "the new Law contradicts international human rights standards – and it is not the only Law now being signed that does so," she told Forum 18. She complained that civil society and smaller religious communities had been "left on the sidelines" in the Law's drafting. Also condemning the new Law were religious communities including Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and Hare Krishna devotees. Jens Eschenbaecher, Spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told Forum 18 from Warsaw on 13 January that: "It appears that the law as signed by the President still contains many of the problematic features that were highlighted in the legal opinion which was prepared by the ODIHR and the Venice Commission."

TAJIKISTAN: Restrictive President-backed Religion Law reaches Parliament

Tajik human rights defenders have expressed concern to Forum 18 News Service about a new draft Religion Law. If adopted, it would impose sweeping controls on religious activity and religious associations, particularly on mosques. The draft text has been sent to Parliament by President Emomali Rahmon, and work on it should be completed within a month. Hikmatullo Saifullozoda of the Islamic Revival Party complained to Forum 18 that "the authorities want to control Islam in their own way." Similarly, River of Life Protestant Church complained that many Christians would be placed "outside the framework of the law." Nargis Zokirova of the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law pointed out that all registered religious organisations will have to re-register by 1 July 2009. Those that fail to do this or who no longer meet new more restrictive registration criteria will lose their legal status, she warned. The OSCE Office in Tajikistan told Forum 18 that "the OSCE would thus be happy to review the existing Law and share its expertise with the government of Tajikistan prior to any parliamentary vote."

TAJIKISTAN: Four religious communities reject government claims to OSCE

Tajik official claims to an OSCE human rights conference in Warsaw over four religious communities have been contradicted by those communities. Officials categorically denied that the Jehovah's Witnesses, Ehyo Protestant Church and the Abundant Life Christian Centre had been banned. Yet on 29 September a Dushanbe court reaffirmed the ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses imposed in October 2007. "They are not allowed to function in Tajikistan, period," Nazira Dodkhudoeva of the Culture Ministry's Religious Affairs Department told Forum 18. Ehyo church members said that one year after being "suspended", officials still will not approve new wording of their charter and have told them they cannot function until this is finalised. Abundant Life reluctantly halted all its activity in May, it told Forum 18. The Tajik delegation also claimed to the OSCE conference that an alternative plot of land "has been provided" to Dushanbe's Jewish community in recompense for its synagogue, bulldozed earlier this year. Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov, expressed surprise at the claims. Meanwhile, another Protestant church Grace Sunmin is about to lose its worship building in Dushanbe.

TAJIKISTAN: Confiscation and destruction of religious property "with undue cause"?

Worship for religious communities is becoming more difficult in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Several mosques were demolished in 2007 and a synagogue and a Protestant church were demolished with no compensation in summer 2008 amid city rebuilding plans. Two other Protestant churches and the Jehovah's Witnesses have been banned. Now the High Economic Court ruled on 29 August in the long-running dispute over the property of a further Protestant church, Grace Sunmin. But Judge Zulfiyya Yusupova – who had barred international observers from the courtroom - refused to tell Forum 18 what the decision was. The authorities want to seize the building back, despite the fact that the church bought it legally ten years ago. "For nine years we have been working on this place and renovation still continues," one church member told Forum 18. "But now the authorities think the time has come for them to take a ready building away from us." The OSCE office in Tajikistan is concerned about the confiscations and destruction, especially over the lack of transparency and the failure to ensure adequate compensation. "If the City of Dushanbe truly needs the said compounds for its civic and public plans, it should compensate the said religious groups accordingly," it told Forum 18. "Sheer confiscation and destruction of property, if done outside of national and international laws and with undue cause, would be contrary to the OSCE commitments of Tajikistan."

TAJIKISTAN: Government's Synagogue demolition ends Jewish worship, Protestant church next?

Tajikistan's bulldozing of the country's only synagogue - in the capital Dushanbe - has forced the Jewish community to halt worship and stop its food aid programme. "We do not have a place to hold our worship," Chief Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 News Service. "We also have no place to feed the elderly and the poor." Faced with the authorities' determination to destroy the synagogue, the community requested that they be allowed to dismantle the building themselves. Rabbi Abdurakhmanov commented to Forum 18 that every part of the building is sacred, so "it would be an abomination for the Jewish religion to bulldoze the synagogue." However, "the Chief Engineer came to the site and showed his dissatisfaction with the speed of our work and had the remaining wall bulldozed." Yusuf Salimov of the Tajik Presidential Administration (which the community has tried to get compensation from) claimed to Forum 18 that he is not aware of the problem. "They should complain to the higher courts," he said. When Forum 18 told him that Jewish community leaders were already discouraged from doing so, thinking that the authorities were indifferent to their plight, he responded: "Let them write to us about it." The state's next demolition target, as part of a controversial city reconstruction plan, is the Nani-Hayat (Bread of Life) Protestant Church. Church members told Forum 18 they have been given until early July to vacate the building ahead of demolition.

TAJIKISTAN: When is a "temporary" ban permanent?

Tajikistan in October 2007 "temporarily" suspended two Protestant organisations, Ehyo Church and the Abundant Life Christian Centre, and totally banned the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, there is little sign that officials will lift the suspensions soon, Forum 18 News Service has found. The Jehovah's Witnesses have appealed to the Supreme Court, whose decision is expected in perhaps two months. They particularly object to an "expert opinion" from the Institute of Philosophy and Law. Nazira Dodkhudoeva, of the Culture Ministry's Religious Affairs Department, told Forum 18 "Jehovah's Witnesses are difficult to satisfy." She stated that the Institute's "expert opinion was, of course, that they are a destructive cult." Abundant Life has stopped its activity, complaining to Forum 18 that "we are just tired of the whole process." Dodkhudoeva told Forum 18 that the Ministry will re-register Ehyo Church, but refused to say when. Meanwhile, the authorities have not yet bulldozed the Jewish community's threatened synagogue, and the community has launched a legal appeal.

TAJIKISTAN: Last days for country's only synagogue?

Tajikistan's only synagogue could be bulldozed in days, its Rabbi, Mikhail Abdurakhmanov, has told Forum 18 News Service. The synagogue has long been under threat, supposedly because of reconstruction in the capital Dushanbe, and in February 2006 the authorities began bulldozing it. A court has now ruled that the 350-strong Jewish community must leave their synagogue by Sunday 18 May, when demolition is threatened to resume. The court refused to accept evidence that the synagogue belongs to the Jewish community, and after the case officials told Rabbi Abdurakhmanov that the community could demolish the synagogue itself if it wanted to save the materials. Officials have repeatedly refused to discuss the case with Forum 18, including whether compensation will be given. The church of the Nani-Hayat (Bread of Life) Protestant Church is also threatened, and although compensation has been offered officials refuse to say how much this will be. Several mosques were demolished in Dushanbe in 2007 because they did not have approval from the Justice Ministry, but no mosques have been demolished in the city in 2008.

TAJIKISTAN: Why is a new Religion Law needed?

Today (27 November), 24 religious organisations in Tajikistan have formally complained about the latest draft of a controversial proposed new Religion Law. Despite the proposals for a new Law having been repeatedly strongly criticised by Tajik organisations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Secretary of Tajikistan's Public Council is unable to explain why a new Religion Law is necessary. "Well, look at the new draft and you'll understand it yourself," he told Forum 18 News Service. The 24 religious organisations insist that the draft Law directly or indirectly contradicts not only the Tajik Constitution, but also twelve other laws and legal codes of the country. Viktor Kim, who heads an association of ethnic Korean Tajik citizens, told Forum 18 that "this draft Law needs to be totally discarded and a new one written," he maintained. "So many of the articles in the draft Law are in conflict with the Tajik Constitution. There is no overall logic and concept in the draft, so it makes no sense to adopt it or even work on it."