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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

UZBEKISTAN: Even harsher Religion Law planned?

Uzbekistan appears to be planning changes to its harsh Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. It is unclear how far the process has reached, but, sources in Uzbekistan state that the issue is under discussion in the state Religious Affairs Committee. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from the Committee or from the country's parliament whether a draft Law has already been produced. Nor is it clear how extensive the changes will be to what is already a highly repressive Religion Law. Some religious leaders Forum 18 spoke to have said they know nothing about any plans to amend the Religion Law. Others refused to discuss the issue. Since the current Religion Law and changes to the Criminal and Administrative codes were introduced in 1998, later changes to other laws and regulations have imposed even tighter restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Religious believers of a variety of faiths have pointed out to Forum 18 that many violations of their rights go beyond even the tight restrictions in published laws.

UZBEKISTAN: Severe literature censorship continues

Uzbekistan continues to maintain severe religious literature censorship, Forum 18 News Service notes. Current examples include two shipments of Jehovah's Witness literature – one in transit for Tajikistan and one intended for an Uzbek congregation – which have been held for more than a year. Other religious communities, such as Protestants and Muslims, also experience problems. A Protestant, involved in sending literature requested by Christians in Uzbekistan, told Forum 18 that most shipments never arrived. "This was either through postal inefficiency or because it was rejected at Uzbek customs," the Protestant stated. "So we have given up trying to send literature." Many who would like to receive literature are afraid of the consequences of being identified by the authorities as Christians, from their receiving literature by post. Uzbek officials are reluctant to discuss the issue, but insist that religious material can only be received after specific approval by the state Religious Affairs Committee. Uzbekistan frequently burns religious literature, including the Bible, confiscated from Muslims, Protestants, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses. Even legally imported literature is confiscated in police raids.

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."

TAJIKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses banned

Tajikistan's Jehovah Witnesses have been banned throughout the entire country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Culture Ministry officials handed the community a banning order stripping it of legal status and "just said we were banned and should stop all our activity. They didn't say much," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Commenting on the ban, which Forum 18 has seen, a Culture Ministry official stated that the authorities' main complaint was that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse military service. "There is no alternative service in Tajikistan yet, so everyone ought to obey Tajik laws," he told Forum 18. The official then added that they also propagate their faith in public places, "which directly contradicts the Law". The ban follows a check-up by Prosecutor's Office and Religious Affairs officials on all Tajik religious communities. It is not known if the ban is related to the check-up, which resulted in some mosques being closed. Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against the ban.

UZBEKISTAN: Police still hunt "wanted" Protestant

Uzbekistan is still engaged in a nationwide manhunt for a "wanted" Protestant Christian, Makset Djabbarbergenov, police have told Forum 18 News Service. Asked why Djabbarbergenov is being hunted, a police officer stated that: "He gathers people in his home for religious activity. Let him believe on his own, but this is agitation and he shouldn't do it," the officer complained. "He doesn't have permission. He must have an official religious community to be able to do it." Asked why religious believers are not allowed to practice their faith freely he responded: "That's the law." A "wanted" poster issued nationwide states that "If the whereabouts of M. Djabbarbergenov are established I ask you to detain him and inform our office. We will send an escort immediately." Religious believers continue to be fined for unregistered religious activity, the latest known case being a group of five Seventh-day Adventists fined about two weeks wages for "unlawful" religious activity.

UZBEKISTAN: Police deny knifepoint threat to Protestant

Police officer Djamshid Klychev from Jarkurgan near Termez has denied that a member of the Surkhandarya Protestant Church, who signed a statement accusing his own church leaders, was forced to do so at knifepoint. "What are you talking about?" he told Forum 18 News Service. "You should not mention things like that." Protestants have told Forum 18 that other church members detained when police raided a birthday party on 11 September were beaten in police custody. Klychev accused them of being "traitors" and threatened to break the legs of one if he returned to the town. Asked why the police detained and questioned them, Klychev told Forum 18: "They had a lot of religious books, which is illegal." Meanwhile, Tashkent's Economic Court has annulled the 1999 purchase of a former cinema by the city's Grace Presbyterian Church. "In the acquisition and maintenance of this church property, no laws were violated," church leaders insisted to Forum 18. "It seems as though there are people that desire to take away the property for other reasons and are trying to manufacture reasons to do so." The church also faces a Tax Police investigation and a threat to its legal status, without which it cannot conduct any legal activity.

UZBEKISTAN: No sermons, children or cars at Ramadan night prayers

New instructions have been issued by the state-controlled Muftiate over how the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began in Uzbekistan on 13 September, is to be observed. Imams have been banned from preaching at night prayers, which must end by 10 pm, with the imam confirming this each night to the regional leader, Mukbil Toshotarov reported from Namangan for the website ferghana.ru. Children are banned from attending night prayers. Saidbahrom Gulyamov of the International Department at the Muftiate categorically denied this to Forum 18 News Service, though he conceded that "suggestions" were issued. He declined to discuss who had decided to initiate the instructions. Religious affairs officials in the Fergana Valley – where restrictions are tightest – issued blanket denials of such restrictions to Forum 18. Tashkent-based opposition activist Vasila Inoyatova told Forum 18 the government is behind the instructions. "They fear that religious people will gather at the fast-breaking meal [after sunset]."

UZBEKISTAN: "Legal" repression of Protestants and Muslims continues

As restrictions on Muslim prayers in the month of Ramadan are stepped up, Protestants in Uzbekistan are coming under continued repression Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Amongst the most recent attacks on freedom of thought, conscience and belief are: a suspended jail sentence imposed on Sharofat Allamova after police confiscated Christian literature from her; a Protestant pastor, Pastor Khyn-Mun Kim, being fined about one year's average salary for "illegal" religious activity, as well as a fine being imposed on a colleague, Me Vol Kim; and continuing state efforts to close down the Grace Presbyterian Church and confiscate its building. Twelve Protestants also face charges under the Administrative Code, after they "illegally" met for worship and police confiscated Christian literature from them. Asked by Forum 18 why religious believers face raids and punishment for meeting for worship, Klara Alasheva, Karakalpakstan's First Deputy Justice Minister, completely denied that any religious communities face difficulties.

UZBEKISTAN: Spies and videotape

As well as overtly cracking down on religious activity the authorities do not like, Uzbekistan's National Security Service (NSS) secret police has stepped up its covert surveillance of religious communities in recent years. Members of a variety of religious communities have told Forum 18 News Service of hidden microphones in places of worship, the presence of NSS agents during worship and the recruitment of spies within communities. NSS agents "have a vehicle with tinted windows, and ten minutes before the end of the service they wind down the window enough to allow them to film everyone leaving," one Christian reported. "The NSS especially tries to recruit among the leaders, trying to find out how what's going on within each community, who is going where, how much money each gets, where the community gets its money from," another source told Forum 18. "As in Soviet times the secret police want to know," a third source told Forum 18, "not just to smash religious communities but simply to know." NSS press spokesperson Olimjan Turakulov refused to tell Forum 18 why the NSS spies on religious communities.

UZBEKISTAN: Tashkent church to lose its building – and its legal status?

Eight years after the Grace Presbyterian Church in the capital Tashkent bought a former cinema to use as its church, the city department of the State Property Committee wants to annul the sale, Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service. The case is due to be heard at Tashkent Economic Court on 5 September. On 13 August, "without warning", Justice Ministry officials arrived for a check-up on the church's activity. If "violations" are found, the church could be stripped of legal status and thus the right to conduct any religious activity. The church also faces pressure from local residents. "The aim of the check-up was to strip the church of its registration," one Protestant told Forum 18. "At the moment it is still registered and can still function," a Justice Ministry official told Forum 18. He would not say what prompted the decision to check up on the church. Meanwhile, police have launched a manhunt for Protestant Christian Makset Djabbarbergenov, who went into hiding after a criminal case was launched against him in early August to punish him for his religious activity. If convicted he faces up to six years' imprisonment.

UZBEKISTAN: Five years' imprisonment for hosting worship services?

When seven police officers with a video camera raided his home on Sunday morning, 29 July, Nikolai Zulfikarov was away. But this did not stop prosecutors launching a criminal case to punish him for "illegally" organising a religious community, with a possible sentence of five years' imprisonment. The small Baptist congregation that meets in his home in the eastern Namangan Region refuses on principle to apply for state registration. One local Baptist told Forum 18 News Service that prosecutors wanted to sentence Zulfikarov immediately, but now there is "total silence". He added that "it is not clear if this means they will abandon the attempt or if they are moving stealthily behind the scenes". Other church members were questioned for many hours and at least one was beaten. The church was again raided the following Sunday during its service. Forum 18 was unable to reach lead investigator Abdumalik Motboev. Ikrom Saipov of the government's National Human Rights Centre in Tashkent said he could not comment on cases he was not familiar with but denied that religious freedom is restricted. "We don't repress religious believers because of their faith," he claimed to Forum 18.

UZBEKISTAN: Entire community to be banned?

If, as the Jehovah's Witnesses increasingly fear is likely, the authorities strip the last surviving registered Jehovah's Witness congregation of its legal status, the entire activity by the community in the country will become illegal. "This will return us to how it was in the Soviet period, when we were also banned," one Jehovah's Witness who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18 News Service. He said the congregation in Chirchik near Tashkent received a second letter on 13 August warning that it is violating the law, an accusation it rejects. No official was available to explain to Forum 18 why an entire religious community seems set to become illegal. "If the Soviet authorities were not able to prevent Jehovah's Witnesses from practising their faith, this ban won't stop them either," the Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18. Two Jehovah's Witnesses, Irfon Khamidov and Dilafruz Arziyeva, have already been sentenced this year for "illegally teaching religion". Many more have been fined.