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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

RUSSIA: Division over Hizb ut-Tahrir

In Russia, there is much disagreement over how to respond to Hizb ut-Tahrir, Forum 18 News Service has found. Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned as antisemitic in Germany, and its Danish spokesman was given a suspended jail sentence for distributing racist propaganda. Rejecting democracy and core human rights such as religious freedom and purporting to reject violence, it has made violently antisemitic statements but not publicly called for specific terrorist acts. In Russia, 29 alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been given jail terms, following a Supreme Court decision banning the organisation as terrorist. Some, such as Aleksandr Verkhovsky of the Sova Centre, think that monitoring and targeted prosecution of concrete cases of incitement to violence or hatred would be a more effective response. Mukaddas Bibarsov, co-chairman of Russia's Council of Muftis, told Forum 18 that he had only met three sympathisers, suggesting that, instead of prison terms, the Muslim community should challenge such people, but lamented that "there is no [Muslim] intellectual force to explain that (..) everyone must live by the Constitution here."

TAJIKISTAN: Most repressive religion law in Central Asia drafted

Tajikistan's parliament is to debate a proposed Law on Religion which, if passed, would be the most repressive of all the Central Asian religion laws. The draft was prepared by the state Committee for Religious Affairs. Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jehovah's Witness leaders have all told Forum 18 News Service of their deep concerns over many aspects of the draft Law. Amongst the violations of international human rights standards that the Law proposes are: a ban on unregistered religious activity; the highest threshold in the CIS for numbers of citizens to register a religious community; restricting the numbers of mosques; banning evangelism or proselytism; banning the teaching of religion to all children under 7; state control over who can teach religion within religious communities and their education; state control of organising Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca; and a ban on foreigners – such as Catholic priests – leading religious communities.

UZBEKISTAN: Latest moves against Fergana Valley's Muslims

Two new instructions have been issued which will apply in Uzbekistan's part of the strongly Muslim Fergana Valley, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Unwritten instructions to imams in Namangan have been issued, ordering them not to allow into mosques Muslim men wearing the white prayer caps common in Central Asia. "The authorities view wearing the prayer cap as a sign of religiosity, and want to stop such people having any influence over young people," Tolib Yakubov, head of the Human Rights Organisation of Uzbekistan, told Forum 18. Also, the Rector's Office of Namangan State University has reportedly issued forms requiring those renting rooms to students to confirm that the students are not "extremists," will be kept under "strict control," and will not have contact with "harmful religious tendencies and movements." The Pro-Rector of the University has denied to Forum 18 that such forms have been issued.

UZBEKISTAN: Persecution continues throughout country

Persecution of Protestants continues throughout Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has found. Amongst recent incidents indicated to Forum 18 are the interrogation of a group of 40 Protestants for 18 days, the unlawful imposition of a fine for "security" on one woman, Protestants in a café being ordered by police to state that they were in an unauthorised religious meeting, and nine Pentecostals at a social gathering having permitted religious literature - including copies of the New Testament – confiscated. Fines were also imposed. Iskander Najafov, a Christian lawyer, commented that "I believe it is quite absurd to use the phrase 'unlawful religious activity' of the Syr-Darya Protestants," he told Forum 18. "No-one can prevent people from visiting each other and talking about religious issues!" The head of the Criminal and Administrative Court for Syr-Darya, Akbar Nazimov, was unable to explain to Forum 18 why permitted religious literature was confiscated.

TAJIKISTAN: Madrasa still closed; state registration to be compulsory?

Pulat Nurov, the Islamic affairs specialist of the state Religious Affairs Committee, has told Forum 18 News Service that, in a planned new religion law, "it will clearly be stated that registration of religious organisations is compulsory." If this proves to be the case, Tajikistan will join Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in breaking international human rights obligations by making state registration compulsory. Nurov was speaking to Forum 18 about "inconsistencies" in the current 1994 Religion Law in relation to the continued closure of an Islamic religious school in northern Tajikistan. This madrasa is being barred from operation by the authorities, even though there is no legal basis for the government to do this. Nurov admitted to Forum 18 that registration of the madrasa is not compulsory and that no existing state agency can control the teaching of Islam. "These are the annoying defects of the Religion Law adopted back in 1994," he complained.

KYRGYZSTAN: Intolerance against Christians highlighted by murder

The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.

UZBEKISTAN: Assault arranged by authorities?

A Protestant pastor is convinced that a brutal assault he was subjected to, which left him unconscious and needing a week in hospital, was arranged by the Uzbek authorities. He thinks that this is the reason why the police do not want to open a criminal investigation. "In early January I saw my attackers on the street and now I even know where they live. But the police don't even want to talk to me," Bakhtier Tuichiev told Forum 18 News Service. Separately, sources from across Uzbekistan have told Forum 18 that recently the authorities have closed down many charitable organisations run by Christians. The closures include attempts to close down the charities "voluntarily," using similar tactics as have been ordered against religious communities in the capital, Tashkent. The authorities have refused to discuss either the assault on Pastor Tuichiev or the charity closures with Forum 18, but claim that there have recently been increased complaints about non-Muslim missionaries.

UZBEKISTAN: Massive fine increases introduced

Fines for unregistered and hence illegal religious activity have been massively increased, from 5 to 10 times the minimum wage to 50 to 100 times the minimum wage, Forum 18 News Service has found. Uzbekistan bans all unregistered religious activity and places obstacles in the way of registration attempts, against the international human rights standards the country has freely agreed to. The steep rise in fines was introduced by changes to the Criminal and Administrative Codes brought in last month. So far, religious communities have not experienced any increase in fines but, after the launch of an intense campaign of inspections of religious activity in the capital Tashkent, religious minorities are worried. "Here in Uzbekistan, inspections of activity never happen just like that – generally their aim is to close down churches," a Baptist leader told Forum 18. "We are praying that the current inspections will not result in church closures."

UZBEKISTAN: Latest official harassment of Protestant students

Following the banning of Protestant activity in north-western Uzbekistan, a higher educational institute in the regional capital, Nukus, has resumed its harassment of Protestant students. Four female medical students came close to being expelled from their institute in the regional capital Nukus this month, and were removed from their student residence. However, the rector of the Nukus branch of the Tashkent Paediatric Medical Institute, Oral Ataniyazova, categorically denied that the four students were to be expelled, telling Forum 18 that "the only thing we are concerned about is the students' knowledge, certainly not their religious beliefs." Students at both the medical institute and the Berdah Karakalpak State University have long faced official hostility from university authorities due to their religious beliefs, at times at the behest of the National Security Service secret police. The only Christian activity permitted in the region is at the Russian Orthodox parish in Nukus.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

UZBEKISTAN: Senior Tashkent official denies "campaign" against religious believers

Despite launching a sweeping new crackdown on all aspects of religious life in the capital Tashkent – involving many state agencies checking up on religious leaders, the finances and activity of religious communities and the places where they meet – the Deputy Head of the city administration has vigorously denied that this is anything more than routine. "No special measures are being deployed," Anvar Ahmedov assured Forum 18 News Service. "There is no campaign against religious believers." But religious believers are worried, especially as the measures are also designed to halt all unregistered religious activity (which the authorities regard as illegal) and come on top of already tight controls. Officials "will control everything except our thoughts and our personal life," one Christian told Forum 18 from Tashkent.

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.