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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
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UZBEKISTAN: Why does government restrict haj numbers?

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.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Quite enough missionaries" in the south?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Latest student expulsion in anti-Christian campaign

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.

KAZAKHSTAN: Who ordered imam attestations?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Why were some Tabligh members given lesser jail terms than others?

Six month jail sentences imposed on Muslim Tabligh members were less then the five year jail terms imposed on group members earlier in the year by the same judge, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. This is possibly, a local human rights activist suggested to Forum 18, as a result of the court being visited the previous day by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. The Tabligh Jama'at movement has been, outside of Uzbekistan, linked with radical Islamists and with Al-Qaeda. But local Uzbek Tabligh members told Forum 18 that the Tabligh emphatically distances itself from politics and is entirely focused on religious missionary work, insisting that they had heard nothing about military training in some foreign affiliates. The Uzbek authorities are highly suspicious of Islamic religious movements and frequently seek to obstruct their activity. However, Tabligh members told Forum 18 that they can freely operate in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. A Kyrgyz government official agreed with this, but told Forum 18 that "so far at least, its activity in the country is minimal."

UZBEKISTAN: Varying availability of adult religious education

The availability of religious education for Uzbek religious believers varies greatly from faith to faith, Forum 18 news Service has found. For Sunni Islam, the majority faith, religious education is available, but on a very small and highly regulated scale, compared to the numbers of adherents in the country. Shia Islamic education is restricted by the authorities' unwillingness to formally recognise the training of imams outside the country – and no education for Shia imams is available inside the country. Non-Muslim religious communities generally have more opportunities to acquire religious education in their own faith. Orthodox Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishna devotees have all told Forum 18 that the authorities do not prevent them from setting up courses on religious subjects, and Catholics and Lutherans do not yet want to set up such courses. But the authorities have not allowed the Jewish community to set up a rabbinnate, and hence a yeshiva to train rabbis.

TURKMENISTAN: Why did Turkmenistan lie to the UN?

In a failed bid to head off a United Nations (UN) resolution, sponsored by the European Union and the USA, and supported by Brazil, expressing grave concern at Turkmenistan's human rights record, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov has falsely claimed that there were "no cases of arrest or conviction on political grounds or for religious beliefs". Three religious prisoners are known to Forum 18 News Service to be held, and arrests continue to be made. On the day of the debate he claimed that there was "no truth to the allegations of limits on the rights to belief, conscience or religion," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the UN's two previous resolutions critical of the country's human rights record. Turkmen officials and President Niyazov have a record of making such false claims, but the country's diplomats have refused to discuss the issue of false claims with Forum 18. Countries speaking in support of Turkmenistan in the debate were Algeria, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

UZBEKISTAN: Criminal prosecutions and threats "just a coincidence"?

An unusual surge of criminal prosecutions of religious minorities – Pentecostal Christians including one punished with a massive fine, and a Jehovah's Witness – and threats of criminal charges against a Baptist Pastor is, the head of the state committee for religious affairs has told Forum 18 News Service, "just a coincidence." The "crime" of the Jehovah's Witness, Dilshod Akhmedov, was to give a copy of The Watchtower to a passer-by on a Tashkent street. Literature, including an Uzbek Bible, confiscated from Pentecostal Bakhrom Nazarov was burnt by the authorities. Baptist Pastor Nikolai Shevchenko suggested to Forum 18 that, as this took place at the same time as an official US delegation was visiting, the government is trying to "demonstrate that it is not afraid of pressure from the international community and that it does not intend to observe international standards on the rights of believers." The last known criminal prosecution of a religious minority member was in 2002.

UZBEKISTAN: Are human rights activists agents-provocateurs?

Edgar Turulbekov, a Muslim human rights activist, has been jailed for organising a demonstration in front of a court in support of imam Rustam Klichev, sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment, and other Muslim prisoners. Another Muslim human rights activist, Tulkin Karayev, has told Forum 18 News Service that he too fears arrest. Local police chief Colonel Safar Sarmonov told Forum 18 that Turulbekov and Karayev are "blackmailers". "I do not believe these people are human rights activists," Sarmonov said, telling Forum 18 that "they are simply agents-provocateurs who push people into illegal activities instead of helping them." Members of Uzbekistan's minority faiths - such as Protestants or Jehovah's Witnesses - have generally not engaged in street demonstrations when their fellow-believers have been detained, beaten or imprisoned. However, lawyers who have defended their rights in court have faced harassment.

UZBEKISTAN: Imam and congregation jailed for being Muslims

The imam of a mosque in southern Uzbekistan, Rustam Klichev, has been sent to jail for 14 years, and 16 of the same mosque's congregation have been given similar long jail sentences. Even though the accused were sentenced on terrorism charges, "the judge, Homid Babakulov, simply asked the accused how they observed religious rituals, and what precisely my son had told them about the teachings of Islam," Forum 18 News Service was told by the imam's mother. The imam's wife insisted to Forum 18 in May that, when he was arrested, the NSS secret police planted a leaflet claimed to have been issued by an alleged radical Islamic organisation. The imam has great authority amongst Muslims in the region, which is thought to be the reason for his trial. The head of the government's committee for religious affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, told Forum 18 that he knew nothing about the case and therefore could not make any comment.

UZBEKISTAN: Former chief mufti calls for lifting of restrictions on Islam

Uzbekistan's former chief mufti, Muhammad Yusuf, has called for restrictions on Islam in the country to be lifted. He is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative Muslim theologians of Central Asia, and has a freedom unique in Uzbekistan to publish his views in books, on a website, and via a private radio station. Such media outlets are tightly controlled in Uzbekistan, so such freedom is highly unusual, especially as Muhammad Yusuf is seen as being distant from the authorities. Speaking of the state of religious freedom, he told Forum 18 News Service that "Unfortunately, I can't say the situation is satisfactory." Muhumad Yusuf was in exile from 1993 to late in 2000, but told Forum 18 that "Uzbek theologians began to persuade Islam Karimov that, without my help, it would be hard for him to ensure stability in the republic." He is critical of the authorities' approach to radical Islamic movements, but did not discuss the tight restrictions imposed on the ethnic Iranian Shia Muslim minority, or the lack of religious freedom for non-Muslims.

UZBEKISTAN: Government defies international human rights pressure

At the same time that Uzbekistan was being visited by a delegation from the official US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the police and NSS security police suddenly raided a worship service in a Baptist church which they have ignored for the past three years, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Pastor, Nikolai Shevchenko, was fined and warned that, if he did not halt the activity of the church, criminal charges would be brought against him. The church's repeated attempts to gain state registration have been frustrated by the authorities, and Pastor Shevchenko suggested to Forum 18 that the raid "can scarcely be a coincidence. Tashkent is using this to try and demonstrate that it is not afraid of pressure from the international community and that it does not intend to observe international standards on the rights of believers."