27 May 2004
It is not yet certain who killed Baptist pastor Sergei Besarab in Isfara, but reliable sources insist to Forum 18 News Service that a previously unknown Islamist group called Bayat was behind it, a group said to be associated with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan's Taliban. The authorities state they have arrested a group of Bayat members for the murder and other crimes, but some local Muslim politicians have denied to Forum 18 that Bayat exists. Echoing a local newspaper attack on Besarab just before his murder, Isfara's mayor, interviewed by Forum 18, attacked Besarab's missionary work, referring to his past criminal convictions and alleging that the killing was solely drug-related. The mayor produced no evidence for his allegations and Tajikistan's Baptist Church has firmly refuted them, pointing to the spiritual rebirth Besarab underwent when he became a Christian in prison, and his subsequent active growth in faith. The man thought to have carried out the murder, Saidullo Madyerov, is the son of the former imam of Isfara's central mosque. Isfara is one of the most devoutly Muslim regions of Tajikistan.
27 May 2004
A Nukus medicine lecturer, Alima Urazova, has searched the accommodation of female Protestant students, confiscated Christian literature, and forced the students to move to university accommodation so as to monitor their religious activities. Referring to the Christian literature, Urazova told the students that "It would be better for you to work as prostitutes than to read those dreadful books." The university rector, Oral Ataniyazova, has admitted to Forum 18 News Service that Urazova had no right to do this, and has claimed that students' religious freedom will in future be respected. But before claiming that religious freedom would be respected, Ataniyazova alleged that the students were exploiting their faith to avoid being expelled, telling Forum 18 that "Protestant students have understood that they have the support of western organisations and have begun to take advantage of this." This is not the first attack on Protestants at the university, and attacks on religious freedom continue elsewhere in Uzbekistan.
17 May 2004
State officials have told local Ahmadis and Forum 18 News Service that a government resolution against "religious extremism", which specifically mentioned the Ahmadis, will not lead to a crackdown on their activity, saying that "if the Ahmadiyya community was included in the list of extremist groups, then that was done purely by mistake." Few in Kyrgyzstan have seen the text, and many are inclined to downplay the significance of it for the Ahmadiyya community. It is believed that the resolution was part of the Kyrgyz reaction to the terrorist attacks in neighbouring Uzbekistan.
13 May 2004
Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, is common in Uzbekistan, and the government uses Sufism in propaganda outside Uzbekistan, especially in the USA, to claim that the state supports Sufism as an alternative to Islamic fundamentalism. The reality is rather different. Although Sufism is not as persecuted as in Soviet times, the NSS secret police keeps a close watch on the movement, and regards a central part of it, the system of "myuridism", or spiritual direction, as a possible terrorist organisation.
11 May 2004
The Uzbek state makes great efforts to control Islam through a network of secondary and higher educational institutes, who educate the state-appointed imams of the country's mosques. Non-state controlled religious education is forbidden. State educational institutions are keen to ensure that students are politically loyal to the President, using means such as asking applicants questions to test their political reliability, as well as maintaining informers amongst the students.
30 April 2004
As part of the worsening anti-Protestant crackdown in north-west Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that a Protestant farmer, Murat Abatov, has been publicly pressured to renounce his faith, with threats to confiscate his land, and schoolteachers have begun bullying his sister Zulfiya, and telling children to avoid her. The authorities seem to have started using the new tactics of trying to turn people against Protestants, so that officials can claim to be doing the people's will, and also summoning individual believers in to the ordinary police, the NSS secret police, and the public prosecutor's office, in order to pressure believers to renounce their faith one by one. Amongst several other incidents, Bakhadyr Prembetov has had his flat in the regional capital Nukus raided by police, and has had threats from the head of the housing block administration that "if the Protestants did not stop visiting me, he would collect signatures from the residents and get me turned out of the apartment."
27 April 2004
The state-approved imam of one of the three registered Shia Muslim mosques has told Forum 18 News Service that Shias "do not have any difficulties with the Uzbek authorities", but many others from the ethnic Iranian Shia minority insist that there are severe difficulties with the authorities. Examples cited to Forum 18 include there being no permitted Shia educational institutions, the impossibility of registering more mosques, and the authorities insistence that Shias must be subject to the Sunni-controlled Muslim Spiritual Administration. The Iranian government has given Uzbek Shias significant help, for example by funding a mosque restoration project. However, because of these links, and the uneasy relations Uzbekistan and Iran have, the National Security Service secret police strictly controls Shia mosques.
26 April 2004
As hundreds of religious communities are denied state registration by bureaucratic obstruction, there are hopes that a court ruling will help force officials to issue documents needed for registration. Without registration, all religious activity is banned, and harsh penalties are imposed for worshipping without registration. On 22 April, the Fergana regional civil court upheld an appeal by local human rights activist Mutobar Tajibayeva against the local administration, which has refused for three years to issue a 'letter of guarantee' needed by a local mosque to get registration. However, the justice administration might still find pretexts to block the registration. Local human rights activists seem intent on using the ruling to help dozens of other Fergana mosques get registration. "We were waiting to see if [human rights activist] Tajibayeva would win her case, and now we are going to lobby for registration in the same way as she did," one activist told Forum 18 News Service.
21 April 2004
Amid a major crackdown, eleven Protestants in Nukus were questioned at the public prosecutor's office and pressured to convert to Islam. They were also threatened with being shot, though the city prosecutor, M. Arzymbetov, subsequently denied this to Forum 18 News Service. The prosecutor also tried to have a Protestant, Iklas Aldungarov, expelled from his university medical course, but the university rector, Oral Ataniyazova, has resisted the pressure. "How and what Aldungarov believes is his own personal business, and we do not have the right to interfere with it," she told Forum 18. She added that a very large number of young people in the region are becoming Christians. "Evidently, the Christian churches have managed to set up a competent, well conceived operation here. I do not think that is a bad thing. Let's see the mosques here work as well as the Christian churches." Pressure on Protestants elsewhere in Uzbekistan is also continuing.
14 April 2004
Even though it has been proved that a Jehovah's Witness was not teaching his faith without registration, and so not breaking the law, an Uzbek criminal court has found him guilty of this, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Uzbekistan bans all religious teaching by unregistered religious organisations or private individuals. The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, along with all other religious groups, continues in Uzbekistan and is compounded by the authorities lack of knowledge of faiths. For example, a deputy public prosecutor has told a Jehovah's Witness that reading their literature causes people either to become a "Wahhabi" (a term widely and loosely used in Central Asia for Islamic extremists), or to become a terrorist. The same prosecutor also claimed that Jehovah's Witnesses hypnotise people.
13 April 2004
After March and April's terrorist bombings that left nearly 50 people dead – blamed by the government on Islamic extremists and linked by some without evidence to Al-Qa'ida - a crackdown on religious believers of all faiths is taking place, Forum 18 News Service has observed. The crackdown's targets include Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and Hare Krishna devotees. A Jehovah's Witness has told Forum 18 that he was interrogated in a police station, told he was a potential terrorist, and threatened by police that "If you do not renounce your ridiculous beliefs, then I will simply plant drugs on you and put you away for a long time!" Most of those summoned for interrogation are devout Muslims and amongst those detained is a leading imam, Rustam Kilichev, who has tried to persuade imprisoned Muslims to renounce the views of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. The NSS secret police have refused to say why he is being held. Police are engineering arrests of religious believers by planting leaflets by Hizb ut-Tahrir, drugs, and weapons on people. Also, police are searching believers' private homes, enquiring about their religious views, confiscating religious literature, and in one case detained 25 Muslim women for 24 hours because they were wearing headscarves.
7 April 2004
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.