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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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UZBEKISTAN: Punished for signing a failed registration application

On 1 June a court in the western town of Navoi found Jehovah's Witness Tatyana Briguntsova guilty of membership of an unregistered religious organisation, solely because she put herself down as a founding member of the community in a failed registration application some years ago. She told Forum 18 News Service that police had never recorded her as attending an unregistered meeting. As unregistered religious activity is illegal in Uzbekistan, in defiance of international agreements, this precedent means that any believer who signs a religious community's registration application that is then rejected could lay themselves open to punishment.

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom, the best counter to religious extremism

Islamic religious extremism in Uzbekistan – which threatens to spread in Central Asia and elsewhere - is largely the result of government repression and lack of democracy, Azerbaijani scholar and translator of the Koran Nariman Gasimoglu, head of the Center for Religion and Democracy http://addm.az.iatp.net/ana.html in Baku and a former Georgetown University (USA) visiting scholar, argues in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. Extremist Islamist groups, like the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party, which do not yet enjoy widespread support, have been strengthened by repression while moderate Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered. The best, if not the only way to counter religious extremism, Gasimoglu maintains, is to open up society to religious freedom for all, democracy, and free discussion – even including Islamist groups. This is the only way, he argues, of depriving Islamic extremism of support by revealing the reality of what extremism in power would mean.

TAJIKISTAN: Why can't women wear the hijab for internal identity photos?

Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.

UZBEKISTAN: Authorities now behaving "as badly as usual" after post-bombing crackdown

Mass arrests of religious believers of all faiths, following the March/April terrorist bombs, have now virtually ceased, and Forum 18 News Service has been told by Protestants, Hare Krishna devotees and Jehovah's Witnesses that the authorities are now behaving "as badly as usual". However, over 100 people are still in custody in southern Uzbekistan, apparently for being "faithful Muslims" and several prominent Muslims appear to have been singled out by the authorities for repression in the crackdown.

TAJIKISTAN: Who murdered Baptist missionary Sergei Besarab?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Will Nukus Medical Institute respect religious freedom or not?

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.

KYRGYZSTAN: Will the government or won't the government target Ahmadis?

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Sufism used for Uzbek propaganda in the USA

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.

UZBEKISTAN: State control of Islamic religious education

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.

UZBEKISTAN: Worsening anti-Protestant crackdown in north-west

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."

UZBEKISTAN: Tight restrictions on Shia Muslim minority

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.

UZBEKISTAN: New hope for religious communities to get state registration?

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.