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Uzbek Gov. Denies Persecution

By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News

While independent Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses face persecution and members of other religious communities face tight government-imposed restrictions, the Uzbek authorities are stepping up efforts to promote their spurious claims that Uzbekistan has a religiously-tolerant government that respects religious freedom. In an echo of Soviet-era practice – religious leaders have increasingly been brought in by the government to help promote this message.

These efforts come against a backdrop of increasing government control over all aspects of religious life. Among recent developments, the authorities in the Andijan [Andijon] region have instituted a new ban on the Muslim call to prayer from mosques, another court has ordered confiscated Christian literature to be burned and the government’s Religious Affairs Committee has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from importing Bibles.

To help promote the government’s image of a country that respects religious freedom, the results of an opinion poll allegedly carried out across Uzbekistan by the Ijtimoiy Fikr (Social Opinion) centre were widely distributed in the official media on 13 December under the headline “Religious rights in Uzbekistan are respected – poll”. The report was carried by the websites of various Uzbek Embassies, such as those in Germany and Israel . Ijtimoiy Fikr is a government-founded “non-governmental” opinion poll centre in the capital Tashkent led by Rano Ubaidullaeva, a member of the Academy of Sciences .

Close observers of the polling agency’s work over recent years – who asked not to be named – pointed out that the agency is not independent. They report that the alleged results of polls the agency publishes do not always accurately reflect the results the agency gets and on occasion the published “results” – particularly over sensitive issues – have been fabricated.

The alleged results of the opinion poll on religion were released less than two weeks after Uzbek national state television broadcast an anti-Protestant and anti-Jehovah’s Witness program entitled “Hypocrites”. The program accused these groups of promoting drug addiction, turning converts into zombies and wanting to promote fights between people of different faiths.

The program interviewed a Russian Orthodox and a Jewish representative, who both claimed that Uzbekistan guarantees full religious freedom.

The Tashkent-based Armenian priest Fr Gevorg Vardanyan and two ethnic Armenian leaders have also defended the Uzbek government’s record. They described the designation of Uzbekistan by the US State Department in November as a “Country of Particular Concern” for its violations of religious freedom as “an injustice to which we cannot be indifferent”. “To consider Uzbekistan as a state where there are no religious freedoms,” they assert, “is a crude political demarche insulting above all those who avail themselves of these freedoms, the ordinary believers of our country, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or representatives of other faiths.”

The comments by the three Armenians came in their article in the government’s Russian-language paper Narodnoe Slovo on 16 December reporting on a service in Tashkent to commemorate the victims of the 1988 Armenian earthquake. They said nothing about the then very recent imposition of massive fines on six Baptists, and the order by a court that Christian literature, including copies of the Bible, should be burnt.

In her 13 December report of the Ijtimoiy Fikr opinion poll results, Ubaidullaeva claimed on the Ijtimoiy Fikr website that “only” 3.9 percent of respondents had said their religious rights are restricted in Uzbekistan . It claimed that 82 percent had said they are not, while the remaining 14.1 percent were unable to answer.

On the website, Ijtimoiy Fikr gave no information about how many people had been polled, where they lived or how they had been selected to ensure they represented the wider population. Fear of responding on a sensitive issue would also have hindered accurate polling.

However, Marat Hajimuhamedov, who heads the sociological monitoring department at Ijtimoiy Fikr and who was involved in the survey, told Forum

18 that more than 1,700 adults were surveyed in face-to-face interviews across Uzbekistan at the end of November and the beginning of December.

“Everything was done according to international survey standards,” he insisted from Tashkent on 19 December. He said the sample was weighted for age and geographical location.

Hajimuhamedov said that respondents did not give their names but had to give their addresses to allow verification of the results. He insisted that his centre guarantees the secrecy of responses and that respondents would therefore have no reason not to give accurate answers.

He did not explain how this matches the reports of a wide range of respected human rights and media organizations, which point to a pattern of widespread control and repression used by the Uzbek government against its own citizens.

He insisted that the results of the question as to whether respondents are able to practice their faith freely are accurate. “The rights of believers are respected here in Uzbekistan ,” he maintained. “The overwhelming majority of the population – more than 90 percent – will tell you that.” Asked how that accords with religious believers’ experience of police raids, fines, imprisonment and harassment of religious communities, he laughed and declined any comment.

On its website, the polling group also claimed that 22 percent of Muslims have been able to make the haj pilgrimage to Mecca in the fifteen years since Uzbekistan became independent, an unlikely claim given that in recent years the government has allowed only about 4,000 Muslims to conduct the haj each year. For this year’s haj which is about to begin, the Uzbek government has allowed only 5,000 pilgrims to travel compared to Uzbekistan ‘s quota from the Saudi authorities of some 25,000.

However, Hajimuhamedov said that the question – put only to the 90 percent or so of respondents who identified themselves as Muslim – actually asked whether they or members of their immediate family had been on the haj.

He was unable to explain why an inaccurate impression had been given in the website report or how even then such a high percentage could respond positively, given the tight government restrictions on pilgrim numbers.

In what has become customary practice, the widely-distributed report of Ijtimoiy Fikr’s alleged findings and the “Hypocrites” television programs both spoke repeatedly of religious freedom and religious extremism and violence in the same breath, establishing in viewers’ and readers’ minds that religion is a dangerous force that the government is right to control and restrict.

One Tashkent-based Protestant – who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals – regards the “Hypocrites” program as part of an increased anti-Protestant and anti-Jehovah’s Witness campaign that began in 2005.

The Protestant cited the instructions from the Tashkent city mayor’s office in December 2005 to check up on all aspects of religious communities’ life. “Commissions from the architect’s office, fire department and all manner of agencies came to each church,” the Protestant recalled. “Sometimes officials came openly, sometimes secretly.” The Deputy Head of the city administration at that time claimed that “there is no campaign against religious believers.”

Also part of the campaign were orders to heads of schools and institutes in spring 2006 to investigate the religious affiliation and practice of staff and students, a campaign stepped up in the new academic year in September.

Yet again, Uzbekistan repeated its claim that members of religious faiths “freely practice their faith.” Forum 18 has itself been accused of trying “at every opportunity to accuse Uzbekistan without foundation of repressing believers.”

The Protestant said the campaign was stepped up in summer and autumn of this year, with police raids, the closure of churches and the expulsion of foreigners connected with or accused of being connected with religious communities.

The latest foreign humanitarian aid group to be accused of being a front for missionaries is the US-based Northwest Medical Teams International. The government website accused the group on 28 November of tax-evasion and cooperating with aid groups that have been fined or closed down for allegedly proselytizing among the population.

Unlike foreign Muslims, Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses who have faced deportation for working with local religious communities at their invitation, the Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Jewish faiths can use foreign clergy.

Andrei Kuraev, a Moscow-based deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church, says he has faced no problems visiting Uzbekistan twice this year and speaking in churches and the Orthodox seminary in Tashkent , as well as in universities and other institutions. “The only conditions came not from Uzbek officials but from our bishop [Metropolitan Vladimir (Ikim) of Tashkent ], who said I should not use the word ‘mission’ and should not criticise Islam,” he said on 18 December. “I gave all my lectures wearing my vestments. Of course I had to inform the authorities in advance where I was going and what I would say.”

Deacon Kuraev believes it was a “political decision” to allow him to come to Uzbekistan and speak, while Russian, Ukrainian, American and Korean Protestants have been expelled for doing the same. (END)