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Central Asia Govts Begin to Legalize Religious Repression
Igor Rotah

Central Asia (for the fulll report go to TOL) This is the first in a series of articles examining the state of religious liberty in the countries of Central Asia.

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | Suppression of religious activity is nothing new in Central Asia. The region’s post-Soviet authoritarian governments have long sought to manipulate and intimidate believers in ways that would tighten their own grip on power.
But often those methods have been outside the law. Recent years, however, have seen a change in tactics by some governments, which have begun to codify the persecution of the faithful. And the noose seems only to be getting tighter.
Across much of the region, officials link their actions, against Muslims and Christians alike, to the fight against Islamic extremists.
“Unfortunately, the persecution of believers is increasing in all Central Asian countries, with the possible exception of Kyrgyzstan,” according to Felix Corley, an editor at the Forum 18 news service, which tracks religious freedom issues in former communist countries. “Moreover, while authorities before had oppressed believers outside the law, now the Central Asian countries are creating a legal basis for actions against believers.”
This new legalistic approach, Corley said, is significant because it amounts to a government’s official declaration that it will persecute people of faith.

Uzbekistan was the first to go down this road, adopting a law on religion in 1998 that banned the activity of unregistered religious groups. In practice, Uzbek authorities consider even a tea party attended by believers in a private house to be activity by an unregistered religious community. While two members of minority religions, a Protestant pastor and a Jehovah’s Witness, have been sentenced to long prison terms, most are usually fined or detained for several days.
Muslims, however, are treated more severely, often under laws unrelated to religion. Those who worship outside government-approved mosques risk long prison terms on such grounds as undermining the constitutional basis of the Uzbek Republic, organizing a criminal society, or inciting national, racial, or religious hatred.
President Islam Karimov declared in a 1998 radio interview that the new law on religion was necessary because, “Today the main task is a struggle against all activities of Islamic fundamentalism and religious extremism.”
As part of this struggle, Uzbek officials regulate the number of mosques in the country, although there is no law spelling out this authority.
“The first years after perestroika, mosques began to spring up like mushrooms [until] we had several times as many mosques as comprehensive schools. Obviously, we couldn’t allow such a situation. Now, we open mosques according to the real need for mosques by believers,” said Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the government’s religious affairs committee.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 7,000 prisoners of conscience are locked up in Uzbekistan’s prisons. The overwhelming majority are members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Muslim movement that seeks to bring about a worldwide caliphate governed by shariah law, and so-called Wahhabis, adherents of what they consider the Islam practiced during the prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. But according to the human rights group, Uzbekistan’s prisons also hold many Muslims who belong to no organization and whose only crime was to worship in private houses instead of official mosques.
Uzbek law also forbids proselytizing and missionary work. “The Uzbek authorities interpret this term very broadly. So, for example, any philosophical conversation about God can be interpreted as missionary work,” said Bahtier Tuichiev, a Protestant pastor from Andijan.
But authorities say that in cracking down on missionaries, they are only trying to be evenhanded and to deprive Muslim extremists of ammunition in their fight against the government.
“According to Islam, a Muslim who converts to another faith must be executed. Attempts to convert Muslims into other beliefs infuriate the majority of followers of Allah,” one high-ranking official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained. “Being concerned about the threat from Muslim fundamentalists, we are compelled to strictly control a Muslim’s life. If under these conditions we still permitted Christian propaganda, then the citizens of Uzbekistan would see the authorities as enemies of Islam.”
Kazakhstan followed Uzbekistan’s lead in July 2005, when President Nursultan Nazarbaev pushed through amendments to the law on religion, on the grounds of ensuring national security.
As in Uzbekistan, the new measures required religious organizations to register with the state. But unlike in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan stopped short of banning missionary activity, requiring instead that missionaries register.