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A Special Report by ICC
03/13/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern)-With disturbing reports of persecution against Christians trickling out of a region that appears to exist in the shadows, religious freedom in Central Asia remains a matter of grave concern for the rest of the world.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are most notorious among the five Central Asian countries – others being Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan – for taking extreme measures against any religious activity and abusing the law to carry out acts of persecution against Christians.
This January, police in Uzbekistan conducted two unauthorized raids on the home of a Protestant Christian, Sharofat Allamova. After the first raid, the police confiscated Christian material from her home and detained her for 11 hours, subjecting her to psychological pressure and threats of being arrested. She is now facing criminal prosecution for violating Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code Article 244-3, which bans the “illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious literature.” The charges against her carry a fine up to 200 times the monthly wage or a prison term of up to three years.
According to The Christian Monitor, in ethnic Uzbek villages in Kyrgyzstan, “…lynch mobs have attempted to attack Muslims who have become Christians, while in Tajikistan one Christian missionary has been murdered and on occasion Christian churches whose pastors have conducted active missionary work among Muslims have been attacked.”
Tajikistan recently added administrative reforms which led to severe restrictions on religious activity in the country and possible abuses of the law in the name of combating terrorism. It’s a disguised strategy, widely employed in the region, to suffocate religious activity in the name of a war against Islamist extremism. While the terror threat is believable, reports suggest that the real war is against all religion and the real targets of the oppressive arm of the law are Christians and other religious minorities.
Recently, Kazakhstan tightened its own laws, citing the same reason and reaping the same results. More laws to protect against extremism lead to less religious freedom and more legalized persecution of Christians. But that is the agenda – to snuff out religion and stamp out any threat to political stability, even if it is unwarranted.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been named on a list of 14 Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, emphasizing that since independence and limited reforms undertaken by regimes since 1991, governments have systematically and egregiously violated freedom of religion or belief.
Tajikistan is in the watch list, while Kazakhstan is in the list of additional countries closely monitored. The situation with religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan is not mentioned at all, probably as there is no visible violation on a state level as in other neighboring countries.
In some of Central Asian countries, religion laws are written and used to govern every minute detail of religious activity. But since they are worded in ambiguous ways, it allows authorities to manipulate the meaning to find practically anyone guilty of “breaking the religion law.” As a result, Christians are often subject to bureaucratic harassment, confiscation of Christian literature, unauthorized raids, inflated fines, prolonged detainments, arrests without trial, threats against conversion, social excommunication and attacks against those who convert to Christianity, as well as severe restrictions on training, learning and equipping oneself with theological education.
The irony is that when people are suspected of violating the restrictions, the police and courts conspire together to conduct unauthorized raids, illegal detainments and unconstitutional arrests, denying the accused a fair trial and flouting the due legal process.
The trouble is that acts of persecution in the region are often carried out without any fear of state reprisal. The rule of law is weakened by a diseased judicial system and the lack of any real incentive to protect the freedom of Christians and other religious minorities. They simply think they don’t have anything to gain from giving people more religious freedom.
Authoritarian regimes of Central Asia tell their own people that restrictions are needed for the stability and security of their nations, and seek to evade international pressure by claiming that heavy-handed regulation is required to check growth of terrorism.
The international community is uniquely placed to change this perception by creating undesirable consequences for permitting persecution and cultivating an environment of economic incentives that encourage the protection of religious freedom. If their trade partners, particularly the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union, ordered their relationships with Central Asian nations around their human rights records, the economic factor could be a firm deterrent against Christian persecution and an effective incentive for a much needed increase in religious freedom in the region.