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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE CONFERENCE ON DISCRIMINATION – A REGIONAL SURVEY

Ahead of the OSCE Conference on Tolerance and the Fight against Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination on 13-14 September 2004 in Brussels, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org surveys some of the more serious discriminatory actions against religious believers that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration. Forum 18 believes most of the serious problems affecting religious believers in the eastern half of the OSCE region come from government discrimination.

KYRGYZSTAN: Why did government newspaper attack missionaries?

A Kyrgyz government newspaper in the capital, 'Vercherny Bishkek', has greatly exaggerated a minor failure to register with the authorities by Taiwanese and Russian missionaries at an Evangelical Christian Church in the capital Bishkek, and has announced that unspecified "measures" "are now being decided" by the government. Natalya Shadrova, a state religious affairs official, denied the newspaper's claims to Forum 18 News Service and described them as "ill-considered" and creating "a false impression of freedom of conscience in Kyrgyzstan." Her concern was echoed by the church's leader, Sergei Bachkala, who told Forum 18 that "such articles give our church a negative image in the republic." The newspaper denied that the article was published on government instructions, describing it as "restrained" and in neutral tones".

UZBEKISTAN: Another Muslim "extremist" jailed

Khabibulo Khadmarov, a devout Muslim from the Fergana [Farghona] Valley, has been sentenced to six years in jail. The main accusation was that he was a member of Tabligh and that a manuscript found on him contained "extremist" sentiments. However, one human rights activist, Akhmajon Madmarov, described it to Forum 18 News Service as "a standard work of theology". The staff of the local university philosophy department, who analysed the manuscript, were described to Forum 18 by Madmarov as "the same as those who worked there in Soviet times. In other words, the people who are today acting as experts on Islam are the same as those who previously used to demonstrate the harmfulness and anti-scientific nature of religion." Tabligh members in Central Asia insist on their commitment to the group's original avowedly apolitical foundation.

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.

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.

KYRGYZSTAN: Muslims say presence of male obstetrician violates their beliefs

The presence of a male obstetrician in a maternity hospital in Karasu in the southern Osh region has offended the sensibilities of local Muslims. Sadykjan Kamaluddin, head of the Kyrgyzstan International Islamic Centre, told Forum 18 News Service that the town's population is very devout and that Shariah law insists that only in cases of danger can men other than the husband see a woman naked. "This provision is in all the commentaries on Islamic law by learned theologians." Officials admitted there is no legal mechanism for balancing the rights of the employee and religious sensibilities. "To be honest, I simply do not know how to resolve the issue in this particular case," the country's senior religious affairs official told Forum 18.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards Muslims in Central Asia

In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.

KAZAKHSTAN: Mosques resist pressure to join state-recognised central organisation

Ethnic Uzbek Imams leading mosques in southern Kazakhstan have resisted state pressure to come under the 'Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan', Forum 18 News Service has found. Pressure followed a 2002 attempt to change the law on religious associations, which the Constitutional Council ruled contradicted the constitution. Kazakh officials have frequently privately told Forum 18 that the region is the country's "hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism". However, Kyrgyzstan is the only state in Central Asia where Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which seeks to unite Muslims worldwide under the rule of a Caliphate) is not officially banned, and most Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in South Kazakhstan region are ethnic Kazakhs. Commenting on this ethnic difference, a local NGO told Forum 18 that "Uzbeks in Kazakhstan live much better than they do in Uzbekistan," so they "are not interested in seeking open confrontation with the authorities."

KAZAKHSTAN: Religious freedom survey, February 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Kazakhstan, Forum 18 News Service notes that after restrictive amendments to the religion law were thrown out by the Constitutional Council in April 2002, the religious freedom situation has improved. Muslim, Baptist and Jehovah's Witness communities that did not wish to or failed to get registration had been routinely pressured or fined, but this has now stopped. However, an article of the Administrative Offences Code still prescribes punishment for leaders of unregistered religious communities and allows registered religious communities that hold youth meetings to be banned. Some officials – though not all - still maintain to Forum 18 that registration of religious organisations is compulsory.

UZBEKISTAN: Police arrest, insult & threaten to rape female Jehovah's Witnesses

Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards religious minorities in Central Asia

State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

KYRGYZSTAN: Religious freedom survey, January 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan, Forum 18 News Service notes that both registered and unregistered religious communities appear to function freely, despite a 1996 presidential decree requiring religious communities to register. A dispute in 2003 about headscarves worn by Muslim schoolgirls seems to be over, however the closure of six mosques has not been overturned and the official who ordered the closure has not been punished. A Pentecostal Church which faced a massive tax bill and obstruction in registering affiliated congregations hopes that, due to international concern attributed to Forum 18's reporting, a solution will be found. However, due to Muslim anger at conversions from Islam to Christianity, Forum 18 has been told by some that an official campaign against Christian proselytism may soon be launched.