TAJIKISTAN: Demolition of country's only synagogue begins
Between 7 and 20 February, the city authorities demolished the ritual bathhouse, classroom and kosher butchery of the synagogue in Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe. The only functioning synagogue in Tajikistan, it was built by local Jews a century ago. When a congregation member filmed the destruction officials threatened to break his video-camera, a local resident told Forum 18 News Service. The demolition of the synagogue itself – part of city redevelopment plans – is due to be completed in June, though some fear it could happen sooner. "It is a lie to say that the Dushanbe Jews paid for construction of the synagogue," Shamsuddin Nuriddinov of the city's Religious Affairs Department insisted to Forum 18. "So, if the Jews want to have a synagogue, let them pay for it out of their own funds." The Jewish community – mainly made up of Bukharan Jews – is mostly elderly and poor and cannot afford to build a new synagogue.
"Demolition began without an official assessment or notice and comment period," the Dushanbe resident reported. "The mikvah [ritual bathhouse], classroom, and kosher butchery are gone, while the courtyard is being used as a dump for the debris." The resident told Forum 18 that one young congregation member filmed the demolition on a video recorder until city officials threatened to break the camera if he did not stop filming.
The synagogue was earmarked for demolition more than two years ago, under plans for construction of a "Palace of Nations" (the Tajik President's new residence). In May 2003 Dushanbe's Jewish community received an official letter from the authorities ordering them to vacate the synagogue building by July of that year. However, the Jews continued to use their synagogue for worship. Many other buildings in the area have already been knocked down.
Formally, the synagogue belongs to the state, having been nationalised in 1952, its rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 in August 2003. But he believes that "by rights the synagogue ought to belong to the Jews who paid for its construction about 100 years ago". He reported then that the authorities had offered a plot of land some distance from central Dushanbe where the community could build a new synagogue, but with only a small, mainly elderly congregation he said the community could not afford to build a new synagogue (see F18News 28 August 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=129 and 21 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=325).
Tahir Rashidov, deputy head of the Tajik government's Religious Affairs Committee, said he knew nothing about the start of demolition work at the synagogue. "The Jewish community has not made any complaints to us about it," he told Forum 18 from Dushanbe on 21 February. "If they are complaining to foreign journalists instead of contacting us, then one may raise the question of whether the Jewish community should retain its juridical registration."
Shamsuddin Nuriddinov, head of the Religious Affairs Department at the Dushanbe city administration, is equally unsympathetic to the Jews' plight. "This is not the first time that the question of demolishing the synagogue has been exaggerated," he told Forum 18 from Dushanbe on 21 February. "We have set aside land for construction of a synagogue. We have also offered the rabbi, Mikhail Abdurakhmanov, a building to rent where he can hold religious rituals until the new synagogue is built, but he has refused. Mikhail Abdurakhmanov knows that the synagogue has been earmarked for demolition for the past two years, but instead of setting about building a new one, he has simply complained to foreign journalists."
Nuriddinov also stressed that the government has no intention of offering financial compensation for the demolition of the synagogue. "Religion is separate from the state here in Tajikistan. Mosques, churches and other religious buildings are built at the expense of believers."
Nuriddinov claimed that the synagogue building is state property and was offered for use the Jewish community on a temporary basis. "It is a lie to say that the Dushanbe Jews paid for construction of the synagogue," he insisted to Forum 18. "So, if the Jews want to have a synagogue, let them pay for it out of their own funds."
Nevertheless, Forum 18's sources maintain that the Jewish community has documents proving that the Jews did indeed pay for construction of the synagogue. "It's true that Abdurakhmanov turned down some rooms provided by the city administration on a temporary basis for religious rituals," one source admitted to Forum 18. "Most of those attending the synagogue are elderly and very poor, and it is hard for them, both physically and morally, to get to a temporary building provided by the city authorities."
The source pointed to the problems the demolition will produce for the remaining devout Jews in Dushanbe and in the country as a whole. "Leaving aside the legal niceties, one clear fact remains: there is today a real threat that the authorities will destroy the only synagogue left in Tajikistan!"
More coverage of freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Tajikistan is at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=31&results=50
For more background see Forum 18's Tajikistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=190
A printer-friendly map of Tajikistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=tajiki
17 February 2006
The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.
31 October 2005
Tajikistan has banned female schoolchildren from wearing the hijab headscarf and, in a secret unwritten instruction, barred children from visiting mosques in school hours, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Some imams in the capital Dushanbe are, to Forum 18's knowledge, interpreting this as meaning that no children should be allowed into mosques at any time. Education Minister Abdudjabor Rahmonov has claimed that wearing the hijab "is unacceptable in secular schools and violates the constitution and a new law on education," even though the Tajik constitution does not bar wearing the hijab. Rahmonov also claimed that many pupils "spend evenings in mosques and do not do their homework." No-one at the Education Ministry or the state Religious Affairs Committee was prepared to discuss the bans, but one official told Forum 18 that the headscarf ban had not been decided by the Religious Affairs Committee, saying that "this decision was evidently taken right at the top."
15 September 2005
Despite a closure order from the government's religious affairs committee in April, the pastor of a Korean-led Pentecostal church in the northern town of Khujand says her church has been able to resume its activity. "I don't know whether or not our work has been closed down officially," Larisa Kagai told Forum 18 News Service, "but now, thank God, the authorities are not interfering in our activities." She said she had persuaded the committee to overturn its ban after visiting officials there. A committee official denied to Forum 18 recent reports that it had also banned Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses, denials backed up by Baptist and Jehovah's Witness leaders. "So far at least, thank God, we have no problems with the authorities," Oleg Pilkevich of Tajikistan's Baptist Union told Forum 18.