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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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KYRGYZSTAN: President's signing of restrictive Religion Law condemned

Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has signed the restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Tursunbek Akun, the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that "this Law is not in accord with international human rights standards," as it "imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing." Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova, of the Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection agreed, stating that "the new Law contradicts international human rights standards – and it is not the only Law now being signed that does so," she told Forum 18. She complained that civil society and smaller religious communities had been "left on the sidelines" in the Law's drafting. Also condemning the new Law were religious communities including Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and Hare Krishna devotees. Jens Eschenbaecher, Spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told Forum 18 from Warsaw on 13 January that: "It appears that the law as signed by the President still contains many of the problematic features that were highlighted in the legal opinion which was prepared by the ODIHR and the Venice Commission."

KYRGYZSTAN: Restrictive Religion Law passes Parliament unanimously

Kyrgyzstan's proposed new Religion Law has been adopted unanimously by the country's parliament today (6 November), Forum 18 News Service has found. The Law will go to President Kurmanbek Bakiev around 15 November, who then has at least a month to sign it or return it to Parliament. The Law as passed states that 200 people will be needed to register a religious organisation, contrary to assurances that Deputy Zainiddin Kurmanov, the main author of the Law, gave a visiting delegation from the European Parliament. Deputies significantly harshened this part of the Law, by voting unanimously that the identity of all 200 founders must now also be confirmed by local keneshes (elected local administrations). "How can we gather 200 people to sign official papers for the State Agency for Religious Affairs, and then get them to go to local keneshes with their passports to be identified?" the Baha'i community complained. "People are usually reserved about signing official papers." Christian leaders are also very concerned about the new Law. No changes were made to bring the Law into line with either Kyrgyzstan's international human rights commitments, or the Kyrgyz Constitution.

KYRGYZSTAN: Restrictive Law due for final parliamentary vote on Thursday

Kyrgyzstan's restrictive new Religion Law is due to be voted on for the second and final time tomorrow (6 November), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. If the draft Law – whose exact text is unavailable for public discussion - is passed, it will go to President Kurmanbek Bakiev for signature. One human rights defender pointed out that, as the draft Law openly breaks the Kyrgyz Constitution, this would be a very strong ground for the Law to be turned down. Provisions that have caused concern to religious communities and human rights defenders include: a ban on children being involved in religious organisations; a ban on "aggressive action aimed at proselytism"; a ban on the distribution of religious literature, print, audio-video religious materials; and de facto compulsory re-registration of all registered religious organisations. Representatives of various religious communities have complained to Forum 18 about both numerous provisions and the secrecy surrounding the whole legislative process. The Law breaks Kyrgyzstan's international human rights commitments and has been strongly criticised by an OSCE / Venice Commission legislative review.

KYRGYZSTAN: Secrecy surrounds Religion Law before final parliamentary reading

Kyrgyzstan's Parliament has passed without discussion the first reading of a restrictive draft Religion Law, which may, according to some, pass its final reading on 21 October. However, others have told Forum 18 News Service that the second and final reading will be later. It is unclear what is in the current text, as officials refuse to release the latest version. Deputy Zainidin Kurmanov told Forum 18 that the latest text is on the parliamentary website, but other deputies state that they do not know what is in the draft Law. Kurmanov revealed that the draft Law includes: a ban on unregistered religious activity; a threshold of 200 adult citizens to gain state registration; a ban on "proselytism"; a definition of a "sect"; and a ban on the free distribution of literature. Kurmanov claimed he did not understand objections as "only criminals should be afraid of law and order." Protestant, Jehovah's Witness and Baha'i religious minorities have all expressed concern at the secrecy surrounding the Law, the lack of public consultation, and the restrictions thought to be in the first reading text. A joint Venice Commission / OSCE legal review of a July text of the Law is also highly critical of it. Officials claim to be organising a roundtable, but religious communities say they have not been invited to it.

KYRGYZSTAN: Restrictive proposed new Religion Law to parliament this month

Kyrgyzstan's proposed new Religion Law – which ruling party deputies say will make it more difficult for religious communities to gain legal status and for people to share their faith – is set to reach the full Parliament in the second half of October, Kanybek Osmonaliev, Chair of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 News Service. "There are many inadequacies in the current law," a parliamentary press officer told Forum 18. "Religious organisations function freely without any control. This law will bring control." Osmonaliev has expressed concern over the "abnormality" of a rising number of people changing faith, especially young ethnic Kyrgyz joining Christian churches. He complained of "illegal" activity by "various destructive, totalitarian groups and reactionary sects", among whom he included the Hare Krishna and Mormon communities. Fr Igor Dronov of the Russian Orthodox Church told Forum 18 of his support for the proposed new Law. "The earlier Law was too liberal and led to the spiritual destruction of the country. Thank God the state is starting to act."

UZBEKISTAN: Legal status denials and unregistered activity fines continue

A Protestant church in Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent has been denied legal status four times in the last 10 months, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The latest registration denial to Eskhol Full Gospel Church comes after an appeal against fines, imposed after a police and NSS secret police raid, was refused. The city Justice Department stated that the two "letters of guarantee", or permission to function in a geographic area, required from the Hokimat (local administration) and from the Mahalla (residential district) Committee did not meet official requirements. To gain state registration, religious organisations must submit two letters of guarantee: one from the district Hokimat, confirming that the organisation to be registered has a building which corresponds to public health and fire safety requirements; and one from the mahalla committee, stating that other mahalla residents do not object to the organisation. Fines for unregistered religious activity – some of them exorbitantly large for a very poor country – continue to be imposed nationwide. Officials have refused to talk to Forum 18 about the denial of legal status and fines for unregistered activity.

KYRGYZSTAN: Where can the dead be buried?

Kyrgyz Protestants, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have complained to Forum 18 News Service that the problem of burying deceased members of their communities is unresolved, especially in rural areas. Local administrations, local people and Muslim leaders often oppose the burial of non-Muslims or insist that they be buried according to Islamic rituals. Attempts to discuss the issue – including a meeting at the State Agency for Religious Affairs - have not led to a solution. Alisher Sobirov, the chair of Parliament's standing Commission on Religion, told Forum 18 that "no one outside the local administrations - including the Muftiate - has the right to make decisions on cemeteries." Asked what should be done, Sobirov claimed that it was not within Parliament's power to address burial issues. Asan Saipov of the Muftiate told Forum 18 that they had decided "not to allow the burial of non-Muslims in Muslim cemeteries" - even though these are run by local authorities and are usually the only local cemeteries. He insisted that villagers made the right decision in stopping the family of a 14 year old Baptist from burying him.

KYRGYZSTAN: Confidential files, "illegal" worship and expulsion

Demands by Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (NSS) secret police to see confidential files on individual students at Bishkek's Protestant United Theological Seminary seem to have been the catalyst for the expulsion in June of its rector, New Zealander Edward Sands. "I have always regarded these as confidential and told them that," Sands told Forum 18 News Service. "But they were very angry." The NSS also objected that two Protestant churches used the seminary buildings for worship without permission. It accused Pastor Alastair Morrice of the International Church, who has now left Kyrgyzstan, of violating the Religion Law. Bakit Osmanov, the NSS officer who handles religious affairs, refused to talk to Forum 18 about the expulsion or why his agency was demanding to see confidential student files. The Islamic University insists it functions freely, but told Forum 18 it has to inform the Muftiate, the State Agency for Religious Affairs and the district police about who is studying there.

KYRGYZSTAN: Mob, police and administration chief obstruct Christian boy's burial

After the death of a 14-year-old Baptist in Kulanak in central Kyrgyzstan, the local imam and a village mob prevented his burial in the village, even in land allocated two years earlier for Christian burials, local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service. A mob, some of them drunk, threatened the Isakov family and the police did nothing to protect them. Instead the police forced their way into the house, stole the body and buried it 40 kms (25 miles) away "in a disrespectful manner", Baptists complained to Forum 18. Talay Jakypov of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Naryn Region told Forum 18 the decision not to allow the burial in the village came in writing from the district authorities. However, a spokeswoman for the Regional Administration denied this to Forum 18, saying "the whole village" was against the burial. "We need a stronger law putting a constraint on all kinds of religious sects. Only then would we not have such problems," she added. Raya Kadyrova of the Foundation for Tolerance International says this is the latest of many such cases. She told Forum 18 the young boy's right to choose his faith must be respected. "In this case the state institutions decided that their decision is more correct – this is absolutely wrong."

KYRGYZSTAN: Repressive Decree withdrawn, but work on new Religion Law speeded up

The Presidential Administration has rejected for now a harsh new Decree which would have brought in sweeping controls on religious activity. But Kanat Murzakhalilov, Deputy Head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 News Service that his agency hopes to present a final draft of a controversial new Religion Law to the government by the end of March. He refused to say if the draft will require 200 adult citizen members before a community can gain legal status, a provision in the latest publicly-available draft which is opposed by the Russian Orthodox, the Catholics, many Protestant Churches, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Baha'is. But he stated that registration will continue to be compulsory. Boris Shumkov of the Council of Churches Baptists told Forum 18 that such harsh provisions "would lead to repression and persecution of our congregations". They have named 5 March a day of prayer and fasting. "Our country has so many urgent problems – poverty, the lack of medicine, Aids, crime, corruption," one Baha'i told Forum 18. "Why don't officials work on these instead of making life harder for religious believers?"

KYRGYZSTAN: Will new Presidential Decree ban small religious communities?

A planned Presidential Decree could ban many of Kyrgyzstan's small religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Regulations attached to the Decree – if adopted – insist that religious communities must gain registration with the State Agency for Religious Affairs and must have 200 adult citizen members. "A provision for 200 founders would be bad, even for the Orthodox and the Muslims," Fr Igor Dronov of the Russian Orthodox Church told Forum 18. Amongst other provisions which break international human rights standards are that "universities, institutes, madrassas, seminaries, parish and Sunday schools etc." must gain official registration. "The first anyone knew about it outside a narrow circle," one source told Forum 18, was "on 11 January. And it could be adopted very quickly." Other sources state that the Justice Ministry has already approved the Decree. Officials have either denied that the Decree exists or downplayed its importance to Forum 18. The Deputy Head of the State Agency was not able to state which specific part of the current legal framework required change. Protestant churches have organised a roundtable on 1 February, which will be attended by the State Agency, Catholic Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."