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TAJIKISTAN: New moves against Muslims in north

Local schoolgirls who refuse to attend lessons without a hijab (Islamic headscarf) risk being denied their school-leavers' certificates (as happened to at least 23 last summer), while four imams were removed from local mosques in late December on government orders, human rights activist Islom Pokosov complained to Forum 18 News Service in Khujand in northern Tajikistan. He said policy towards Muslims in his region had grown harsher in the past six months. Local religious affairs official Abduhakim Sharipov admitted the denial of school-leaver's certificates, but insisted to Forum 18 that children had to abide by school uniform regulations. He said the imams had been sacked for teaching in mosques without a licence from the Muslim Spiritual Administration after the Religious Affairs Committee had discovered these "abuses of authority" during check-ups of the region's mosques. Officially, religious communities are separate from the state, so it remains unclear on what basis the Committee conducted the verification and ordered the imams' removal.

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.

KYRGYZSTAN: Intolerance against Christians highlighted by murder

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.

TAJIKISTAN: Mosque visits and hijabs banned for children

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."

TAJIKISTAN: Banned church once again operating freely

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.

TAJIKISTAN: Why was Protestant church ordered closed?

Officials of the government's religious affairs committee have claimed that the Sonmin Grace church in the northern town of Khujand has been ordered closed for violating the law, but have refused to explain their decision to Forum 18 News Service. Yet committee official Madhakim Pustiev admitted: "The activity of the church had annoyed Muslims and some of them asked for the Khujand church to be closed." Preacher Alisher Haidarov said the church is still open at the moment. "The most absurd thing is that we cannot even understand what specific legal violations we are accused of. Our church has existed in Khujand for 11 years and we have never broken any laws," he told Forum 18. The religion committee chairman has called for local authorities to supervise closely the activities of religious organisations.

UZBEKISTAN: Why does government restrict haj numbers?

It remains unclear why the Uzbek government is limiting the number of adult Muslims who can go on the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca that Islam requires. This year, only 4,200 of the more than 6,000 Uzbek citizens who wanted to make the pilgrimage were permitted to go, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The numbers are controlled under an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, by which the Saudis only issue haj visas to Uzbeks whose names are on a list drawn up by representatives of the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the state-controlled muftiate, or Islamic religious leadership. Uzbek state control is further ensured as, unlike in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where haj pilgrims can travel privately, Uzbek Muslims have to travel to Saudi Arabia by air using only the state-run Uzbek Airways. This cost of these flights is prohibitively expensive for most Uzbeks. The minority Shia Muslim community also experiences problems in making the haj with Sunnis.


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.

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.

TAJIKISTAN: Why can't women wear the hijab for internal identity photos?

Although Tajikistan permits Muslim women to wear the hijab, or head and neck scarf, for international passport photos, it normally does not permit this for internal identity documents. Many Muslims think that it is unacceptable for a woman to be photographed without wearing a hijab, so many Muslim women, especially in very devout Muslim areas, do not have an internal identity document. Pulat Nurov, of the government's committee for religious affairs, has told Forum 18 News Service that this insistence on photographs without hijabs has caused problems, but claims that only a "very small percentage" of Muslim women regard this demand as "unacceptable". He also told Forum 18 that his committee has persuaded the police to make exceptions to the general rule in individual cases.

TAJIKISTAN: Who murdered Baptist missionary Sergei Besarab?

It is not yet certain who killed Baptist pastor Sergei Besarab in Isfara, but reliable sources insist to Forum 18 News Service that a previously unknown Islamist group called Bayat was behind it, a group said to be associated with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan's Taliban. The authorities state they have arrested a group of Bayat members for the murder and other crimes, but some local Muslim politicians have denied to Forum 18 that Bayat exists. Echoing a local newspaper attack on Besarab just before his murder, Isfara's mayor, interviewed by Forum 18, attacked Besarab's missionary work, referring to his past criminal convictions and alleging that the killing was solely drug-related. The mayor produced no evidence for his allegations and Tajikistan's Baptist Church has firmly refuted them, pointing to the spiritual rebirth Besarab underwent when he became a Christian in prison, and his subsequent active growth in faith. The man thought to have carried out the murder, Saidullo Madyerov, is the son of the former imam of Isfara's central mosque. Isfara is one of the most devoutly Muslim regions of Tajikistan.

TAJIKISTAN: Dushanbe Jews ordered to vacate synagogue by July

As the city authorities in the capital Dushanbe order the local Jewish community to vacate their century-old synagogue by July to clear the site for a new presidential palace, the synagogue's rabbi has pleaded to allow it to remain. "The authorities could meet the Jews half-way and not demolish Tajikistan's only synagogue," Mikhail Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 News Service. He stressed that the synagogue had been built by believers and that today's remaining Jewish community is too small and poor to rent a new building or build another synagogue. The city's senior religious affairs official told Forum 18 the synagogue is of "no historic value" and that there was no way it could be included in the reconstruction plan "because it would spoil the entire layout of the complex".