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Uzbekistan: Towards Religious Freedom

The authorities of Uzbekistan are trying to get rid of the negative image of the country. Uzbekistan is known as a place where the rights and freedoms of religious citizens are systematically violated.

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Madrasah in Tashkent. Photo: CABAR.asia

In 2019, the US State Department returned Uzbekistan to the list of countries violating religious freedoms. Although a year earlier, the agency removed the country from this list for the significant progress made by the country in the field of religious freedom, and placed it on the list of “monitored regions”.

Until 2018, Uzbekistan was on the black list for more than 10 years as a “country of particular concern”. This negatively affected the international image of the republic and influenced the development of cooperation with various structures and companies of the United States.

Ahmed Shahid. Photo: UN.org

At the beginning of the same year, the UN Human Rights Council presented a report based on the results of the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief Ahmed Shahid to Uzbekistan in 2017. In this report he noted that the government continued to restrict the rights of citizens to freely express, manifest and practice their faith and beliefs in private or public form, contrary to the laws of the country and international obligations.

In this regard, the special rapporteur suggested that Uzbekistan needed to implement 12 recommendations aimed at improving the situation in the field of religious freedom in the country. In particular, among those recommendations were the following: to improve the legislative framework by revising the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” of 1998; and to facilitate the process of registration of religious organizations, namely, to reduce the number of founders from 100 to 50 people.

Also it was recommended to amend the criminal and administrative codes relating to religious freedom, to review the overly broad definition of the term “extremism,” to revise cases where individuals can be charged with “religious extremism,” “unconstitutional activity,” or “engaging in illegal religious groupings, ”and to give minors the opportunity to receive religious education.

The document also outlined the implementation mechanisms, the estimated timelines for the events, the responsible authorities and the expected results.

 What has been improved

Parliament of Uzbekistan. Photo: official website of the Parliament of the Republic of Uzbekistan

In May 2018, the country’s parliament approved a joint resolution on the action plan on all 12 recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shahid. Until the end of that year, Uzbekistan worked to fulfil its obligations to ensure freedom of religion and belief.

As a result, approximately half of the recommendations were implemented:

– The government of Uzbekistan has simplified the rules for registering religious organizations and reporting requirements. In particular, registration fees were reduced from 100 minimum monthly wages to 20 – that is, from 18.4 million to 3.6 million sums (about 2,200 to 440 US dollars), and the reporting frequency was reduced from 4 times to 1 time a year. The practice of suspending the activities of a religious organization was also introduced solely at its own discretion or by a court decision;

– Jehovah’s Witnesses reported halving the persecution of their members by law enforcement officials. Throughout the year, they recorded 114 cases of “hostile actions” by the authorities, while in 2017, number of these cases were 240;

Jehovah’s Witnesses Prayer House in Tashkent. Photo: CABAR.asia

– By presidential pardon in 2018, 185 prisoners, who were convicted of participating in movements that the government qualified as extremist, were released. There were 214 people less than the number of people, who were released in 2017. According to official figures, in the places of deprivation of liberty, 1,500 prisoners are serving sentences for participating in terrorist and extremist activities;

– Among those released are two Muslim sisters, Zulkhumor Khamdamova and Mehriniso Khamdamova. They spent more than eight years in prison. They were arrested in 2009 for holding unsanctioned religious gatherings. Sisters were charged with such sections of the criminal code as an attempt to change the constitutional order, possession of materials, which were threatening public safety and order, and participation in religious, extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other prohibited organizations;

– the presidential decree introduced a procedure for filing applications for the release of criminal liability for citizens convicted of participating in banned organizations if they did not undergo military training and did not participate in the financing of terrorism and did not disseminate information calling for terrorism;

– the Advisory Council on Religious Affairs was established at the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), at which 16 religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, can develop recommendations for the Committee on religious freedom;

– for the first time in 8 years in the city of Chirchik, the Presbyterian Church “Light to the World” received state registration;

– the law “On Countering Extremism” was adopted, now it provides clear organizational and legal mechanisms to ensure stability in the republic and to prevent the penetration of extremist and destructive ideas into society. Previously, countering extremism was not regulated by a separate law in the country, and this caused many problems in law enforcement practice;

– the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution submitted by Uzbekistan regarding “education and religious tolerance”, which called on UN members to eliminate intolerance and discrimination and to protect freedom of religion or belief;

– the government continued to provide logistic support, including by organizing charter flights, to Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah, but the pilgrims themselves paid their expenses and, in most cases, the authorities continued to issue permits only to people over 40 years old. During the year, 18 thousand pilgrims were able to go for Umrah, which is 8 thousand more than in 2017. Since September, authorities have lifted all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to go for Umrah;

– in early 2018, the Ministry of Justice registered the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan – the first higher educational institution dedicated to the purely study of Islam. The government sponsored Qur’an and Hadith recitation contests;

– the government continued to finance the Islamic University and ensure the preservation of Islamic historical sites;

– the decree on the demolition of the Buddhist temple in Tashkent, which is the only functioning Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the only legal religious building in the country for a small Buddhist community, mainly the Koreans, was cancelled;

– the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan quashed four decisions of lower courts on imposing fines for possession of biblical literature and electronic versions of the Bible;

– representatives of one of the registered Christian groups and the Baháʼí community reported that children had the opportunity to participate in community-organized religious events, including Sunday school and services, with parental permission. Eyewitnesses continued to report the presence of a large number of children in both places of worship;

– after checking and agreeing with the Committee on Religious Affairs, it is still allowed to publish, import and distribute religious literature to the following groups: Bible Society of Uzbekistan, Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, representative offices of the Russian Orthodox Church, Full Gospel Church, Baptist and Catholic churches.


Members of the USCIRF. Photo: uscirf.gov

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) annually publishes a report on the observance of religious rights of citizens around the world and makes recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and Congress. According to its 2018 Uzbekistan report, in Uzbekistan with the population of 32.6 million people, about 93 percent consider themselves Muslims, four percent are Orthodox, three percent are small religious communities (including followers of the Baháʼí, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaists , Protestants and Catholics, etc.).

View the full version of the USCIRF report on Uzbekistan for 2018

The country has 2,260 registered religious organizations that represent six different faiths. Muslim religious groups run 2052 mosques, four mosques are marked as “Shiite”, 15 research centres and 12 educational institutions. Another 13 new mosques were opened in 2018.

177 non-Muslim religious groups include 36 Orthodox churches, 5 Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, 9 Seventh-day Adventist churches, 3 New Apostolic churches, 2 Lutheran churches, 1 Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1 Church of the Voice of God, 27 churches of Korean protestants, 2 Armenian churches, 8 Jewish communities, 6 centers of the Baháʼí community, 1 Hare Krishna community and 1 Buddhist temple. There is also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

Unlike other countries, the control of religious activities in Uzbekistan is based on security considerations requiring government officials to combat religious extremism and terrorism. Therefore, despite the fact that the country’s constitution guarantees citizens freedom of religion and belief, the report says that at the same time there are limitations “when it is necessary to ensure national security, maintain public order or moral principles of society”.

Uzbekistan sees a threat to national security not only in extremism, but also in a missionary activity and proselytism, which are prohibited by law and are punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 years. Muslims and Christian communities (Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists) are most often faced with repression and careful regulation of their religious activities.

The country’s Criminal Code provides for a strict distinction between “illegal” groups, i.e. unregistered in the Ministry of Justice and “banned”, which are considered extremist. Membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups is a criminal offense. The Criminal Code also provides punishment in the form of imprisonment of up to 20 years for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist or other prohibited organizations.

Any violation of the law is punishable by fines, arrests and imprisonment in accordance with the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, as well as Administrative and Criminal codes.

Moreover, allegations of religious extremism in Uzbekistan are often arbitrary. For example, in February 2018, a trial began against local human rights activist Musadzhon Bobodzhonov, who was charged with extremism in accordance with Article 244 (1) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan “Production, storage, distribution or demonstration of materials containing a threat to public safety and public order”. Police claimed to have found “extremist” materials in Bobodzhonov’s computer.

In an interview with Radio Ozodlik, Bobodzhonov explained that these materials were intended for his work on “conducting research on the negative impact of radical literature” on Islam, and that he had already published a number of books on this topic earlier. In March, he was convicted of “writing, storing, distributing, or displaying materials containing a threat to public order and security” and sentenced to three years probation.

At the end of the year, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued an annual report describing the successes and shortcomings of Uzbekistan in the implementation of the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council.

Uzbeks during prayer. Photo: islamnews.ru

The organization noted that despite positive changes, in 2018 gross violations of religious freedom continued, including against Muslims.

According to the report, about 16 thousand names were removed from the government’s “black list” of alleged religious extremists and 584 people were released according to official figures, but by the end of 2017, thousands remained in custody on charges of religious extremism or for participating in banned religious groupings.

According to various estimates, their total number is from 1.5 to 7 thousand people. According to the information received from human rights groups, many of them have already been behind bars for almost 20 years.

“At the same time, none of the prisoners released during the presidency of the administration of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev did not undergo rehabilitation for the full reintegration into society, the government has not provided former prisoners with the means by which they could seek justice and rehabilitate their names,” noted in the report.

Under the pretext of combating extremism, the authorities regulate the appearance of Muslim believers. This is especially true for women wearing hijabs and men wearing beards.

According to the report, in the fall of 2018, the Ministry of Education issued rules governing the length of hair and clothes, the color of the uniform and type of shoes for all students in public and private schools. Thus, the authorities explicitly prohibited the wearing of any religious symbols, for example, yarmolka and crosses.

In September 2018, there were reports of students who were forced to take off their headscarves in order to enter the building of the recently opened International Islamic Academy. School employees put pressure on students, many of whom preferred to wear wigs and tie scarves around their necks to let them pass. At least four students were expelled from the academy for refusing to take off their hijabs.

In September, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Uzbekistan fired Imam Fazliddin Parpiyev, who worked in Omin’s Tashkent mosque after the incident when Parpiyev deviated from the agreed preaching and made a video message to the president asking him to provide more religious freedom, including lifting the ban on women wearing hijabs and men on beards. In his Friday preaching, Parpiyev also spoke about the right of youth to visit mosques and religious entities.

According to human rights groups, in August and September, police and national security services detained nine bloggers in five regions of the country. Bloggers discussed various religious issues regarding the appearance of Muslims and the right of children to pray in the mosque. Courts sentenced them to fines and imprisonment for up to two weeks.

The Uzbek authorities also regularly identify and suppress the teaching of religious dogmas in private. In accordance with the law, religious education can be carried out only in officially authorized religious educational institutions and only with teachers approved by the state.

According to the Uzbekistan 24 television channel, in the first half of the year, the State Security Service identified 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras), in 2017 Service identified 33 hujras. Authorities raided and closed all establishments, while members of religious communities were fined for “illegal religious education.”

Also, according to the legislation of the country, for the implementation of religious activities and rituals for children under 16 years old, permission from the state is required if there is no permission from the parents.

Human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev said employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored mosque visitors during Friday prayers. According to Ganiyev, the authorities paid special attention to young people and boys under 18 years of age. According to Ganiyev, after their identification, police officers came to their homes, demanding their parents forbid children to go to the mosque.

Discrimination of Christians. The 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations requires religious organizations to register with state bodies and criminalize all unregistered religious activity.

For example, organizing or participating in an illegal religious group is a criminal offense and people can have a penalty of imprisonment up to 5 years or a fine of 4-8 million sums (about 480-960 US dollars). The law also considers illegal to persuade others to join an illegal religious organization with a punishment of imprisonment of up to 3 years.

Small Christian religious groups in Uzbekistan, such as Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are most often considered illegal. Only a few organizations operate in the country. According to their representatives, despite the concessions adopted in 2018: reducing the registration fee of the organization and the number of founders, many registration requirements are still difficult to fulfil.

Failure to register often leads to persecution by authorities. In 2018, law enforcement officials continued to raid meetings of unregistered religious groups, conduct searches, seize prohibited religious literature, and the courts continued to sentence detainees to fines and imprisonment, however, for the first time, some sentences were quashed by higher courts.

According to the unregistered community of evangelical Baptists, in August a court of the city of Chust in the Namangan Region sentenced the pastor and his assistant for “illegal religious activity” to 10 days of administrative arrest. In Navoi in the beginning of the year the police took from school the eight-year-old son of a Baptist for interrogation without informing his parents and in their absence.

Religious groups are prohibited from owning uncensored religious literature. For illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious materials, the administrative liability code provides a fine of 20 to 100 minimum monthly wages – from 3.6 million to 18.4 million sums ($ 440 to 2200) for individuals.

On February 8, Jehovah’s Witnesses, spouses Yevgeny Kupuyev and Nadezhda Kupuyeva were detained by police officers at a bus stop for distributing religious literature in a Parkent district of the Tashkent region. A criminal case was instituted against them under the article “illegal production, storage, import or distribution of religious materials” and, by a court decision, a fine was imposed on 10 minimum monthly wages – 1.8 million sums (220 US dollars).

NGOs and activists report that the Muslim majority sharply criticizes the conversion of their co-religionists to other religions, that is why ethnic Uzbeks, who traditionally confess Islam, are discriminated and persecuted when they changed their religion to Christianity.

In February, law enforcement officials searched and interrogated Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iroda Razikovna. They demanded written explanations of the reasons for rejecting Islam. Also, in February, according to representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, father led his daughter away from a religious meeting in the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik. According to them, father publicly humiliated and beat his daughter, demanding that she had to return home and again to convert to Islam.

According to missionary groups, including communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, and Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, they continue to experience negative public attitudes. According to them, neighbours regularly turn to the internal affairs bodies with complaints about their activities.

Thus, the observance of freedom of religion and religious beliefs of small Christian communities invariably rests in the ban on missionary activity and proselytism.

Therefore, at various venues and levels, US officials urge the Uzbek government to amend legislation on religion to allow members of religious groups to conduct missionary activities; to mitigate group registration requirements; to lift restrictions on the import and to use of religious literature in print and electronic form; to ensure the safety of public debate on religion.

“The country’s new religion policy fully recognizes international standards and treaties, but according to them,“ religious rights are not absolute (…) with regard to state security, public order and moral standards of citizens, ”said on 25th of July, 2018, Minister of Justice of Uzbekistan Ruslanbek Davletov speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on changes in the religious sphere in Uzbekistan.

According to the new legislation being developed, as part of the implementation of 12 UN recommendations, missionary work and proselytism in Uzbekistan will continue to be banned.

“Since such activities lead to disagreements in society that threaten the religious world and arouse enmity between the various faiths of the country,” Davletov emphasized.

In turn, the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, Javlon Vakhabov, at a December event in Washington, said that there are some difficulties in implementing the country’s religious legislation, especially at the regional and local levels, but they come down to a few incidents and are not systematic.

Vakhabov also noted that Uzbekistan is determined to stop raids on unregistered religious organizations, as well as simplify the registration process.

“At present, there are practically no problems in Uzbekistan in the sphere of observing religious rights and freedoms of citizens,” the political scientist Farhod Tolipov, director of the non-governmental scientific and educational institution Bilim Karvoni (Caravan of Knowledge), told CABAR.asia. – Freedom of religion is guaranteed by law and the Constitution. Almost all major world religions operate in the country.”

He added that “Moreover, serious work is underway to rehabilitate prisoners. A good signal for citizens and believers was the return of members of the militant families who had left for Syria before to their homeland”.

Viktor Mikhailov, director of the Center for the Study of Regional Threats, in CABAR.asia’s article on the policy of countering extremism in Uzbekistan, notes that “the liberalization processes that we observe in Uzbekistan over the past few years have also affected the spiritual life of society.”

“During 2017-2018, more than 20 thousand citizens suspected of having ties to religious extremist organizations (REO) were deregistered. In many media, lists of such citizens are called black. At the end of last year, the representative of the country’s ombudsman, Saidbek Azimov, stated that “we no longer have any blacklist. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion”. The liberalization process also directly affected those who were convicted of participating in banned religious-extremist organizations (REO) and who were in places of detention. In 2018 alone, 646 people returned to their families convicted of participating in the activities of prohibited REO. It is also worth mentioning the liquidation of the Zhaslyk colony, known for the harsh and tough conditions for detention of prisoners, many of them were convicted of participating in the banned REO”, he said.

The expert noted that “in recent years, we have ascertained more humane (than before) court decisions when imposing punishments on persons who fell under the influence of radical ideas. If, until 2016, in criminal cases involving the participation of defendants in REO, judges appointed long terms of imprisonment (from 5 to 15 years), now the courts are limited to either suspended sentences or imprisonment up to 5 years. We are also witnessing the release of persons involved in criminal cases participating in illegal REO from the courtroom under the guarantee of the Makhalla Committee, the Youth Union and other public organizations.”

Viktor Mikhailov added “In the past two years, we have seen a significant increase in the number of parishioners attending mosques, for example, Friday prayers. It is natural that society has a craving for spiritual life, because sincere faith in God warns him of many unworthy acts”.

Human rights activists: violation of the rights of believers continues

However, at the end of 2018, the US State Department in its annual ranking returned Uzbekistan to the list of “countries of particular concern”.

Human rights activist Nadezhda Atayeva. Photo: www.rfi.fr

“I do not see fundamental changes. Religious activist Obidkhon-kori Nazarov, who was assassinated in Sweden in 2012, is on the “black list” of the new government of Uzbekistan,” said Nadezhda Ataeva, human rights activist, president of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia.

According to the human rights activist, an analysis of the observations of her Association demonstrates that there are no systemic changes in Uzbekistan that allow civil society representatives to legalize their status and express free opinion without the pressure of special services. She notes that all the processes that the Uzbek authorities declare as reforms and positive changes are in fact a manifestation of a selective approach, and these individual positive cases are used to promote Uzbekistan’s foreign policy.

Atayeva said “Prisoners still remain in places of deprivation of liberty who are isolated from society for persecution for religious reasons, for example, for trying to register a religious organization. This practice continues. Until now, law enforcement officials can unjustifiably accuse any man with a beard of extremism and, on formal grounds, bring to criminal responsibility for an allegedly serious crime. Uzbekistan has not abandoned the practice of compiling lists of Muslims who visit mosques”.

Alisher Ubaidullayev, a civil activist who has been jailed for eight years under article 244 (part 2) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan (creating, leading, participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organizations) holds a similar position.

According to him, thousands of citizens remain in Uzbekistan’s prisons who were not convicted of “religious articles” without reason. However, the cases of such prisoners are not reviewed.

In addition, in March of this year, the regional representative of the NGO (non-governmental non-profit organization) “Ezgulik” Musajon Bobozhonov was sentenced to arrest for 15 days. He was accused of illegally conducting a nikah religious ceremony. According to his colleague, Abdurakhman Tashanov, the persecution of Bobozhonov began after he tried to bring to justice those who wanted to put him in prison two years ago.

Ubaydullayev notes that authorities continue to control the sphere of religious education, discrimination against women in hijabs and men with beards.

“Last year (in 2018), at the “Malika” tech market in Tashkent, police officers selectively detained about 20 men and took them to the department, where they forced them to shave their beards and kept them until they did. Such incidents were in other areas, but after the incident was covered in the media, this practice has stopped so far”, Alisher Ubaidullaev told CABAR.asia.

He believes that such an attitude of the authorities towards believers can contribute to the radicalization of the population.

“People, mainly young people, can start looking for religious knowledge in other sources, for example, from the Internet, and fall under the influence of extremists. After all, any prohibition engenders actions that may subsequently become the cause of extremism”, he added.

What awaits religious citizens tomorrow?

It is not known whether Uzbekistan will remain in the blacklist of “countries of particular concern” in the ranking of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 2020, or whether Uzbekistan will be able to rise again to “monitored regions”, since it is obvious that this depends on many internal and external factors.

Some observers say that most likely Uzbekistan will continue its policy of liberalizing the sphere of human rights and, in particular, the right to freedom of religion and belief. True, in the near future it is not worth waiting for the authorities of the country to have quick and radical reforms in this area.

While international human rights organizations, the governments of some developed democracies, and UN experts demand change, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev carefully weighs the internal and external risks that he will face if he agrees to liberalize the religious rights and freedoms of the country’s citizens.

Another significant factor is the threat on the part of the militants in Afghanistan and the Islamic State terrorist group that has settled on its territory (banned in Uzbekistan and several other countries of the world) – this factor forces the head of Uzbekistan to make decisions and act based on security grounds.

Alexey Malashenko. Photo: CABAR.asia

In an interview with CABAR.asia, Alexey Malashenko, a well-known Russian Islamic scholar and expert on Central Asia, notes that in the sphere of observing religious rights and freedoms in Uzbekistan, “the situation will not change, since the regime, albeit in a somewhat relaxed form, remains authoritarian”.

“On the one hand, the attitude towards the so-called “radical Islam” has become more restrained. Mirziyoyev is less cruel than Karimov. However, the “Islamic dissidents” themselves do not particularly declare themselves. And they don’t pose a big threat to the authorities”, says Malashenko. “On another hand, “Islamic dissidentism” has been existing for many years, and the government will fight it. Local law enforcement officials speak about the threat from the opposition. The main aim for the state and the president is to control religion, track manifestations of dissent”.

In addition, there is the pressure of Moscow, Russia hopes to attract Uzbekistan to the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which already includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This would help to preserve the leading role of Russia in Central Asia. However Moscow is not interested in the development of Western values in Uzbekistan and the rapprochement of Tashkent with Washington.

As president of one of the most populous countries in Central Asia, Mirziyoyev is extremely interested in Western investments, and therefore he is ready to make concessions and to maintain the image of the liberal and the reformer. But not to the end. Therefore, according to human rights defenders, signed in 1998 the tyranny Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations will be softened, but not as much as to change the essence of the problem. This means that believers of a country will continue to experience discrimination and pressure.

“I’m sure that regulation of religion in Karimov’s time will not come back”, Alisher Ubaidullayev believes. – In matters of religious freedom there will be improvements and reliefs, but they will not be cardinal. To adopt cardinal measures, it takes, first of all, time and a strong political will […]. The assistance of the international community, international organizations and the revitalization of civil society are also necessary – then, I hope that many problematic issues will be resolved”.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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