UZBEKISTAN: Catholic Concert First Victim of New Decree?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 March 2001

A concert of Christian music scheduled for October in the Catholic church of the Sacred Heart in the Uzbek capital Tashkent seems to be the first victim of a new decree, apparently issued in February, that bans state educational institutions from having any contact with religious organisations, whether registered or not. Catholic officials told Keston News Service in Tashkent that when the church asked musicians and singers from the city's conservatory to take part again as they had in a concert in mid-February, conservatory teachers told the church regretfully that in the light of the new decree they were unable to do so. The Vatican's nunciature in Tashkent has now asked the Foreign Ministry for their help in facilitating the conservatory's participation, but is still waiting for a response. `We are optimistic they will give permission,' a Catholic priest told Keston.

The Sacred Heart church, whose construction was begun before the communists came to power and which has been rebuilt since it was returned to the community by the Uzbek government in the early 1990s, was consecrated in October last year. Since 1994 the church has hosted twenty concerts of Christian music with the participation of a number of choirs and orchestras.

`At the beginning of March we asked the conservatory to be involved once more, but they told us that a new decree had been issued banning educational institutes from cooperating with religious organisations,' a Catholic official told Keston. `We asked the Committee for Religious Affairs for further information about the decree but they told us they had never heard of it.' The Catholics have still been unable to obtain the text of the decree, apparently Decree No. 206 issued in February.

At the Education Ministry in Tashkent an aide to the minister told Keston by telephone on 23 March that his ministry had not issued such a decree. Keston contacted the Higher Education Ministry the same day, where an official promised to look for the decree and confirm whether his ministry had issued it. Keston is awaiting the response.

The government has imposed a strictly secular model on the country, trying to isolate religious communities from as many aspects of public life as possible. Religious groups - especially non-Muslim communities - have almost no access to the state-run media, are barred from forming political parties and social movements, are in practice barred from selling religious publications openly (except for a few Muslim publications) and schools and colleges are strictly secular. Only clergy of registered communities are allowed to appear in public in `cult garments' and women wearing Islamic hijabs (headscarves) and men with Islamic-looking beards have been expelled from colleges.

The Catholics were surprised something as innocent as students' participation in a concert could be affected by such a decree. `The festival of Christian music is planned with the aim of furthering the spiritual growth of parishioners and all who want to take part in it,' Father Krzysztof Kukulka, the senior priest in the country, told the Foreign Ministry in his 13 March letter on behalf of the nunciature. As of 23 March, he was still awaiting a reply from the ministry. (END)