UZBEKISTAN SPECIAL REPORT: Pervasive State Control of Religious Literature.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 27 March 2001

Despite its international human rights commitments to allow the free publication, import and dissemination of religious literature, the Uzbek government continues to obstruct this right for all religious groups, Keston News Service learnt from religious believers of a variety of faiths in a series of interviews in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in mid-March. Government censorship of all religious literature is enshrined in law and is operated through the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA). The authorities frequently obstruct or ban religious literature they dislike. Foreign Islamic literature is treated with great suspicion, as is Uzbek-language literature about faiths other than Islam.

Christians were encouraged when the government granted permission to the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, a broadly-based group affiliated to the United Bible Societies which has official registration, to publish a translation into Uzbek of the Old Testament Book of Proverbs. The translation is to be formally presented in Tashkent's Museum of Applied Arts on 30 March in the presence of government officials, Christian leaders and diplomats. This is the first Bible translation printed in the country in Uzbek, although the Bible Society has imported Uzbek-language New Testaments in the past.

The Bahai community in Tashkent was encouraged when, unsolicited, it received a telephone call from a commercial publisher, seeking to produce books for the community. `Publishers previously refused all religious books,' one Bahai told Keston. `We raised the question orally with the Committee for Religious Affairs in March and they said we could publish our books in Uzbekistan if we or the publishers bring them a copy of the text in advance for approval and a letter asking for permission. They said they would then consider it and if the text was fine they would approve it.' The Bahai added that in addition to books the community would also like to be able to publish regular newsletters and other literature.

Control of religious publishing and import of religious books was handed to the CRA in the wake of the 1998 amendments to the country's religion law. Article 19 of the religion law gave the right to publish, import and distribute religious literature only to registered central religious bodies. Religious groups normally require registered communities in eight of the country's regions to gain this status - and so far only six groups have attained this status (Muslims, Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel Pentecostals, Baptists, Catholics and the Bible Society). No other religious community is therefore allowed to produce, import or distribute any kind of religious literature, nor are commercial firms, individual believers or non-believers.

A survey of the bookstalls on the streets of Tashkent (bookshops have been all but abolished) reveals almost no religious literature on sale. In the old city around the historic mosques and madrassa, cheaply-produced government-approved Islamic pamphlets are available, and occasionally stalls sell Russian-produced Bibles (as well as Russian-produced literature on the paranormal and magic). It is only inside religious premises that literature of other faiths is available, usually in limited quantities. Tashkent's Russian Orthodox Assumption cathedral has two small book and candle stalls, mostly selling literature brought in from Russia, and some other Christian churches also have the limited possibility of buying or borrowing literature.

To grant permission to import or produce any religious publication, the religious centre must hand the CRA a copy of the text with a letter asking for permission and setting out the number of copies the group wants to produce. CRA letters to the customs service approving import requests, seen by Keston, typically say that the CRA `asks you to allow, in accordance with the established procedure and after payment of customs fees, the receipt of [name of book] in [quantity of] copies which have arrived addressed to [name of religious centre]. The given book is purely religious and is not of anti-constitutional and anti-state character. The books will be used solely for internal use. The distribution and sale in public places is banned.'

The CRA often restricts the number of copies of a book a religious community may import. One Hare Krishna devotee told Keston that when the community asked for import permission the CRA asked how many members there were in the Tashkent community. Told there were 150, the CRA said that only that number of books may be imported. `We can only import enough literature for our members and only with CRA permission,' the devotee declared. `Anything more than that and it is regarded as missionary activity, which is banned.'

The language of the literature is also crucial as to whether permission is granted. Yakov Fries, a senior Adventist pastor, told Keston that a number of Adventist books were translated into Uzbek and printed in Russia in 1999. He brought two copies of one book on the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament into the country himself, then took them to the CRA for import approval in May 2000. `The Russian-language version got through the censorship, but the Uzbek version did not,' Fries reported. `They told me they didn't recommend that I brought it into Uzbekistan.' Similar obstructions of Uzbek-language Christian literature imports were reported by other churches. Pavel Peychev, the head of the Baptist Union, agrees that Christian Uzbek-language literature rarely receives permission. `There are no straight refusals, but we are not allowed literature in Uzbek, only in Russian.'

Fries also reported that customs searches at the border often prevent believers bringing in personal copies of religious books. Indeed, when the new law came into force on the day of publication on 15 May 1998, customs officers already knew about it ahead of its official publication in the Uzbek media. `One of our members, Vasili Khrapov, was held up when he arrived by car at the Kazakh/Uzbek border on 14 May and told they couldn't let in any religious literature. It seems the bureaucrats already knew.' It was only after he went to the CRA the following day that Fries was told the full extent of the literature restrictions. Within a few days the CRA had written to the Adventists telling them that as they did not have a registered centre they could not import any literature. Fries took the letter to the customs post, they loaded the literature back into the car and had to drive it back into Kazakhstan.

Religious believers of many faiths, questioned by Keston, agreed that no more than two copies of any one book would make it through customs unscathed in personal luggage, with a ceiling of about 25 books in total. `Twenty books is OK, fifty is a problem,' a Jehovah's Witness representative told Keston. `We can only bring in one copy of any one issue of Watchtower magazine through customs.' The Baptists concur. `If the books are all different, you can generally bring them in,' Peychev told Keston, `but if they are all the same then there are problems.' He reported the case of one church member stopped on the Kazakh/Uzbek border late last year bringing in about 30 Russian-language books. `The books were confiscated at the border, but we managed to get them back. Now no-one is bringing anything in.'

Several religious groups that want to import literature told Keston that they are often unable to afford to do so, as customs fees are high. By the time the CRA has received a copy of each book and has considered it, then sent its approval (if granted) to the customs service at least three or four days have elapsed, during which time customs fees are mounting. Believers report that only small quantities of literature sent by mail get through, with larger quantities requiring clearance from the CRA.

Locally-produced material requires similar approval in advance from the CRA. The Central Asian Muslim Board has several regular publications, the Khidoyat and Good Tidings magazines and Ray of Light newspaper. However, Keston is not aware of any other religious group with a regular newspaper or magazine.

Other communities face problems with books as well. Fries told Keston that the Adventists tried to produce a bilingual Russian/Uzbek children's Bible in 1998. By July of that year, when negotiations with a printer were underway, the printer said permission was now required from the CRA. The printer applied but for one year got no response. `Inflation meanwhile ate up the money we had paid the printer, which was enough for 20,000 copies,' Fries noted. `When permission came through in 1999 we had only enough money for 8,500 copies - and we got permission only to publish in Russian/English, not Russian/Uzbek, despite the fact that Uzbek is the state language.'

Many religious communities told Keston that the difficulties in producing or importing literature mean that the only religious literature they have is material produced or imported before the stringent controls were introduced in 1998. `There is literature in the country but no more is coming in,' Peychev told Keston. `It is all but impossible.'

Because of the difficulties, some religious groups admitted to evading state controls, producing literature without permission - albeit in small quantities.

Believers of many faiths reported that during police and khokimiyat (local administration) raids on both registered and unregistered places of worship and private homes, officials pay close attention to religious literature they discover, confiscating anything that looks remotely `suspicious', especially foreign Islamic literature or Uzbek-language Christian literature.

Groups that try to distribute literature more widely - including the Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna communities - face constant state pressure to restrict such distribution. When a commission from the CRA arrived unannounced at the Hare Krishna temple in Tashkent in February, officials were primarily concerned about what they described as `signals' they had received that members were giving out literature on the streets. `We were warned to stop - and we understood that if we didn't they would close down our temple,' one devotee told Keston. `They said they were not trying to frighten us, just to make sure we were working in accordance with the law.'

The severe restrictions on religious publishing also extend to the media. Reporting of religious events - especially from minority communities - almost never appears on television, radio or the newspapers. `We used to send news material to the papers,' one believer told Keston, `but we gave up as they never reported it or even responded.' Another declared, `When we asked why they never used our material we were told there is a ban.' Religious communities also appear to be subject to a secret ban on paying for advertisements. `When we tried to place paid advertisements advertising our meetings they were refused,' a third believer told Keston. `The newspapers said it was forbidden under censorship regulations.' Media support organisations confirm the restrictions. `There is what is known as "telephone law", that's why such material is never published,' one Tashkent-based organisation told Keston. `It's shadow censorship.'

Control over free speech in the area of religion may also be extended to the internet, where the government requires that all e-mail messages must go through the government internet company Uzpak. Some sources told Keston that powerful computer equipment supplied by the German company Siemens allows the government to search for keywords in e-mails in Uzbek, Russian and English. One Protestant told Keston that messages sent to recipients abroad in Russian containing religious words such as `God', `church' and `pray' were frequently returned undelivered 24 hours later with the message `address error'. However, when the messages were rephrased with neutral terminology replacing the religious words, the messages were sent through with a delay of only four or five hours. However, other believers told Keston that they did not have such problems with messages containing religious terminology. No-one Keston spoke to reported any problems accessing foreign religious websites through Uzpak (Keston is not aware of any locally-based religious websites).

Although the 1998 religion law specifically outlaws literature that incites religious hatred, all religious literature remains subject to stringent control and officials at all levels regard all religious literature as potentially dangerous. Some believers argue that the current law puts the onus on religious denominations to prove ahead of publication or importation that their literature is not `dangerous', `anti-constitutional' or `anti-state', rather than allowing the subsequent prosecution of any literature found to meet these criteria. `Such preemptive control is absurd,' one believer declared.

Some believers have tried to convince the CRA that censorship of religious publications is not only wrong but unworkable. `I tell them that people can read anything they want to on the internet, so there is no point in censoring literature,' one Tashkent clergyman told Keston. `But they just respond that it's the law.'

Almost all religious groups Keston spoke with - including Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, Full Gospel Pentecostals, members of other Protestant Churches, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees and Bahais - wanted controls on bona fide religious publishing lifted and the right to publish literature as they saw fit to meet their needs. Only officially-sanctioned Muslims and Russian Orthodox officials expressed satisfaction at the present level of government control. (END)