by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 7 September 2001

Uzbekistan's laws regulating the activity of religious associations are being used as a mechanism to control the activities of religious believers and even as a means of persecuting them. The fundamental document defining believers' rights is the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations, passed on 1 May 1998, a number of whose articles restrict such rights.

Article 3, 'The right to freedom of conscience', includes a provision that 'the enticement of minors into religious organisations is not permitted, nor are they to be given religious instruction against their will or the will of their parents or guardians'.

In practice, on the basis of this article the authorities forbid religious instruction of children in places of worship. 'When we want to start Sunday schools, the authorities declare that we are enticing minors into religious organisations, which is forbidden by law,' the chairman of the Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, Pavel Peychev, told Keston on 22 August. 'We argue against this, that the same article of the law states that it is only forbidden to give religious instruction to children "against their will or the will of their parents or guardians". In our case, both the children and their parents have agreed to religious instruction. However, they reply to us that this legal point does not apply to us, but that the legal clauses forbidding the enticement of minors into religious organisations are all they need to prohibit Sunday schools.'

Article 5, 'Separation of religion from the state', prohibits activities intended to convert believers of one faith to another (proselytism), as well as any other missionary activity. In practice, this article has led to a complete ban on religious believers' preaching in public, a ban that violates the basic concept of freedom of speech in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 5 also states that 'the establishment or continued activity of any political party on a religious basis is forbidden, as are branches of such parties established outside the republic'. This provision allowed Tashkent to initiate a powerful campaign of repression against underground Islamic parties operating in the country, including the international Islamic movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Uzbekistan. As Talib Yakubov, chairman of the unregistered Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, told Keston on 23 August, there are at present about 10,000 political prisoners in Uzbekistan, the majority of whom are accused of being members of various Islamic parties.

Tashkent has other means sanctioned by law of repressing religious believers it considers undesirable. For example, the Criminal Code was amended to forbid the use of religion for the purpose of infringing civil agreements, disseminating libellous fabrications that destabilise the constitutional order and carrying out actions that promote disorder in society and are contrary to public safety - provisions open to wide interpretation. Violations of offences laid down in this amendment are penalised by terms of imprisonment of up to five years.

On registration, Article 10 of the religion law, 'Religious organisations', states that 'religious organisations acquire the status of juridical persons and can carry out their activities after being registered at the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan or its local branches, in the manner laid down by law'. It is probably this article that creates most difficulties for religious believers. If believers assemble in unregistered places of worship, the authorities regard this as a violation of the law and take punitive action against the believers, to the point of instituting criminal proceedings against them (see KNS 23 August 2001 on the Baptist Bethany congregation in Tashkent and KNS 30 August 2001 on the Chankatalik mosque in Kokand).

Such an interpretation of the religion law is questionable, to say the least, as even some officials admit. 'Religious believers have the right to assemble even in unregistered houses of prayer,' Shoazim Minovarov, first deputy chairman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs, told Keston in Tashkent on 22 August. 'The registration of a religious association is necessary only so that it can function as a social organisation. However, unfortunately, incompetent local officials sometimes interpret the law in the following way: if the house of prayer is unregistered, then even believers have no right to meet there.'

A somewhat different interpretation of the law was given by Begzot Kadyrov, the chief expert of the Committee for Religious Affairs department responsible for non-Islamic denominations. 'Certainly we cannot forbid believers to assemble for prayer in an unregistered church,' he told Keston by telephone on 23 August. 'But if such a group of people has a leader and he preaches sermons in an unregistered church, then we can already speak of a breach of the law. Otherwise a dangerous precedent will have been established - representatives of certain confessions do not want to register in any case, and if the authorities do not react in any way to their gatherings, there will be a sharp rise in the number of religious associations whose members will consider they don't need to register at all.'

However Keston discovered, after travels in August across the length of the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley and through the Tashkent region, that in practice the authorities almost always regard assemblies of religious believers in unregistered places of worship as violations of the law. The number of unregistered mosques closed down by the authorities is especially large. In almost every mahalla (neighbourhood) of towns in the Fergana valley, Keston was shown unregistered mosques closed by the authorities, where believers were categorically forbidden to assemble. The authorities indirectly admit that it is they who decide how many active mosques there will be. 'In the mid-1990s the number of mosques in the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan grew to the point where there were twice as many of them as there were regular schools and, naturally, we could not accept such a situation,' Minovarov told Keston.

It is significant that this government view that the number of mosques should be controlled is also supported by the official Muslim clergy. Sharufddin Mirmahudov, adviser to the Mufti (the head of the Muslim Spiritual Administrative Board of Uzbekistan), told Keston on 23 August that 'according to the teaching of Islam, mosques should not be too close to one another'.

The ban on religious believers assembling in unregistered places of worship is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In theory, it is not all that easy for the authorities to refuse an application by believers for registration of their place of worship. Article 10, 'Regulations governing a religious organisation', specifies the documents that must be presented before a place of worship can be registered: 1. a declaration, signed by at least 100 Uzbek citizens, on whose initiative the religious organisation was founded; 2. the statutes of the religious organisation; 3. the minutes of the constituent meeting; 4. a document confirming the location of the religious organisation; and 5. a document showing that the registration fee has been paid. If all the necessary documents have been assembled and the statute of the religious organisation is not contrary to Uzbekistan's Constitution, then - according to the religion law - the authorities do not have the right to refuse registration.

However, on 20 June 1998, almost immediately after the new religion law came into force, the Cabinet of Ministers issued a decree specifying that registration of a place of worship also required permission from the district centre for monitoring epidemics, the district fire inspectorate, the district architectural board and the mahalla committee. In practice, this decree has provided enough grounds for refusing registration to any religious organisation the authorities do not like for whatever reason.

For example, the hakimiat (administration) of the Mirzo-Ulugbek district of Tashkent refused registration to the Baptist Bethany congregation, on the basis of a decision by the mahalla committee that the activities of a Christian house of prayer could not be permitted on the territory of the mahalla. 'It is significant that on 9 December 1999, the mahalla committee was still voting to allow our church's activity,' Nikolai Shevchenko, pastor of the Bethany congregation, told Keston on 21 August. 'However, under pressure from the district authorities, on 9 January this year it unexpectedly voted against our house of prayer continuing to function on the territory of the mahalla.' (END)