SPECIAL REPORT - UZBEKISTAN: Muslim Clergy Under State Control.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 23 April 2002

As a result of numerous meetings between 12 and 15 April with imams who are currently working in Tashkent and former imams forced to leave their positions under pressure from the authorities (almost all of whom agreed to speak only on conditions of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities), Keston News Service has established that the Muslim clergy are almost completely under the control of the Uzbek authorities. Not only does the state have the power of veto over who may become an imam, the state also controls what they say in mosques. Imams require periodic re-approval from a joint panel not only of representatives from the muftiate but from officials of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs and the National Security Committee (NSC, former KGB), while the text of Friday prayers is dictated from above.

The leadership of the Spiritual Administration (muftiate) is virtually an agency of state authority. When Keston spoke with the leadership of the Spiritual Administration, the leaders volunteered their full support for the religious policies of the authorities. Remarkably, these leaders even denied such well-attested developments as the closure of numerous mosques and the ban on wearing Islamic clothes in public education establishments.

Today, with the help of a compliant muftiate, the state exerts almost total control over the activity of individual mosques. Imams do not have the right to compose the Friday prayers, but are obliged to read out a text that has been approved by the muftiate, for which the muftiate demands from each imam 300 sums (some 20 US cents or 15 British pence at the street exchange rate). It has become almost a rule that at the end of Friday prayers the imam must pray for the health of the government, though Keston's sources confirmed that the imams do this voluntarily in an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty to the authorities.

Imams who asked to remain unnamed told Keston that another method of state control is the assessment test required for permission to work in a mosque. They reported that such tests are attended not only by representatives of the muftiate, but also officials of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs and officers of the NSC. Keston was told that questions asked at the interview often bear no relation to religion. One imam complained to Keston that at his assessment test he was asked how many stars there were on Uzbekistan's flag. Keston's sources declared that such tests are conducted every year and that in the coming months the clergy of Tashkent region will have to sit the assessment test again.

"It is true that three years ago the muftiate carried out an assessment of the imams," the deputy chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, confirmed to Keston by telephone on 16 April. "It was vital to ensure that people who lacked elementary religious education were not preaching in the mosques." He admitted that representatives of his committee were indeed present at such tests, but denied emphatically that anyone from the National Security Committee was present. "I also categorically deny that the assessment of imams is carried out annually. No assessment test is planned for this year either," he maintained.

Uzbekistan's religion law states that "religious organisations will assume the status of juridical persons and may carry out their work after being registered with the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Uzbekistan or with its local agencies in a procedure established by law". In other words, if believers meet in unregistered prayer houses, the authorities view this as an infringement of the law and will take punitive measures, even going so far as to bring a criminal prosecution.

With the help of the Spiritual Administration, the government is trying to take complete control of the religious life of Muslims. "Today in Uzbekistan there are almost no imams left who do not carry out the instructions of the authorities," former political prisoner and member of the board of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights of Uzbekistan, Ismail Adylov, told Keston in Tashkent on 15 April. "Virtually all the imams who are independent of the authorities have either been arrested or have been forced to flee the country."

However, even after the National Security Committee has neutralised "troublesome" imams, NSC officers still pursue their family members. One prominent case is that of the family of Tashkent imam Obidhon Nazarov, who was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1997. "My husband's sermons have been circulated on tapes by believers throughout Uzbekistan," Nazarov's wife, Minora Nasredinova, told Keston in Tashkent on 15 April. "My husband did not want to get involved in politics, he was concerned only with God. But it is precisely such people that the authorities are afraid of." She reported that Nazarov had been forced to flee the country to avoid arrest. "But the authorities have not left our family alone: Obidhon's brother and uncle have been imprisoned. In 1999, after the terrorist attacks in Tashkent, I was also arrested and spent several months in prison. We have become accustomed to the fact that the authorities will search our home every so often." She added that the last such search was on 14 March, the very day that Uzbek president Islam Karimov returned from the United States. "We had hoped that in the wake of the rapprochement of Uzbekistan and the United States, the human rights situation in Uzbekistan would improve," Nasredinova noted sadly. "But unfortunately our hopes have proved to be unfounded."

The authorities are conducting an out-and-out campaign against members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party, an international Islamic organisation which advocates the unification of all Muslims in the world into a single caliphate and which is banned in Uzbekistan. Keston has established that in almost every mahalla (a city district made up of private homes) there has been an instance where genuine members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir have been arrested. However, Keston was told that many of those arrested were not Hizb-ut-Tahrir members, but simply devout Muslims. Keston's sources asserted that frequently the police plant Hizb-ut-Tahrir leaflets on law-abiding people so that they can later take a bribe from relatives for the release of the person under arrest (anyone found with this organisation's leaflets is immediately arrested). The bribe varies from 300 to 1,000 US dollars (200 to 700 British pounds). (END)