TAJIKISTAN: 'Illegal' Ban on Home-Based Religious Meetings.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 4 September 2002

The pastor of an Evangelical Christian church in the town of Chkalovsk on the outskirts of the city of Khojand, the regional centre of the Sogd region in northern Tajikistan, has complained that the town procuracy is preventing church members from meeting in her own private home. "When our religious community was registered a year ago, the authorities imposed the condition that we should rent a building from them to use as a church," Pastor Asya Shumarkova told Keston News Service on 28 August in Chkalovsk. "At present, the building we are renting as a church is situated on the grounds of a car repair garage. However, the building assigned to us is not very suitable: it is located on the second floor, and has no water supply. Therefore, we hold some of the services in my own private home. However, the town procuracy has decided that the meetings in my private home are against the law."

The Korean Protestant Philadelphia church in Chkalovsk is undergoing similar problems. "The authorities registered us on condition that we rented a certain building from them for use as a church," Mariana Tsoi, assistant to the church's pastor, told Keston on 28 August. "The building assigned to us is not suitable, and so we have built a church out of our own funds in the yard of a private home, but the authorities insist that we should meet at the juridical address at which our church was registered."

On 24 August, the town administration held an expanded session to consider how the country's religion law is being observed. A public prosecutor from the town procuracy, Mukim Nuraliyev, told the meeting that it was "inadmissible" for the Evangelical Christian church and the Philadelphia church to hold religious meetings in private homes. Town officials fully supported Nuraliyev's view.

However, Tajikistan's religion law does not outlaw the holding of religious services in private apartments and homes. Moreover, Article 21 of that law states directly: "Services and religious ceremonies may be held without hindrance in prayer houses and on land belonging to them, in places of pilgrimage, in buildings belonging to religious organisations, in cemeteries, and in the apartments and homes of citizens."

Yet Nuraliyev vigorously rejects any complaints about his activity. "I categorically refute the charge that we are persecuting Christians. Besides, I even occasionally shut my eyes to certain misdemeanours of Christians." He alleged that the Philadelphia church had spent 17,000 U.S. dollars on building a prayer house, and had not paid the tax on that to the state treasury. "But I have not launched an investigation, in order to avoid damaging a young and still vulnerable church," he told Keston in Chkalovsk on 29 August. Nevertheless, Nuraliyev declared that "with all respect to the Christians" he could not shut his eyes to the fact that the communities were holding religious meetings in private homes. "The law is the law. Services must be held at the address at which the community is registered," he insisted.

The chief public prosecutor of Chkalovsk, Abdugafor Niyezbadalov, who also took part in the discussion with Keston, remarked that the activities of Islamic extremists - especially those from Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic organisation which calls for Muslims worldwide to unite under a single caliphate and which is banned in Tajikistan - needed to be taken into account. "Over the past two years, 13 Hizb-ut-Tahrir members have been sentenced to imprisonment here in Chkalovsk. Islamic extremists are very active here in northern Tajikistan. For example, it has come to light that three natives of northern Tajikistan are among the al-Qaeda fighters being detained on an American army base in Cuba. In this situation, we need to make absolutely sure that Muslims hold services only in officially registered mosques." He said that 30 mullahs want to engage in preaching in private homes, "but we do not allow them to do so".

Niyezbadalov claimed that until recently officials did not pay any attention to the fact that Christians were holding services in private homes. "However, this policy of ours arouses dissatisfaction among Muslims. It does indeed turn out that we have been allowing Christians to do what we forbid Muslims from doing," he declared.

However, neither Niyezbadalov nor Nuraliyev could point to any law that forbids the holding of services in citizens' private homes. "In actual fact, the situation for Protestants who hold services in private homes is quite muddled," the chairman of the independent Khojand Human Rights Foundation, Islom Bakosov, told Keston on 29 August. "The religion law does indeed allow them to do this. However, two years ago the government of Tajikistan introduced a decree that forbade the use of residential accommodation for anything other than its primary use. This decree was issued in connection with the fact that very many residential first floor homes and apartments had been refitted as bars and restaurants, and the constant noise was a nuisance to residents in the buildings. Today, this government decree contradicts Article 21 of the religion law. However, the government decree was issued after the religion law and so, according to the law, we should be governed by it."

Harald Hartvig Jepsen, head of the Khojand field office of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission in Tajikistan, believes the tightening of restrictions on believers was the result of government policy. "When it turned out that there were three natives of northern Tajikistan among the al-Qaeda fighters being held on the American base in Cuba, the authorities tightened their grip on the activity of Islamic organisations," he told Keston on 29 August in Khojand.

He reported that about 15 mosques in Sogd region had been closed down and that the authorities had carried out interviews with all the imams of the region's mosques, forcing many out of their jobs after the investigation. "It seems to me that the authorities' tightening of controls over Muslim organisations has rebounded on Christians as well. At the same time, the problem experienced by the Chkalovsk Protestants has been compounded by the local authorities' lack of knowledge of the law. For example, the procuracy in Chkalovsk does not even have a copy of the religion law, and I am not convinced that the staff at that organisation have read that law. I intend to hold a seminar with representatives of the authorities and of the general public, at which we can study the rights of believers." (END)