TAJIKISTAN: Further Mass Closures of Mosques.

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 21 October 2002

Over the past three months, the local authorities in Isfara district of Tajikistan's northern Sogd region have closed down 33 of the district's 152 mosques, the chairman of the Isfara branch of the Islamic Revival Party, Abdusator Boboyev, told Keston News Service in the town of Isfara on 10 October. Administration officials have told Keston that many of the mosques were closed because they did not have state registration (though this is not compulsory in Tajikistan) and that the district had "too many" mosques. The mosque closures went hand in hand with the compulsory attestation of imams in Isfara district which saw more than a fifth removed from office (see KNS 18 October 2002).

Boboyev told Keston that the stage was set for the mosque closure campaign by an address given in Isfara on 9 July by the country's president, Emomali Rakhmonov, to the governors of the district. Rakhmonov declared that among members of the Taliban being held at the U.S. base in Cuba were three Tajik citizens from the Isfara district, which he said had harmed Tajikistan's international standing. According to Rakhmonov, the number of mosques in the Isfara district today is double the number of schools. The president spoke of the need for "religious organisations in the district to conform to the laws of the country".

However, Boboyev told Keston that to compare the number of mosques with that of schools was inappropriate. "Schools consist of quite extensive buildings, made up of many rooms," he told Keston. "Village mosques, as a rule, are situated in a small house that consists of just one room. However, such small mosques are very important for elderly believers, who find it hard to get to the larger mosques." He added that it is "no hardship" for a child to travel one or two kilometres to school once a day, but attendance at the mosque for prayers is expected five times a day. "It is becoming a major problem for the elderly to cover that same distance."

The head of the department of religion of the Isfara district administration, Ismajon Puladov told Keston on 11 October in Isfara that "the overwhelming majority of mosques were closed because they were not registered at the district department of justice". He reported that most of the mosques closed down have been small, though one was a cathedral mosque serving several districts of the town of Chorku, 15 kilometres (10 miles) south of Isfara. Puladov claimed that under Tajikistan's law on religion unregistered mosques have no right to operate. He also said that according to the law on religion only one cathedral mosque was recommended per 15,000 people. "There are 30,000 people living in Chorku, but there were three cathedral mosques operating there, and so we closed one of them in line with the law."

Contrary to Puladov's claims, Tajikistan's religion law says nothing about a requirement to register religious associations. Article 14 of the law only explains the procedure for registration for those religious associations wishing to do so. It is noteworthy that article 14 declares that registration is undertaken "so that a religious community can receive the legal status of a juridical person," i.e. not at all in order to receive permission to carry out religious rituals. However, during numerous conversations with state officials in various parts of Tajikistan, Keston has learnt that they interpret this article of the law as a requirement to register (see KNS 4 September 2002).

Speaking to Keston on 12 October in Isfara, the head of the Isfara district administration Mirzosharif Islamiddinov, and the public prosecutor of the district Emom Baibov, said one and the same thing: "If there is an article on registration in the law on religion, that means that registration is obligatory!"

Puladov's view on the number of mosques allowed in a populated area is controversial. Article 14 of the religion law does indeed state that cathedral mosques may be established in populated areas with no fewer than 15,000 people, but does not define how many mosques there should be.

"Each state has to defend itself. We have actually given complete freedom to believers, but certain forces have taken advantage of this situation," Islamiddinov told Keston. "Mosques have become an arena for pre-election campaigning, although under the law religion is separate from the state." And he added: "It is inadmissible that mosques should be situated too close to each other." Islamiddinov declared that the authorities had now begun work "to investigate whether [registration] documents conformed to juridical standards".

"Rakhmonov's address in Isfara gave a kickstart to a tightening of state control over the activity of Muslims not only in Isfara district, but throughout Sogd region," the chief editor of the Varorud information agency, Negmatullo Mirsandov, told Keston in the Sogd regional centre Khojand on 14 October. "It's just that the closures in Isfara district have been carried out on a particularly extensive scale. We have information about attempts to close mosques and initiatives to carry out attestations of imams in other towns and villages of northern Tajikistan as well."(END)