KESTON NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT: 27 March 2001
UZBEKISTAN: PERVASIVE STATE CONTROL OF RELIGIOUS
LITERATURE. Despite its international human rights commitments to allow
the free publication, import and dissemination of religious literature, the
Uzbek government obstructs this right for all religious groups, Keston News
Service learnt from religious believers in interviews in the capital Tashkent.
Government censorship of all religious literature is enshrined in law and is
operated by the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA).
Foreign Islamic literature is treated with great suspicion, as is Uzbek-
language literature about faiths other than Islam. The government also
controls communication by requiring that all e-mail messages go through the
government internet company Uzpak, and reportedly uses computer
equipment from the German company Siemens to search for keywords in e-
mails in Uzbek, Russian and English.
UZBEKISTAN: PERVASIVE STATE CONTROL OF RELIGIOUS
by Felix Corley, Keston News Service
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
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
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
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)