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Kyrgyzstan


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however the Government restricts the activities of radical Islamic groups that it considers to be threats to national stability.  The Constitution provides for a secular state and the separation of church and state, and the Government does not support any one religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.  The Government took steps to monitor and restrict Islamist groups, which it considers to be a threat to the country.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. 

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I.  Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 67,741 square miles and its population is an estimated 4.7 million persons.  The population is 61.2 percent ethnic Kyrgyz, 14.9 percent Russian, 14.4 percent ethnic Uzbek, 1.1 percent Tatar, 0.3 percent German, and 8.1 other minorities.

Islam is the single most widely practiced faith.  Official sources estimate that up to 80 percent of the inhabitants are Muslims.  The majority of these are Sunni and only a few Shi'a (approximately 1,000) live in the country.  There are approximately 120 mosques, each with its own madrassa for initial religious training.  There also are two institutes for higher Islamic teaching.  Approximately 17 percent of the population are Russian Orthodox.  There are 40 Russian Orthodox churches and more than 200 churches and houses of prayer for other Christian denominations.  For example, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church operates six churches in Bishkek, as well as several elsewhere in the country.  Jews, Buddhists, and Catholics account for approximately 3 percent of the population, and their adherents practice their religions openly in churches, temples, and synagogues.  A Roman Catholic Church in Bishkek functions freely.  A small Jewish congregation meets in Bishkek.  The group organizes informal cultural studies and humanitarian services, chiefly food assistance for its elderly.  In 2000 a new rabbi arrived from Israel.  There also are examples of syncretistic religious practices.  Most notably, there is a Baptist church in the Naryn region whose followers are predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz.  While they worship as Christians, they have incorporated Muslim modes of prayer into their Christian rituals.  There is no official estimate of the number of atheists in the population.

Islam is practiced widely throughout the country, in both the urban and rural areas.  Russian Orthodoxy typically is concentrated in the cities where a larger ethnic Russian population exists.  The other faiths also are practiced more commonly in the cities where their smaller communities tend to be concentrated.  There is a correlation between ethnicity and religion; ethnic Kyrgyz primarily are Muslims, while ethnic Russians favor either the Russian Orthodox Church or one of the Western-origin denominations.  Exact statistics are not available, but while the majority of the population claims to follow Islam, a significant number of these adherents appear to be only nominal believers and identify with the faith out of historical or ethnic allegiance.  A significant number of the followers of the Russian Orthodox Church also appear be only nominal believers.

A number of missionary groups operate in the country, including groups from the United States, Germany, and Korea, as well as missionaries from Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  They represent a variety of religious organizations including Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unified Church of Christ of Evangelists, and Korean Presbyterians.

Section II.  Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government restricts the activities of radical Islamic groups that it considers threats to national stability.  The Constitution provides for a secular state and the separation of church and state, and the Government does not support any one religion.

The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) promotes religious tolerance, protects freedom of conscience, and oversees laws on religion.  According to a 1997 presidential decree, all religious organizations must be registered by the SCRA, which must recognize the registrant as a religious organization; each congregation must register separately.  A religious organization also must register with the Ministry of Justice in order to obtain status as a legal entity--necessary to own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities.  If a religious organization engages in commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes in accordance with the tax code.  In practice the Ministry has never registered a religious organization without prior registration by the SCRA.  The Ministry's registration process sometimes is cumbersome, taking a month on average, but no religious organization has been denied registration after properly completing all formalities.  There are more than 300 registered religious groups, of which 210 are Christian.  Several religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, have reported difficulty registering with the state committee on religious affairs.  The majority of these are small Christian congregations.  According to a foreign attorney assisting the Government with legal reform, as many as 55 small Christian churches have not registered with the SCRA.

The country's Roman Catholic Church, whose members are comprised of approximately 80 percent Kyrgyz citizens, remains an unregistered foreign religious organization in the country despite the efforts of the Roman Catholic mission in the country to register with the SCRA.  Bishkek's Roman Catholic Church first attained legal status under Soviet law in 1969.  However, the SCRA notified the church that it would have to re-register as a foreign religion in the country after the issuance of Presidential Decree 319 in 1996.  The Holy See established the Catholic Mission in Kyrgyzstan "sui juris" in 1997, and a representative from the Vatican visited the country in June 2001 to meet with SCRA members on behalf of registration.  The Unification Church, which is registered as a social, rather than a religious organization, has "semi-official" status.

Various missionary groups operate freely, although they are required to register with the Government.

The Government expressly forbids the teaching of religion (or atheism) in public schools.

The Government recognizes three Muslim holidays (Noorus, Kurban Ait, and Orozo Ait) and one Russian Orthodox holiday (Christmas, which is observed on January 7 in accordance with the Russian Orthodox calendar) as national holidays.  The President and the Government send greetings to the followers of these faiths on their major religious holidays, and these messages are printed in the mass media.

The Government works through the SCRA to promote interfaith dialog and encourage religious tolerance.  The SCRA hosts meetings of religious groups to bring the faiths together in open forums.  The SCRA assists various faiths to work together on programs for the protection of the poor and the elderly.

In March 2001, the Government met with representatives of various religions and nongovernmental organizations (NGO's) to discuss a draft law on religion.  The initial draft included compulsory registration of religious bodies, prohibition of unregistered religious activity, lack of an alternative to military service, and tight control over religious activity deemed "destructive".  In mid-2001 the Parliament was working with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to revise the draft law in an effort to ensure that the law respects the country's OSCE obligations and would allow free practice of religion by all faiths.  However, representatives of the religious communities remain cautious and there is concern that Muslim believers could be mistaken for extremists under this law. 

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government is concerned about the threat of political Islam, whose followers (Islamists) it labels "Wahhabis."  The Government perceives Islamists to be a threat to national stability, particularly in the southern part of the country.  The Government fears that Islamists seek to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic theocracy.  Armed incursions of Islamic militants into the country in August to October 1999 and in August 2000 increased the Government's concern regarding political Islam and the actions of its followers.  Presidential Decree Number 319 states that a religious organization may be denied registration or its registration may be suspended if the organization's activities do not comply with Kyrgyz law or is dangerous to state security, social stability, interethnic and inter-confessional relations, or the health and morals of the people.  Such suspensions or refusals of a religious organization's registration are subject to judicial appeal.  On May 1, 2001, the Procurator General proposed amending the Criminal Code to include tougher sentences for those convicted of "religious extremism."  During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to express public concern about groups that it viewed as extremist with either radical religious or political agendas.

The Islamist organization "Hizb-Ut-Tahrir," mainly active in the southern part of the country, is not registered with the Government and is considered to be an illegal organization.

In early April 2001, the local press quoted Prime Minister Bakiyev's call for increased monitoring of mosques and schools in order to prevent these places from engaging in Islamic extremist activity.

Government authorities indicated that they would monitor the activities of the Unification Church, which is led by Reverend Moon.  The Unification Church currently is not active in the country, but it has a presence through the charity organization of Reverend Moon's wife.  There were no reports of interference in its activities during the period covered by this report.

Religious leaders note with concern that the SCRA frequently uses the term "national security" in its statements.  For example, the Commission has expressed some concern about the destabilizing presence of the Unification Church.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs often plays a leading role on various religious questions.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

A press report quoting the State Committee of Religious Affairs, stated that over 200 persons were detained in Osh and Jalal Abad oblasts for distributing Hizb-Ut-Tahrir literature during 2000.  According to the newspaper "Res Publica," eight persons were arrested in August 2000 for distributing literature produced by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The Government is concerned about the threat of political extremism in the guise of conservative Islam.  The Government considers Islamic militants, whose followers it labels "Wahhabis," a threat to the country's stability.  The Government fears that Wahhabis seek to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic theocracy. Muslim leaders, on the other hand, complain that the SCRA makes decisions about religious events without consulting them.

The sentencing in May 2000 of three Uighur Islamic militants, who were charged with the 1998 bombings in Osh, added to the Government's concern about the "Wahhabist" elements operating in the country.  An armed incursion of Islamic guerillas into the southern part of the country in August to October 1999 also increased the Government's apprehension about militant Islamic groups.  A press report quoting the State Committee of Religious Affairs stated that over 200 persons were detained in Osh and Jalal Abad oblasts for distributing Hizb-Ut-Tahrir literature during 2000.  According to the newspaper Res Publica, the authorities arrested eight persons in August 2000 for distributing literature produced by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). 

According to an Amnesty International report of June 21, 2000, Jelil Turdai, an ethnic Uighur Chinese national, was arrested in Bishkek for not having the necessary residence permit.  After a police search of his apartment turned up religious material that was deemed fundamentalist, he was taken into custody for possessing "Wahhabist" materials, and after being interrogated by Chinese and Kyrgyz security agents he was deported to China where his fate is unknown.

There were no other reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III.  Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.   Members of the two major religions, Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church, respect each other's major holidays and exchange holiday greetings.

There is no evidence of widespread societal discrimination or violence against members of different religious groups.  However, there is anecdotal evidence of periodic tension in rural areas between conservative Muslims and foreign missionaries and individuals from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups who convert to other faiths.  In January 2001, there was a standoff in the village of Kurkol between local villagers and ethnic Uzbek Jehovah's Witnesses.  The standoff occurred when the villagers demanded that the four Uzbeks either reconvert to Islam or leave the village.  The incident was resolved peacefully by the Ministry of Interior and the Security Service.  There were no reports of these tensions escalating to serious levels; the parties involved appear to have resolved their problems peacefully over time.

Section IV.  U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

During the period covered by this report, the Embassy discussed the draft law on religion with several government officials.  The Embassy maintains contacts with all religious organizations. 



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