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Diplomacy in Action

Tajikistan


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions.

There was no change in the overall status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Government policies reflect a pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalism, a fear shared by much of the general population. The Government monitors the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political.  Members of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, who overstep this boundary, are subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion.  The Government, including President Imomali Rahmonov, continued to enunciate a policy of active "secularism," which it tends to define in antireligious rather than nonreligious terms.  

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, a small number of religious extremists who are not representative of the general population are believed to be behind several church bombings.  Some mainstream Muslim leaders occasionally have expressed concern that minority religious groups undermine national unity.

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 55,300 square miles and its population is about 6.4 million.  An estimated 95 percent of the citizens consider themselves Muslims, although the degree of religious observance varies widely.  Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent regularly follow Muslim practices (such as daily prayer and dietary restrictions) or attend services at mosques.  The number of Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan continued to increase; up to 99 percent of Muslims in the countryside and over 66 percent in the cities fasted during the latest month of Ramadan.  About 3 percent of all Muslims are Ismailis; most of them reside in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as certain districts of the southern Khatlon region and in Dushanbe.  The rest of the Muslim population is Sunni.

There are approximately 230,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Russians and other Soviet-era immigrant groups.  The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox, but there are also Baptists (five registered organizations), Roman Catholics (two registered organizations), Seventh-Day Adventists (one registered organization), Korean Protestants (one registered organization), Lutherans (no data on registration), and Jehovah's Witnesses (one registered organization).  Other religious minorities are very small and include Baha'is (four registered organizations), Zoroastrians (no data on registered organizations), Hare Krishna (one registered organization), and Jews (one registered organization).

Each of these groups probably totals less than 1 percent of the population.  The overwhelming majority of these groups live in the capital or other large cities.

Christian missionaries from Western nations, Korea, India, and other countries are present, but their numbers are quite small.  Current estimates put the number of recent Christian converts at approximately 2,000 persons.

Section II.  Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions, and the Government monitors the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political.  Members of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, who overstep this boundary, are subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion.  

According to the Law on Religion and Religious Organizations, religious communities must be registered by the Committee on Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers, which monitors the activities of Muslim groups, the Russian Orthodox Church, and possibly other religious establishments.  While the official reason given to justify registration is to ensure that religious groups act in accordance with the law, the practical purpose is to ensure that they do not become overly political.  In 1997 the Council of the Islamic Center was subordinated to the Committee on Religious Affairs.  This move took place quietly, and with no apparent objection from the observant Muslim community.

More than 5,000 mosques are estimated to be open for daily prayers, although the Government's Committee on Religious Affairs no longer registers them or keeps records on their number.  In addition, 237 so-called "Friday mosques" (large facilities built for Friday prayers) are registered with the Committee on Religious Affairs.  These figures do not include Ismaili places of worship because complete data were unavailable.

Regularly throughout the period, covered by this report President Imomali Rahmonov strongly defended "secularism," which in the Tajik political context is a highly politicized term that carries the strong connotation--likely understood both by the President and his audience--of being "antireligious" rather than "nonreligious."  The President also occasionally criticized Islam as a political threat.  While the vast majority of citizens, including members of the Government, consider themselves Muslims and are not anti-Islamic, there is a pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalism among both progovernment forces and much of the population at large. 

A 1998 law prohibits the creation of political parties with a religious orientation.  The former United Tajik Opposition (UTO), the largest component of which was the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), along with international organizations and foreign governments, strongly criticized the law for violating the June 1997 peace agreement, which included a government commitment to lift the ban on member parties of the UTO.  The post independence 1992-97 civil war was fought in part over differing views of the role of religion in the republic.  In June 1998, President Rahmonov established a Special Conciliation Commission to resolve the dispute, which later reported that it had devised compromise language for the law banning parties from receiving support from religious institutions.  A new version of the law, including the compromise language, was passed in the November 1998 parliamentary session.  A 1999 constitutional amendment states that the State is secular and that citizens may be members of parties formed on a religious basis.  Two representatives from a religiously oriented party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, were members in the lower house of the national Parliament during the period covered by this report.

Although there is no official state religion, the Government has declared two Islamic holidays, Id Al-Fitr and Idi Qurbon, as state holidays.  These holidays do not negatively affect any religious groups.

There are small private publishers that publish Islamic materials without serious problems.  There is no restriction on the distribution or possession of the Koran, the Bible, or other religious works.  The Islamic Renaissance Party, a religiously oriented party, continued to publish its official newspaper, Najot (founded in 1999), although it lost access to government-owned printing presses for several months during the summer of 2000, apparently for political reasons.  The party also began publishing Naison, a magazine for women, in May 2001.  In addition, in May 2001, the Union of Islamic Scientists of Tajikistan began publishing the weekly journal Chashmandoz.

Privately owned mass-circulation newspapers regularly published articles explaining Islamic beliefs and practices.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Missionaries of registered religious groups are not restricted legally and proselytize openly.  There were no reports of harassment of such groups, but neither are missionaries particularly welcomed.  The Government's fear of Islamic terrorists prompts it to restrict visas for Muslim missionaries.  There was evidence of an unofficial ban on foreign missionaries who are perceived as extreme Islamic fundamentalists. 

Aside from the registration requirement, there are few official constraints on religious practice; however, government officials sometimes issue extrajudicial restrictions.  For example, the mayor of Dushanbe prohibited mosques from using loudspeakers for the 5-times-daily call to prayer, and during the period covered by this report, similar restrictions were initiated in the southern Khatlon and northern Soghd regions.  There are also reports that some local officials have forbidden members of the Islamic Renaissance Party to speak in mosques in their region.  However, this restriction is more a reflection of political rather than religious differences.  In Isfara following allegations that a private Arabic language school was hosting a suspected Uzbek terrorist, the authorities imposed restrictions on private Arabic language schools (to include restrictions on private Islamic instruction).  Such restrictions appear to be based on political concerns, but restrictive on private religious instruction.

In early 2000, an unregistered Baptist congregation in Dushanbe was informed that it was required to register with the Government, but the Baptists refused on the grounds that they are a branch of the larger All-Baptist Churches, an organization of Baptist churches from throughout the former Soviet Union.  They argued that only their leadership in Moscow has the right to register with a government authority.  Proceedings began against the Baptist congregation in March 2000 and the court fined the congregation a little more than 50 cents (1,000 Tajik rubles).  The congregation refuses to pay as a matter of principle.  There have been some instances of petty harassment of the congregation, with the militia on at least one occasion taking down the sign outside the congregation's building.  There were no further reports of harassment during the period covered by this report. 

In the spring of 2001, there were reports that local authorities in the city of Qurghanteppa (also, Kurgan-Tyube) prevented a Christian church from registering.

Government-imposed restrictions on the number of pilgrims allowed to undertake the Hajj continued.  However, individuals ultimately were permitted, to use private vehicles.  In addition, pilgrims were allowed to travel to Mecca and Medina by bus from Mashhad, Iran.  There were regional quotas on the number of pilgrims, permitted to undertake the Hajj, which led to increased corruption as places were sold.  The motivation for quotas and other restrictions appears to be profit (maximizing bribes from Hajj pilgrims), rather than discouraging a religious practice.

Government publishing houses are prohibited from publishing anything in Arabic script; they do not publish religious literature.  However, in 1998 the President initiated a project to publish a Tajik version of the Koran in both Cyrillic and Arabic script, which were printed in Iran and sold through the Iranian bookshop in Dushanbe.

Members of the Baha'i community occasionally were confronted by the police guard outside Dushanbe's Baha'i Center and asked why they had forsaken Islam.  Others were called in by the Ministry of Security and asked why they had changed religious affiliation.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government detained numerous members of the Islamist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Emancipation) in the northern, primarily ethnic Uzbek, Leninobod district and imprisoned some of them.  These measures were primarily a reaction to the political agenda that the Government attributes to this organization.  According to a press account, over 50 of the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization's members were arrested between January and April 2000 and 1 member reportedly died in police custody.  Courts sentenced 57 of these persons to between 1 and 2 years imprisonment.  At least two of the detainees reportedly were charged with disseminating subversive literature and planning to overthrow the Government.  Although there is no direct information on what grounds the others were charged, they probably were charged with subversive activities.  In addition, it is probable, but not confirmed, that between 120 and 150 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were arrested and sentenced to 5 to 15 years imprisonment.  Although Islam is an essential element of the organization's makeup, the Government's hostility toward it appears to be motivated more by its political than by its religious goals.  This organization is linked with an organization of the same name in Uzbekistan that calls for the creation of a Muslim caliphate in the country and has become a target of repression by the Uzbek Government, which has accused its members of acting against the constitutional order and of belonging to an extremist group.

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.  Conflict between different religious groups is virtually unknown, in part because there are so few non-Muslims.  However, some Muslim leaders occasionally have expressed concern that minority religious groups undermine national unity.

Terrorists bombed a Protestant church in Dushanbe in October 2000, killing seven persons and injuring many more.  Government authorities later announced that several Islamic students had been arrested for the attack.  The students reportedly confessed to the bombing; their apparent motive was religious.  Specifically, they opposed foreign missionaries converting Tajik Muslims to Christianity.  According to government authorities, the perpetrators were acting on their own and were not affiliated with either the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or Hizb ut-Tahrir.  In December 2000, two churches in Dushanbe, a Russian Orthodox church and a Seventh-Day Adventists' church were bombed. There were no injuries at either church, both of which were closed at the time of the bombing.  Three persons were accused of the bombings; two persons were tried and one person reportedly escaped during the period covered by this report.

The small Baha'i community normally does not experience prejudice, but a prominent 88-year-old leader of the community was killed in his home in Dushanbe in September 1999.  Members of the Baha'i community believe that he was killed because of his religion, since none of his personal possessions were taken from the murder scene.  Police have made no arrests, but militant Islamists aligned with Iran are considered likely perpetrators.  There were no new developments on this case during the period covered by this report.

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.

Through public diplomacy, the U.S. Embassy has supported programs designed to create a better understanding of how democracies address the issue of secularism and religious freedom.  Several participants in these programs are key members of the opposition who, through their writings and their debate on the definition of secularism, reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the concept and of how secularism and religious activism can coexist in a free society.



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