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Tajikistan


International Religious Freedom Report 2002
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 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 (Party of Emancipation), an Islamist movement with origins in the Middle East, were 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, unknown persons killed two Baha'i leaders in October and December 2001 for religious reasons. Some mainstream Muslim leaders occasionally 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 approximately 6.6 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 more than 66 percent in the cities fasted during the latest month of Ramadan. Approximately 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. Most of the rest of the Muslim inhabitants (approximately 90 percent) are Sunni, while approximately 4 percent are Shi'a.

There are approximately 230,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Russians and other Soviet-era immigrant groups. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox, but there also are 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 countries, Korea, India, and other countries are present, but their numbers are quite small. The number of recent Christian converts is estimated to be approximately 2,000 persons. One group of Islamic missionaries from Saudi Arabia paid a two-week visit to the country in February 2002.

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 (Party of Emancipation), an Islamist movement with origins in the Middle East, were subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion.

According to the Law on Religion and Religious Organizations, religious communities must be registered by the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) 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 overtly political. However, the SCRA no longer registers neighborhood mosques; in September 2001, local religious affairs authorities assumed responsibility for the registration of mosques as well as the local communities of other religious groups. In 1997 the Council of the Islamic Center was subordinated to the SCRF. This move took place quietly, and with no apparent objection from the observant Muslim community.

More than 5,000 mosques were estimated to be open for daily prayers; 3,500 of these mosques were registered as of May, 2002. So-called "Friday mosques" (large facilities built for Friday prayers) must be registered with the SCRA. Of these mosques, 247 were registered. These figures do not include Ismaili places of worship because complete data were unavailable.

Regularly throughout the period covered by this report, President Rahmonov strongly defended "secularism," which in the country's 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 consider themselves Muslims and are not anti-Islamic, there is a significant fear of Islamic fundamentalism among both progovernment forces and much of the population at large.

A 1999 constitutional amendment stated that the State is secular and that citizens may be members of political parties formed on a religious basis, although a 1998 law specifying that parties may not receive support from religious institutions remained in effect. 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. There also were several deputies from the Islamic Renaissance Party in regional and district parliaments around the country.

Although there is no official state religion, the Government has declared two Islamic holidays, Id Al-Fitr and Idi Qurbon, as state holidays.

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 continued to publish its official newspaper, Najot (founded in 1999). Because Najot lost access to government-owned printing presses in 2000, apparently for political reasons, the newspaper is published on a privately owned press. The party also publishes Naison, a magazine for women. The Union of Islamic Scientists of Tajikistan publishes 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 were not restricted legally and proselytized openly. There were no reports of harassment of such groups, although missionaries are not particularly welcomed. The Government's fear of Islamic terrorists prompted it to restrict visas for Muslim missionaries. There was evidence of an unofficial ban on foreign missionaries who were perceived as extreme Islamic fundamentalists. The Government has banned specifically the activity of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has developed a significant following among the ethnic Uzbek population in the north. This movement operates underground and allegedly calls for a nonviolent overthrow of established authority and the reestablishment of government along the lines of the six "rightly guided Caliphs" of early Islamic history. There were numerous arrests of individuals alleged to have been associated with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

There were allegations that during the period covered by this report unregistered mosques were forced to close in areas throughout the country; for example, during summer 2001 and later during the holy month of Ramadan, unregistered mosques in Khatlon and Sughd reportedly were closed. In Dushanbe city authorities during Ramadan informed several "teahouses" where Muslims gathered to pray and discuss religion that they would need to register as mosques; officials did not restrict activities at these teahouses while the registration applications were pending.

Aside from the registration requirement, there were few official constraints on religious practice; however, government officials sometimes issued extrajudicial restrictions. For example, in early 2001, the mayor of Dushanbe prohibited mosques from using loudspeakers for the 5-times-daily call to prayer. Similar restrictions were initiated in the southern Khatlon and northern Soghd regions. There also were 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). Although these restrictions applied to religious instruction, authorities probably were taking actions based more on their political concerns than on their antipathy to religion.

There were no further reports of harassment of members of a Baptist congregation in Dushanbe, which was fined in 2000 for refusing to register, 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. The church appealed to the SCRA, which mediated the dispute. In January 2002, the church was registered.

Government-imposed restrictions on the number of pilgrims allowed to undertake the Hajj were loosened during the period covered by this report. A total of 5,200 Tajiks made the pilgrimage (out of a Saudi-imposed limit of 5,900), which was an increase of 1,600 compared with the previous Hajj. The Government imposed 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 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 was printed in Iran and sold through the Iranian bookshop in Dushanbe.

The police guard occasionally confronted members of the Baha'i community outside Dushanbe's Baha'i Center and asked them 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 in the northern, primarily ethnic Uzbek, Leninobod district and imprisoned some of them. These measures primarily were a reaction to the group's political agenda of replacing the Government with an Islamic caliphate. Although the Hizb ut-Tahrir asserts that it intends to accomplish this by nonviolence, officials are concerned by its alleged links to terrorist organizations, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). According to the Ministry of Security, more than 105 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were arrested during 2001 and charged with planning to overthrow the Government. More than half of these persons were sentenced to between 1 and 2 years imprisonment. Although in October 2001 a court convicted two members of the Islamic Renaissance Party in a trial with members of Hizb Ut-Tahrir, the Government immediately granted the two IRP members amnesties. In 2000 one Hizb ut-Tahrir member reportedly died in police custody. Most analysts believe that the Government harasses Hizb ut-Tahrir members because of the political implications of their religious beliefs. The Hizb ut-Tahrir, although part of a world-wide organization that calls for the creation of a world-wide Muslim Caliphate, is linked with groups of the same name in neighboring Uzbekistan. In that country, it has become a target of repression by the Government, which has accused its members of acting against the constitutional order and of having close ties to the violent extremist group, the IMU.

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 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 virtually is unknown, in part because there are so few non-Muslims. However, some Muslim leaders occasionally expressed concern that minority religious groups undermine national unity. While the vast majority of citizens consider themselves Muslims and most of the inhabitants are not anti-Islamic, there is a pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalism among both progovernment forces and much of the population at large.

In August 2001, two Dushanbe Islamic Institute students, convicted of the October 2000 bombing of a Protestant church in Dushanbe which that seven persons and injured many more, were executed. A third student suspected in the case escaped and was not rearrested. The students confessed to the bombing and said that their motive was religious; specifically, they opposed foreign missionaries converting Tajik Muslims to Christianity. They were not known to have any ties with extremist groups.

Government law enforcement and security agencies were investigating the 2000 bombings of the Svyato-Nikolskii Russian Orthodox Church and a Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Dushanbe, but no progress was made during the period covered by this report. There were no injuries from the bombings.

The small Baha'i community generally did not experience prejudice; however, two Baha'i residents of Dushanbe were shot and killed on October 23 and December 3l, 2001. A police investigation determined that both men were killed because of their religion. No suspects were arrested by mid-2002, but the investigation was continuing. There were no reports of progress in the investigation of the 1999 killing of a prominent 88-year-old leader of the community in Dushanbe. 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 made no arrests, but militant Islamists aligned with Iran were considered likely perpetrators.

In 2001 Hare Krishna groups experienced limited discrimination; however, such problems have diminished."

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 reported that they had developed a better understanding of the role that religion could pay in an open society.

In Washington, the Office of International Religious Freedom and other Department and U.S. officials met to discuss religious freedom with a group of Tajik journalists on a U.S. Government-sponsored visitors program, and with a group of religious figures and scholars, including a high-ranking government official, who were in the U.S. as participants in a visitors program to promote religious tolerance.



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