The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. A religious freedom “roadmap” approved by parliament in 2018 to implement all 12 of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements, but the underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious groups. The government announced it released or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes during the year; however, some nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in underground Islamic activity. The government did not provide the number of individuals arrested during the year and how many were in custody at year’s end. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 20 known churches that still wished to register. According to religious groups, there were no police raids of unregistered religious group meetings during the year, compared with 114 in 2018 and 240 in 2017. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to media reports, public controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued, including reports of police forcibly shaving the beards of men in Tashkent. The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs in schools. In reaction to social media outcry following the expulsion of two female university students wearing hijabs, in April the government agreed to allow female students to wear headscarves in the traditional Uzbek ikat style with a knot tied behind their heads. Police detained two bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques, although reportedly other bloggers who criticized the government faced no backlash. According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education continued to instruct educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers. According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government allowed the Church to hold a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley, and Church leaders noted that surveillance of Catholic masses had stopped. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news. The government published a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, it remained difficult for some individuals to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts or bribery, and religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons older than age 45. Other sources, including religious activists, reported no difficulties in going on the Hajj and said there were no age limits. The government maintained a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 16 recognized religious groups. In an October report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated, “After many years of religious freedom violations and outright persecution, the Government of Uzbekistan has recently made significant progress in improving its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The report cited the cessation of police raids, permission granted to a Jehovah’s Witnesses delegation to travel from the United States to Uzbekistan, and permission to conduct a “memorial service of the death of Jesus Christ” in rented premises in Fergana, Karshi, and Urgench.
NGOs and private persons continued to report social pressure – but not government harassment – on individuals, particularly among the members of the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including family pressure to repudiate their new faith. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials continued to urge the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion should follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with senior government officials, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. In July he met with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and again on the margins of the UN General Assembly High-Levels Week in September. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials met frequently with representatives of both registered and unregistered religious groups, including with religious minorities. Embassy officials also routinely met with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included problems associated with the registration of minority religious groups, the issue of religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State renewed Uzbekistan’s place on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.