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Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion.  The Committee for Social Accord (CSA), part of the Ministry of Social Development (MSD), is responsible for religious issues.  According to local and international observers, authorities imposed restrictions and scrutiny on what the government considers “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians.  Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes.  The government raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “nontraditional” religious groups.  In April a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members on the group’s behalf; the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment.  In May a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist.  In January an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online.  According to the local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment.  Forum 18, an international NGO based in Norway, noted 165 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law in 2018 and 284 such prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18, however, released a religious freedom survey for the period 2014 to 2018, noting increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission.  The government considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government officials indicated at the end of the year that the draft legislation was unlikely to become law.

AROK reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” with negative coverage of the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  The Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) and other civil society organizations reported they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  NGOs and academics reported that members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as Christian groups perceived as proselytizing, such as evangelical, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches, continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.

The Vice President, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials engaged in dialogue with the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MSD and CSA.  This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature.  U.S. diplomatic officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  The national census reports approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school.  Other Islamic groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.

The CSA estimates 26 percent of the population is Christian, the great majority of whom are Russian Orthodox, but also including Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Christian Scientists.  Ethnic Kazakhs or Uzbeks primarily identify as Muslim and ethnic Russians or Ukrainians primarily identify as Christian.

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation.  These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population.  Under the constitution, all people have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs.  These rights, however, are in practice limited to “traditional” or registered religious groups.

In June President Nursultan Nazarbayev renamed the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development.  The Committee on Religious Affairs within the ministry became the CSA, which continues to regulate the practice of religion in the country.  By law, the MSD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion, as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement.  It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism.  The MSD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship.  All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination.  The MSD cooperates with law enforcement to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so.  The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.”  It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization.  The law defines “extremism” as the organization and/or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord that are accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk.  An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.”  The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render and act on a decision to 72 hours.  After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to revoke immediately the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property.  Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.”  In order to register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members.  Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register, unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level.  Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different oblast (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members.  National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 oblasts and the cities of Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent.  Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CSA.  According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 113,450 tenge ($300) and 453,800 tenge ($1,200).

The administrative code mandates a 453,800 tenge ($1,200) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CSA; systemically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws.  Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 113,450 tenge ($300).  Police may impose these fines without first going to court.  The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or its members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 340,350 tenge ($910) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or fails to rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,200), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,134,500 tenge ($3,000), and its activities are banned.

The law prohibits coercive religious activities that harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation.  The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity.  The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the internal regulations of the prison.  The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory.  Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system.  Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners.  They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law.  According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if approved after a religious expert analysis conducted by the CSA.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MSD to regulate it and, together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), oversee the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or other travel for the performance of religious rites.  The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content is allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CSA.  The law limits to one copy per publication an exemption from expert review for importing religious materials for personal use.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association,” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects.  The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s holiday, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria.  The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities.  Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited.  The law allows for after-school and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group.  A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations, as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.”  The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 12.7 million tenge ($33,900) or up to six years’ imprisonment.

In order to perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa.  These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months.  To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country.  The letter of invitation must be approved by the CSA.  Applicants must obtain consent from the CSA each time they apply.  The CSA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CSA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals.  The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CSA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).  Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work.  Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application.  Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal.  A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization in order to work on its behalf.  The local executive body of an oblast or the cities of Astana and Almaty may refuse registration to missionaries whose work “constitutes a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights, and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to AROK, authorities reduced their pressure on minority religious communities, with fewer arrests and less harassment than the previous year.  According to Forum 18, in 2018, authorities brought administrative charges against 165 individuals, religious communities, and charities for violations including attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, praying in mosques, and bringing a child to a religious meeting.  Of these, 139 individuals or organizations received fines or bans on religious activity.  In comparison, authorities carried out 284 administrative prosecutions in 2017.  Forum 18’s religious freedom survey released in September for the period 2014 to 2018, however, noted increased numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief, and unfair trials and torture of prisoners.  The survey also noted broadly written laws allowed much scope for arbitrary official actions and a wide range of offenses prosecuted, numbers of prosecutions, and levels of fines.  The survey noted the government made exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permissions, with restrictions on activities allowed; restrictions on freedom of religion and belief for children and youth; complete control being imposed on the Islamic community; girls in headscarves being denied access to education; and prior compulsory religious censorship.

On April 6, a court in Karaganda convicted Kazbek Laubayev, Marat Konrybayev, and Taskali Naurzgaliyev of illegally disseminating ideas and recruiting members for Tabligi Jamaat, which the government banned as extremist in 2013, and sentenced each to three years’ imprisonment.  The men denied their affiliation with Tabligi Jamaat and filed an appeal with the Karaganda regional court.  On May 22, the court rejected their appeal.

Media reported that on May 3, the specialized juvenile court in Sairam in South Kazakhstan Region convicted 18-year-old high school student Shakhsat Ismailov of incitement of religious discord and propagating terrorism, and sentenced him to four years’ imprisonment.  According to the court, Ismailov created a group on social media and disseminated religious extremist materials among his friends and followers.  He denied the charges.

On January 9, a court in Almaty sentenced Yeraltay Abay to seven years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord and propagating of terrorism.  Authorities arrested Abay in September 2017 after he posted an interpretation of a chapter of the Quran on social media.  Abay’s attorney stated that the book from which he copied the text was not banned in the country, and Abay had deleted his posts immediately after law enforcement warned him about the allegedly illegal content.

According to Forum 18 and other sources, authorities arrested Galymzhan Abilkairov and Dadash Mazhenov in April for posting audio recordings of talks by jailed Muslim preacher Kuanysh Bashpayev on social media.  Among other things, the men argued that the talks, which a court in Pavlodar banned as extremist in 2017, were not illegal at the time that they shared them online.  The court in October sentenced both Abilkairov and Mazhenov to more than seven years’ imprisonment.

Forum 18 reported that the Atyrau city court in December convicted two Muslim men, Erzhan Sharmukhambetov and Ermek Kuanshaliyev, and sentenced them both to three and a half years of restricted freedom, a form of probation, for incitement of discord and participating in the activities of a banned religious association.  The two were childhood friends of Sunni Muslim Murat Bakrayev, who was detained in Germany in September at the request of the government.  Authorities accused Bakrayev, who left the country in 2005, of inciting religious hatred, expressing support for terrorism or extremism, and involvement in a banned organization.  According to Forum 18, Bakrayev’s family and friends said that the police arrested Sharmukhambetov and Kuanshaliyev to pressure them to testify against Bakrayev.  At the end of the year, German authorities continued to detain Bakrayev.

On July 9, a court in Aktobe convicted seven followers of the Tabligi Jamaat group for participation in the activities of an extremist organization.  Authorities had arrested them in May.  During the trial, the defendants admitted guilt and “repented.”  The court sentenced two leaders – Zhanat Dosalin and Amanzhol Kishkentekov – to three years’ probation, and the five others to one year of probation and 120 hours of community service.

Media reported that on February 25, police in Kyzylorda city raided the local New Life church during its Sunday service; detained and questioned members of the church, including the pastor; filmed those present against their wishes; and seized religious literature.  The reports stated that police responded to a complaint by parents who claimed their school-aged daughter had attended church services without their permission.  Police took Pastor Serik Beisembayev to a police station, where they interrogated him and initiated a police report.  According to Forum 18, police took approximately 20 church members to the police station where they were released after each had written a statement about why he or she had become Christian and how long the individual had attended the church.  Ultimately, authorities dropped the case against the pastor.

On February 7, the Aktobe court found Pastor Viacheslav Poptsov of the local Evangelical Christian Baptist community guilty of violating the ban on participation of minors in religious services without parental approval.  According to the police investigation, parents of some school-age children who attended the church’s Christmas service did not approve of their children’s attendance.  By law, it was the pastor’s responsibility to check whether minor participants had their parents’ permission.  The court imposed a fine of 120,250 tenge ($320).  In May the court of appeal upheld the district court’s decision.

Forum 18 reported that 20 Muslims were taken to court for saying “amen” aloud in mosques in violation of SAMK’s code of conduct, which is punishable by law as an administrative offense.  Those arrested paid administrative fines.

On August 24, Kyzylkoginsky district court in Atyrau Region ruled a resident of Miyaly village violated the law when, during the Friday service, he said “amen” aloud.  The court fined the man 84,175 tenge ($220).

Courts continued to fine individuals for illegal missionary activity.  Religious organizations noted that local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions.

On January 23, the administrative court of Balkhash in Karaganda Region found Nikolay Popov of the local community of the Council of Baptist Churches guilty of illegal missionary activity and distribution of religious literature not approved by official government experts.  The court imposed a fine of 226,900 tenge ($600).  According to police investigators, Popov traveled to villages near Balkhash, talked to people about his faith, and gave them religious books.

On August 6, the Korday district court in Zhambyl Region found two local residents, Aidar Kharsanov and his wife Zarina Manu, guilty of illegal missionary activity.  According to police investigators, the couple taught the Quran to a group of school-aged girls without formal registration as religious missionaries.  The couple admitted their actions, but both appealed to the Zhambyl Regional Court on August 22 after the court imposed fines of 360,750 tenge ($960) for Kharsonov and 120,250 tenge ($320) for Manu.  Forum 18 noted that neither of the accused was represented by a lawyer.

On February 8, in three separate trials, the Sarykol District court in Kostanay Region found Jehovah’s Witnesses Estay Asainov, Maksim Ivakhnik, and Timur Koshkunbayev guilty of “illegal missionary activity” and imposed fines of 168,350 tenge ($450) each.  On February 13, the Sarykol District court found 79-year-old Jehovah’s Witness Taisiya Yezhova guilty of violating the requirements of the law on holding religious ceremonies and meetings by holding meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses at her house.  The court imposed a fine of 85,000 tenge ($230).  In initiating the court case, Yezhova’s neighbors complained about what they called her persistent attempts to draw them into her faith.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law.  Community representatives reported that the number of police actions and court cases initiated against them decreased compared to 2017, but authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels, and police followed and surveilled them as in prior years.  The government banned community members who were fined and did not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.  Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches and 14 administrative court cases during the year.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing from schools.  The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country.  According to media, in March 200 parents of schoolgirls in Aktobe Region who were barred from attending classes for wearing religious headscarves appealed to the president.  Media reported that authorities issued administrative fines to eighteen parents, 32 families moved to different regions where the national ban was not yet being enforced, and the rest chose to comply with the school rules.  Subsequently, on September 14 the Aktobe court convicted three fathers who had continued to insist that their daughters be allowed to attend classes wearing headscarves.  According to media, the men had reportedly threatened teachers at the school.  The court sentenced Nuraly Shakkozov to three days in prison and Medet Kudaibergenov and Zhanibek Otaliyev each to five days’ imprisonment.

Media reported that on September 1, authorities prevented approximately 300 girls wearing religious headscarves from attending classes in Firdousi village in South Kazakhstan Region.  The government, at the direction of Minister of Education and Science Yerlan Sagadiyev, dispatched a special commission to the region to explain the ministry’s rule and the principle of secular education and to persuade the girls’ parents to comply with the ban.  Most of the girls agreed, although 15 switched to other schools where the regulation was not yet enforced.  Thirteen parents were punished with fines of 12,025 tenge ($32).  Before sending the special commission, Sagadiyev, in commenting on the situation in Firdousi, told a reporter “according to the law, school girls in headscarves are not allowed to attend classes.”

On October 12, the Supreme Court declined to review lower court decisions against residents of West Kazakhstan Region who had protested the education ministry’s ban on religious headscarves in school.  The lower court determined that the country’s constitution supported such a regulation.

According to Forum 18, a group of 107 Muslim parents from three of the country’s regions, whose school-age daughters were barred from attending school because they wore headscarves, planned a further appeal to the Supreme Court.  The parents’ case failed previously in the lower courts, including Astana City Court on March 27.  They argued that the ban was a violation of the country’s constitution and international human rights norms.

The parliament considered draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities; civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would further infringe religious liberty.  Government representatives justified the draft legislation as necessary to address security concerns created by “religious extremism.”  Among the government’s justifications for the legislation was that people arrested for undertaking religious activities without government permission were “a risk group.”  Government officials at the end of the year indicated that it was unlikely that the draft legislation would become law.

On March 30, a research institute attached to the former Religious Affairs Department of West Kazakhstan Region instructed some local registered Christian communities to submit by April 10 full names, ages, place of study, and national identification numbers of all people under the age of 18 who come to meetings for worship, Forum 18 reported.  The official who sent the letter stated to Forum 18 the information was needed for “monitoring.”  According to Forum 18, the official stated that the request was sent only to Christians, and “selectively,” refusing to explain what “selectively” meant.

On July 10, pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling, the Kokshetau Administrative Court extended an official apology and ordered the return of a fine of 173,100 tenge ($460) to Jehovah’s Witnesses congregant Andrey Korolev.  A court had convicted Korolev of conducting illegal missionary activity in 2013.  While authorities continued to conduct raids of services and detain participants, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that four Supreme Court rulings issued since 2017 overturned lower court decisions and affirmed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to freely practice their religion, including the right to proselytize.

On April 2, the president pardoned Teymur Akhmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness who had served more than one year of a five-year sentence on charges he had “incited religious discord” by talking about his faith with men identified as university students.  Akhmedov suffered from cancer and the government previously had transferred him from prison to a hospital.

On July 10, atheist blogger Aleksandr Kharlamov won a civil lawsuit against the government.  The court determined that Kharlamov, who spent five years under investigation for charges of “incitement of religious discord,” suffered emotional and physical harm as a result of the prolonged and restrictive investigation and awarded him more than 1 million tenge ($2,700) in damages and court expenses.  Among other restrictions, after his arrest in 2013, authorities detained Kharlamov for six months, including one month in a psychiatric hospital.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization.  The government allowed the church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but did not allow the church to engage in religious activity.

The MSD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs said this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK.  The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw.  All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and officially unable to practice in the country, though some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference.  By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered, after authorities denied the group reregistration for the sixth time in June 2016.  Government experts previously concluded the community’s teachings were not Islamic and that the community needed to remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials.  During the year, the group attempted to engage in dialogue with the MSD and continued to prepare documents for its next reregistration application.  Community members reported that, due to lack of registration, they did not engage in any official religious activity.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques.  In February then-Minister of Religious and Civil Society Affairs Nurlan Yermekbayev criticized the construction of new mosques while, he said, others remained empty or were put up for sale.  Eighty-four out of 3,601 mosques were not being used, he said.

According to the CSA, there were 3,715 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared to 3,692 in 2017.  The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,591 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams.  The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens.  Saudi Arabia increased its 2018 pilgrimage quota for Kazakhstani Muslims to 3,000, from 2,500 the previous year.  The MSD worked closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrasahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels.  The CSA published information about schools for religious training, including 11 schools for Sunni Hanafi imams, one school for Roman Catholic clergy, and one school for Russian Orthodox clergy.

MSD officials continued to monitor the internet, collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content, applying expedited procedures for the evaluation of such materials by religious experts, and obtaining court authorizations for immediate closures of internet sites it deemed unacceptable. In 2017, the ministry detected 3,555 websites containing what it considered illegal and harmful information.  In the first quarter of 2018, the ministry analyzed the content of 2,299 websites and determined that 700 of them contained what it considered illegal and harmful information.  Media reported the MSD forwarded the negatively assessed online content to the Ministry of Digital Development, Defense and Aerospace Industry’s Information Security Committee for further consideration and potential action, such as blocking the websites.  On September 20, Dr. Aidar Abuov, Director of the MSD’s International Center of Culture and Religions, stated that monitoring of domestic Internet, social media, and news media had revealed “practically no” extremist materials.

The MSD and other authorities continued to inspect religious facilities regularly to review compliance with security requirements mandated by the counterterrorism law, such as utilization of security cameras and maintenance of recorded data for at least 30 days.  There were fewer complaints about security inspections conducted by the authorities compared to 2017.  The Pentecostal Harvest Church received a 176,750 tenge ($470) fine on March 15 for failure to store video surveillance recordings for the required 30-day minimum.

On February 22, the administrative court in Shymkent ruled that the local New Life church violated fire safety regulations.  Although the pastor of the church stated that he had complied with the results of an inspection a month earlier and installed additional fire detectors, the judge levied a fine of 240,550 tenge ($640) and ordered a one-month suspension of the church’s activity.  The pastor submitted an appeal and on March 20, the court of appeals overturned the administrative court’s decision, citing a lack of evidence that the church had violated the law.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons had a dedicated specialist to create programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the minister of internal affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism.

Religious community representatives and civil society actors expressed hope that the government renaming the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs the Ministry of Social Development would lead to a reduced focus on policing religious practice and increased tolerance for religious diversity and expression.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

AROK and minority Christian religious communities reported that fewer media organizations released articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional,” compared to 2017.  In March the Aktobe Times web newspaper posted an article entitled, “The ‘Truth’ Poisons Children,” concerning the activity of Baptist churches in Aktobe and Martuk.  According to the article, church activists lured children to church by holding holiday entertainment events despite the disapproval of their parents.  According to the author, there had been an increase in the number of complaints about what he called the Baptists’ unreasonable and persistent missionary activity.

The KIBHR and other civil society organizations reported that they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society.  According to KIBHR, the letters appeared to be copied from a template, with identical content and format.  KIBHR reported receiving these letters regularly every two to three weeks, leading them and other recipient organizations to suspect they were part of a campaign aimed at creating a negative image of the faiths involved.

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming indicated “nontraditional” beliefs, including Muslim headscarves and beards.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In a meeting with President Nazarbayev on January 17, the Vice President highlighted the need for the government to meet commitments to protect religious freedom.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the MFA, the MSD, and the CSA, and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom, underscoring that bilateral cooperation on economic and security issues was a complement to, not a substitute for, meaningful progress on religious freedom.  In a regular and recurring dialogue with the ministry and CSA, U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the current religion law and criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom.  They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.

U.S. officials continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and practice.  They expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms, enabling authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner.  They also stated that any amendments to the law on religions must not constrain the ability of believers to practice their faith.  They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism and expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom.  The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, and other U.S. officials met with the MSD to reiterate the importance of enabling all citizens to worship freely, regardless of registration status.

U.S. diplomatic officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates.  In addition, embassy officials participated in roundtable discussions and speaker series dealing with religious freedom.  They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of registered religious groups.

Kyrgyz Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred.  It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist and, in an increase in the number of arrests from 2017, arrested hundreds of individuals they accused of participating in what they termed as extremist incidents.  The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law to address public concerns on restrictions to religious freedom.  The proposed amendments, however, include a ban on “door-to-door proselytizing.”  Some religious groups believed the changes would also increase the difficulty of registering as a religious organization.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review.  According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups.  The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.

In January unidentified individuals burned the Baptist church in Kaji-Sai village, an incident that church leaders said was a deliberate arson attack.  Also in January the international NGO Forum 18 reported a mob led by a local religious figure denied a Christian burial in a public cemetery in Jeti-Oguz District.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups and proposed revisions to the religion law.  The embassy regularly met with religious leaders, including office directors of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups.  Embassy outreach programs, especially for local youth, emphasized religious tolerance and dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni.  The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population.  According to an international organization, there is also a small Ahmadiyya Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated at 1,000 individuals.  According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, including an estimated 3 percent Russian Orthodox.  Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population.

According to the National Statistics Committee, ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, while ethnic Uzbeks make up an estimated 15 percent.  Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim, making Islam the main religion in both urban and rural areas.  Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations.  Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views.  It bans actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state.  It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups.  The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal.  It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism)” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA.  The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups, unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups, and religiously affiliated schools, to register with the SCRA, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion.  The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups.  Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members.  Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens.  Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality.  The SCRA may also deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of the group are not religious in character.  Denied applicants may reapply at any time or may appeal to the courts.  The law prohibits unregistered religious groups from actions such as renting space and holding religious services.  Violations may result in an administrative fine of 500 som ($7).

After the SCRA has approved a group’s registration as a religious entity, the group must register with the Ministry of Justice to obtain status as a legal entity so it may own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities.  The organization must submit an application to the ministry that includes a group charter with an administrative structure and a list of board and founding members.  If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes.  By law religious groups are designated as nonprofit organizations exempt from taxes on their religious activities.

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban a religious group as long as the SCRA delivers written notice to the group stating the group does not comply with the law.  The group may appeal the decision in the courts.

The constitution prohibits religious groups from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.”  A conviction for inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a prison term of three to eight years, while a conviction for creating an organization aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred may lead to a term of five to 10 years.  Conviction for murder committed on the grounds of religious hatred is punishable by life imprisonment.

The law mandates separate prison facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism, and it allows for stripping the citizenship of any Kyrgyz national found to have trained to acquire skills to commit terrorist or extremist crimes outside the country.  The law defines “extremist activity” as including the violent overthrow of the constitutional order; undermining the security of the country; violence or inciting violence on racial, national, or religious grounds; propagating the symbols or paraphernalia of an extremist organization; carrying out mass riots or vandalism based on ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity; and hate speech or hostility toward any social group.

According to the law, only individuals representing registered religious organizations may conduct missionary activity.  If a foreign missionary represents an organization approved by the SCRA, the individual must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Visas are valid for up to one year, and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country.  All foreign religious entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must reregister annually.  Representatives of religious groups acting inconsistently with the law may be fined or deported.  Violations of the law may result in fines of 1,000 som ($14), and deportation in the case of foreign missionaries.

The law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, which could include examination by state experts.  The law does not require government examination of religious materials (such as literature and other printed or audio or video materials), and it does not define the criteria for religious experts.  The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions.  The law specifies fines based on the nature of the violations.

The law allows public secular schools an option to offer religion courses that discuss the history and character of religions, as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious doctrine and does not promote any particular religion.  Private religious schools need to register with SCRA to operate as such.

According to the law, religion is grounds for conscientious objection to and exemption from military service.  Conscientious objectors must pay a fee of 18,000 som ($260) to opt out of military service.  Draft-eligible males must pay the fee before turning 27 years of age.  Failure to pay by the age limit requires the person to perform 240 hours of community service or pay a fine of up to 20,000 som ($290).  Draft-eligible men who evade military service and do not fall under an exemption are subject to a fine or imprisonment of up to two years.  There is no option to perform alternative service; community service is imposed only in cases of a conscientious objector failing to pay the 18,000 som ($260) fee.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist:  al-Qaida, the Taliban, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), Union of Islamic Jihad, Islamic Party of Turkistan, Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, At-Takfir Val Hidjra, Akromiya, ISIS, Djabhat An Nusra, Katibat al-Imam al-Buhari, Jannat Oshiqlari, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, and Yakyn Incar.  Authorities also continued the ban on all materials or activities connected to the Chechen Islamist militant leader A.A. Tihomirov (aka Said Buryatsky), whose activities and materials the Bishkek District Court deemed to be extremist in 2014.

Media reported that on September 19, upon the recommendation of the SCRA, the Ministry of Interior filed two criminal cases against two inhabitants of Issyk-Kul Province for possessing materials it said were extremist related to Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Law enforcement authorities stated they had recorded 358 religiously motivated extremist incidents for the first six months of the year.  They opened criminal cases in 213 instances.  Extremist incidents included membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, possession of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization.  In comparison, the authorities recorded 597 extremist incidents in 2017 (35.3 percent higher than in 2016), for which they opened 229 criminal cases.  According to a Ministry of Interior report, there were 285 individuals arrested for extremism and terrorism and 3,586 pieces of extremist materials extracted within the first six months of the year.  Government law enforcement analysis identified domestic extremism as a growing trend, noting the state had identified 101 “extremist” incidents in 2010, compared with 597 incidents in 2017.  There were no reports of citizens being stripped of citizenship for terrorism or extremism, although ethnic Uzbeks said they were arrested and imprisoned on extremism-related charges, usually tied to possession of banned literature or support of banned organizations, based on false testimony or planted evidence.

According to NGOs, in the course of conducting counterterrorism measures against extremists, authorities arrested dozens of citizens for possession of vaguely defined “extremist” materials.  On September 17, Human Rights Watch published the report “We Live in Constant Fear:  Possession of Extremist Material in Kyrgyzstan,” which identified instances where law enforcement agencies were accused of torturing and extorting suspects found to possess “extremist” materials.  The report noted prosecutions for possessing extremist material were carried out under Article 299-2 of the criminal code, the country’s most widely applied charge against terrorism and extremism suspects.  It stated that at least 258 persons had been convicted under the article since 2010.  The report also stated several hundred suspects were awaiting trial on the charge and the numbers had increased each year, with 167 new cases opened during the first nine months of the year.

Throughout the year the SCRA substantively revised draft amendments to the 2009 religion law, and it held two public hearings in August at which the revised amendments were discussed.  Although the Parliamentary Committee on Social Issues, Education, Science, Culture, and Healthcare had already approved the proposed amendments in 2017, the SCRA withdrew them from parliamentary consideration in order to revise them.  The revised amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and a requirement to notify the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad.  Some religious groups said, after consultations with the SCRA, the proposed amendments had undergone changes the groups considered positive.  For example, the SCRA eliminated a proposed change to increase the number of members required to register as a religious organization (from 200 to 500 members), allowing registered religious organizations to create filial branches across the country regardless of the number of adherents in a locality.  NGOs and religious groups also cited as positive amendments that eliminated the need for religious organizations to coordinate registration with local councils in addition to SCRA registration.  In meetings with government officials, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses noted concerns with the revised draft amendments, stating they would introduce elements that would have a negative impact on their ability to share their faith with others and register local congregations.  In September Jehovah’s Witnesses presented the organization’s concerns with the draft amendments to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw.  As of year’s end, the SCRA had not submitted the amendments to parliament for review

Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete.  Some unregistered groups continued to report they were able to hold regular religious services without government interference, especially foreign religious organizations that had been registered in the past and had an annual application for reregistration pending.  The SCRA reported it registered one Jewish, one Buddhist, and 12 Baha’i congregations during the year.

Although the government continued not to list the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community as a banned organization, a representative of the group confirmed it still had not obtained registration.  The community initially registered in 2002, but the SCRA had declined to approve its reregistration every year since 2012, including again in 2018.

The SCRA continued to state that, while the law did not mandate expert review of religious literature, its practice was to examine imported religious materials submitted for review by religious organizations.  There continued to be no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating the experts performing the examination of religious literature that groups wished to distribute within their places of worship.  According to religious studies academics, the SCRA continued to choose its own employees or religious scholars with whom the agency contracted to serve as the experts.  Attorneys for religious groups continued to say the experts chosen by the SCRA were biased in favor of prosecutors and were not formal experts under the criminal procedure code.

According to the Kyrgyz Baptist Union, local authorities had not approved its request to convert the status of a Baptist church in Kara-Kul, Jalalabad Province, from a “residential home” to a “prayer house.”  In addition, the Kara-Kul Mayor’s Office issued a decision to close the church for failing to adhere to the local government’s zoning status.  The Kyrgyz Baptist Union called the decision illegal, saying the law did not give this power to local authorities.  The Baptist Union stated it had addressed this issue with the SCRA multiple times without resolution.

According to representatives of religious groups, refusal either to serve or to pay a fee to opt out of military service continued to subject a conscientious objector to hardship, because military service remained a prerequisite for employment in the government and with many private employers.

The SCRA held interfaith dialogue forums in all seven provinces of the country during the year.  These forums included Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i participants, as well as civil society representatives, local authorities, and officials from the Ministry of Interior and State Committee on National Security.  The forums focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities, as well as between the state and religious organizations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 2, attackers set the Baptist church in the village of Kaji-Sai on fire.  A report by the Forum 18 News Service stated that a few hours before the arson attack, three young men threatened women for attending a church service.  Representatives of the Baptist Union reported the local police found the arsonists, who admitted their guilt and agreed to make partial reimbursement for refurbishment of the church.  Authorities did not release any information about the identities or motivation of the arsonists.

According to Forum 18, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries.  In January Forum 18 reported that in November 2017 in Jeti-Oguz District, a group led by a local Islamic religious leader refused to allow the burial of a Christian.  In response to the report, an SCRA official denied the incident had taken place.  In 2017 the SCRA announced a policy to divide public cemeteries by religion, which it said would be introduced by government decree.  The SCRA said it developed the policy in response to reports that religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for the burial of their dead in public cemeteries; however, as of year’s end the policy had not been implemented.

According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups typically occurred in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations.  According to the Forum 18 News Service, on October 15, Eldos Sattar uuly was attacked for his Protestant religious beliefs in the village of Tumchi.  Sattar uuly said three of his fellow villagers beat him while they called him an infidel.  In the course of the attack, Sattar uuly’s jaw was broken and required surgery.  Police in the village of Tumchi denied there was a religious motivation for the attack, saying the beating was the result of “hooliganism.”  Sattar uuly said the family of one of his attackers continued to threaten him in the hospital.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met regularly with government officials, including the SCRA chief and deputy and high-ranking officials in the grand muftiate.  In February the Charge d’Affaires met with the SCRA chief and religious organizations to discuss proposed revisions to the religion law, registration of independent religious groups, efforts to promote religious tolerance through exchange visits, and programs to improve the qualifications of religious teachers and the quality of education at religious institutions.

Embassy officers also continued to engage with representatives of the muftiate, leaders of minority religions, NGOs, and civil society representatives to discuss the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities.

The embassy sponsored a group of prominent religious leaders on a U.S. government program to exchange views on the role of religion in U.S. and Kyrgyz societies.  In October the embassy hosted a visiting Muslim cleric from the United States to prepare the group of religious leaders for the visit to the United States.  The embassy continued its sponsorship of English-language classes and vocational training at local madrassahs to enable students in remote areas to obtain better access to information on religious tolerance.

Tajikistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies.  The constitution states both that “[t]he citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character” and, separately, that “[r]eligious organizations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under 18 from participating in public religious activities.  Amendments to the religion law, which came into effect in January, require religious organizations to report all activity to the state, require state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increase control over religious education within the country and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  The amendments allow restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.  The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.  A Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam of Sari Sang mosque in Khujand to six years’ imprisonment for promulgating Salafi ideas.  Since 2016, authorities sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  A Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in an extremist organization.  Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.  Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations.  Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures.  On October 5, the State National Security Services (SNSS) detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  After holding 10 of the members for most of the day, the SNSS released them but threatened they soon would be charged and prosecuted.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a separate incident on January 21, when authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During the four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress.  According to the NGO Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barber’s shop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government outlawed in 2015.  Members of the Christian community reported that cemeteries in southern Khatlon Region were desecrated, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy staff encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature.  Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.

On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a Country of Particular Concern (“CPC”) under section 402(b) of the Act, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  The Secretary also announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to local academics, the population is more than 90 percent Muslim and the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam.  Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region located in the eastern part of the country.

Other religious minorities include Christians, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and Jews.  The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox; there are also Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and other Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion, and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.

The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order and organizing of armed groups is prohibited.  The constitution states, “The citizen shall have the right to participate in the creation of political parties, including parties of democratic, religious and atheistic character.”  The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” encouraging religious enmity.  In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict, as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power.  This definition includes inciting religious hatred.

The law defines any group of persons who join for religious purposes as a religious association.  The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law.  In order to operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs.  In order to register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons over the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years.  The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home address and date of birth.  The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage.  It must also provide documentation on the health of its adherents.  A religious association must provide information on its religious centers such as mosques, central prayer houses, religious educational institutions, churches, and synagogues.  The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.

A religious community is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship and the satisfaction of other religious needs.  Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and places of worship.  A religious community functions on the basis of a charter, after registering with the CRA without forming a legal entity.  The nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter.  Religious communities are required to register both locally and nationally and must register “without the formation of a legal personality.”  A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.

A religious organization is a voluntary and independent association of citizens, formed for the purpose of holding joint worship, religious education, and spreading of religious faith.  Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses religious education entities, churches, and synagogues.  Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters.  They can be a district, city, or national organization.

The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and assigns responsibility to the CRA for handing down fines for such activities.  The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration; violating its provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association.  For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 350 to 500 somoni ($37 to $53), heads of religious associations 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($110 to $160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($530 to $1,100).  For the same offenses repeated within a year of applying first fines, fines are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($64 to $110) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($210 to $270) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,600 to $2,100) for registered religious associations.  If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

In late 2017 parliament amended the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which entered into force in January.  According to these amendments, restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion are allowed only to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of the constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.

The amended law states that freedom of conscience and worship may only be restricted for reasons such as ensuring the rights of others, maintaining public order, ensuring state security, defending the country, upholding public morality, promoting public health, and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity.  The amendments also stipulate that no party, public or religious association, movement or group may be recognized as state ideology.  Religious activities that promote racism, nationalism, hostility, social and religious hatred, or calling for violent overthrow of the constitutional order or the organization of armed groups are prohibited.  The amended law also says that the state maintains control over the order of religious education in order to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The amendments broadly empower the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies.  The CRA maintains a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The state controls activities of religious associations related to the performance of religious rites, and developing and adopting legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations.  Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, lists of property, expenditures, numbers of employees and payments of wages, paid taxes, and other information upon request by an authorized state body for religious affairs.

The law recognizes the “special status” of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion.  The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations:  mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines.  The law regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques which may be registered within a given population area.  The government allows “Friday” mosques, which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time” mosques, which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000.  In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000.  The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city, and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their self-designed charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population.  The law states the selection of chief khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers) and imams (prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA must approve the imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque.  Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA regulates and formulates the content of Friday sermons.

The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.  The law limits the number of guests and controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals.  The law states mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions prescribed elsewhere in the law.  The law bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and celebrating the return of Hajj travelers.

According to the law, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language, and national dress.”  According to customary interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab.  The Code of Administrative Violations does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials with religious content with the advanced consent of appropriate state authorities.  Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises to produce literature and material with religious content.  Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it.  The law allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without permission from the CRA.  According to the law, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,500 to 3,500 somoni ($160 to $370) for individuals; 2,500 to 7,500 somoni ($270 to $800) for government officials; and 5,000 to 15,000 somoni ($530 to $1,600) for legal entities, a category including all organizations.

The law prohibits children and youth under 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship.  Children may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance.  The law allows children to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to obtain CRA permission, but in practice such permission is not granted.  Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates.  Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.

With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside of mandatory school hours.  According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum.  The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn.  The law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family.  The law restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent.  To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a higher education degree domestically and be enrolled at a university accredited in the country in which it operates.  The law provides for fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($270 to $530) for violating these restrictions.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 21, authorities summoned a male Jehovah’s Witness to the police station in Khujand; the police had raided his home in 2017.  During a four-hour interrogation, Jehovah’s Witnesses sources stated that a police officer beat the individual so severely that he suffered a concussion and sought immediate medical treatment.  A police officer followed him, pressured the hospital staff not to provide medical test results, and compelled the doctor to write a false statement denying the injuries.  On February 1, the chief of the Police Department and the chief of the Criminal Investigation Department summoned the victim and his wife for interrogation.  The police ordered the couple to write a statement declaring they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Fearing for their safety, the couple moved to another city.

According to April 22 media reports, the Khujand city court sentenced Abdullo Saidulloev, former imam-khatib of the Sari Sang five-time prayer mosque in Khujand, to six years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged him with promulgating Salafi ideas.  He had studied in a Saudi Arabia madrassah from 2004 to 2006, and after returning started working in the clergy.  Police detained him in October 2017 after law enforcement seized 200 copies of banned literature from his home, which was described as extremist by the authorities.

Since 2016, the government sentenced approximately 20 imams to prison in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations.  Most received religious education abroad.  Local and international human rights organizations, however, said the government suppressed opposition figures under the aegis of combating terrorism and extremism.

On April 30, Radio Ozodi, part of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported Khujand city court sentenced Shukrullo Ahrorov, former imam of Ikhlos Mosque, to five years in prison for involvement in Ikhvon-al-Muslimin, which the government banned in 2006 as an extremist organization.  The court ruling also stated that Ahrorov preached extremist ideas to worshipers at the mosque in 2015.  The court said law enforcement officers seized illegal religious literature from Ahrorov’s home.  Police charged Ahrorov with the article of the criminal code that covers participation in the activities of political parties, public associations, and religious or other organizations banned by the court.  Ahrorov’s relatives stated he might appeal.

In December police arrested Mukhtadi Abdulkodyrov shortly after he returned to the country after working for four years in Saudi Arabia.  Sources stated that police arrested him for his ties to Salafi Islam, which the Supreme Court banned from the country in 2009.  Prior to his return from Saudi Arabia, the Interior Ministry contacted him through social media promising to drop all charges against him if he agreed to abandon Salafism.  Abdulkodyrov agreed and wrote a “repentance letter” to the ministry, but still faced a possible eight-year prison sentence.

In September Belarusian border guards arrested Parviz Tursunov, a former soccer player, based on an extradition request from the government.  The government sought his extradition for being a member of a Salafi Muslim group.  He and his family crossed into Belarus from Ukraine in an attempt to reach Poland and apply for asylum.  In November Belarusian officials rejected the extradition request and released Tursunov back into Ukraine.  Tursunov remained in Ukrainian custody at the end of the year.

Bakhrom Kholmatov, former pastor of the Sunmin Sunbogym Protestant Church in Khujand, remained in prison and continued to refuse to undertake a second appeal of his sentence.  His wife stated that she had visited him and he appeared well, but said prison authorities would not allow her to visit for months at a time and they did not give him letters of encouragement written to him from Christians around the world.  After Forum 18 contacted prison authorities about the letters, they said that Kholmatov was now receiving them.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on October 5, the SNSS detained a group of 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including minors, who were leaving a private home in Dushanbe after a religious service.  The police released eight young women, but detained the rest of the group, comprised of both men and women, for questioning before releasing all 10 late in the day.  The SNSS reportedly threatened that they shortly would be charged and prosecuted.  On January 24 and 30, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police in a settlement near Khujand summoned and interrogated more than a dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses “for converting from Islam to Christianity.”  The police demanded that they renounce their faith.

On October 2, media reported that Daniil Islomov, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sent to a military unit in Bokhtar city (formerly Qurghonteppa), after completing a six-month prison sentence for evading military conscription.  The government also denied Islomov an opportunity to perform alternative civilian service, although he was soon discharged from the army.  Stefan Steiner, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, told the media that authorities had effectively punished Islomov twice:  first with a prison sentence and second by forcing him to wear a military uniform.  In addition to his prison sentence, Islomov spent six months in pre-trial detention.  At year’s end, Islomov was in the process of filing a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council about his arrest and imprisonment.

In November an eight-year-old elementary school student and member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the northern city of Konibodom was reported to school authorities for refusing to sing the national anthem or wear the school uniform tie which contained national symbols.  He was labeled a “traitor” and threatened with expulsion.  On November 28, after complaints from school officials, police reportedly took him to a local police station without parental notification and showed him a jail cell.  The city prosecutor’s office also threatened to take action against the boy’s mother for “raising him in an unacceptable way.”  Soon after the incident, Konibodom city police opened a criminal case against the mother, but did not explain what crime she allegedly committed.  On December 11, police presented her with a written summons for questioning, but she refused to comply with the summons.

On August 21, media reported that after Eid al-Adha prayers, police detained several young men with beards near a mosque in Obi Garm town.  There was no information on the identity of those detained.

In November police detained three residents of Ruknobod village in Panjakent District, including two teenagers, on charges of cooperating with extremist groups.  Residents of the village said these three individuals were arrested for clicking the “like” button on “extremist” social media posts.

Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their groups as associations with the government.

Media reported that the government denied religious funerals for approximately 50 prisoners killed in a November Khujand prison camp riot.  The mother of one of the dead prisoners stated that authorities brought the body to a cemetery in Khujand and quickly buried it, forbidding family members to approach the coffin or perform religious rituals.  She said that police claimed the ritual had already been carried out in prison.

Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups.  Those groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – IMU), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).

On April 21, media reported on an April 11 public meeting in Dushanbe between General Sharif Nazarzoda, chief of the city’s Department of Internal Affairs and imam-khatibs of local mosques.  Nazarzoda warned the imam-khatibs to be vigilant about congregants’ behavior and pay attention to those worshipers who did not observe Hanafi belief or practices.  Nazarzoda also reproached the clergy for not cooperating sufficiently with law enforcement agencies in the fight against extremism.  Nazaroda reportedly reinforced his words by showing the photographs of 20 imam-khatibs in Sughd Region sentenced to long prison terms on charges of extremism.

At an August 2 press conference in Sughd, Suhrob Rustamzoda, head of the regional Department on Religious Affairs and Regulation of National Traditions, announced the dismissal of 16 imam-khatibs.  Rustamzoda stated they did not pass certification.  At the same time, he noted that the government preferred imams who were graduates of local universities.  Rustamzoda also noted that operations in all five madrassahs in Sughd Region remained suspended until the Ministry of Education and Science (MES) granted them permission to operate and they had rectified shortcomings in their documentation.  They have not been in operation since 2013.

On January 4, media reported that dozens of imams did not pass annual certification.  A commission including CRA representatives and the government-supported Ulema Council conducted examination of imam-khatibs.  The report did not specify the exact number of those dismissed.  According to the report, the government has been requiring such an annual certification for the last nine years.  Some imam-khatibs who did not pass the certification stated their dismissal was improper.  CRA stated that some imam-khatibs could not answer questions on basic rules of performing prayers in accordance with the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and could not differentiate between theology and Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh).  At a July 25 press conference, head of the department on religious associations of the CRA Husein Shokirov said that 35 imam-khatibs did not pass certification and were dismissed from their duties at mosques.  Authorities suspended the imam-khatibs from their jobs because they could not answer the questions of the certification commission; all questions were sent to the clergy 20 days in advance of the certification, Shokirov said.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.

NGOs reported authorities put restrictions on imam-khatibs, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.

On August 30, media reported police officers stopped women wearing hijabs and men with beards in Dushanbe’s Shohmansur district.  Authorities demanded that the women remove their hijabs and men shave their beards.  According to Forum 18, on September 28, authorities set up a roadblock on the outskirts of the capital to stop cars carrying men with beards and women in hijabs.  Police forced the bearded men into a barbershop to have their beards shaved off and forced the women to take off their hijabs and wear shawls showing their necks.  Forum 18 also reports hijab-wearing women were consistently refused medical care and employment.  Tajik State Pedagogical University in Dushanbe announced on September 30 that female students wearing a traditional shawl covering the head could not attend lectures.

On March 2, Radio Ozodi reported that Fathullo Nazriev, imam-khatib from a five-time prayer mosque in Rasht District, sent an open letter to the country’s president in which he stated that police officers in Rasht Valley pressured him to sign a statement accusing Junaidullo Khudoyorov of being a member of an illegal Salafi group.  Khudoyorov previously criticized local authorities on social media and was arrested on January 22.

Media reported that the CRA dismissed an imam of a mosque in Panjakent for not knowing the national anthem.  Naqibkhon Qoriev, a resident of the Yori District of Panjakent who was imam of the mosque early in the year, went through certification procedures in Dushanbe in early June.  He told media on August 27 he was notified only then about the reason for his dismissal and that as a result, authorities appointed another clergyman in his place.  He stated he was flustered during the certification procedure and could not fully read a verse about rules of performing pilgrimage, but stated he knew the anthem and recited part of it.  Officials at the local Department of Religious Affairs confirmed that Qoriev was dismissed, stating he did not know the anthem and also had difficulties answering a question on rules for reading namaz (Islamic prayer).  Saidjon Shodiev, head of the Religious Affairs Department, said that Qoriev failed on two occasions to pass the certification procedures and he could again apply for certification and be reinstated in his position.

Multiple sources reported on the conversion of mosques into other facilities.  During a press conference on January 24, Chairman of Isfara city Dilshod Rasulzoda said that during 2017 the government closed down 45 mosques in Isfara due to poor sanitation.  According to the official, local residents devised a proposal to convert the mosques into social facilities, kindergartens, and medical clinics.  At a January 30 press conference, Chairman of Bobojon Ghafurov District Zarif Alizoda stated that authorities closed down 46 mosques operating without authorization in his district in 2017.  Ghafurov said the government was converting what he termed “illegal” mosques into social service centers, sewing workshops, crafts training centers, trading centers, and other types of public facilities.

During a July 25 press conference, CRA Chairman Sulaymon Davlatzoda stated that some previously closed mosques would be allowed to reopen.  According to Davlatzoda, an interdepartmental working group had been set up to review closure cases and facilitate the reopening of mosques.  “There are mahallas (neighborhoods) where two or three mosques are registered, and there are mahallas and settlements where there is not a single mosque or religious association.  The interdepartmental working group is studying all these issues, and on the results of the group’s work, appropriate decisions will be made,” stated Davlatzoda.  He also stated that when the parliament in late 2017 amended the religion law, “all religious associations had to be reregistered, but some failed to do so out of negligence… which led to the closure of some mosques.”

At a February 5 press conference, CRA officials stated that the government had converted 1,938 mosques that were functioning without authorization into cultural spaces, medical centers, kindergartens, teahouses, or residences for needy families.  Authorities often closed mosques for lack of appropriate documentation, because many mosques were not registered at relevant offices as religious organizations after they were built.  The government gave mosques a deadline to obtain proper documentation and those that failed to meet the deadline were shut down and public facilities set up at their location.  Another 231 mosques were given time to formalize all relevant documents.  According to CRA data, as of the end of 2017, 48 central Friday mosques, 326 Friday mosques, 3528 five-time prayer mosques, 67 non-Islamic religious associations, one Islamic center, and three prayer houses – a total of 3,973 religious associations, were registered in the country and all of them were functioning in accordance with the law and satisfying the religious needs of citizens.

Forum 18 stated the 2017 amendments to the Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations allowed the state to restrict manifestations of freedom of religion based on a wide range of grounds not permitted under international human rights obligations, increased religious organizations’ requirements to report all activity to the state, required state approval for the appointments of all imams, and increased state control on both religious education at home, and on those traveling abroad for religious education.  Separately, representatives of a church group said the newly amended law transferred some authority from the Ministry of Justice to the CRA, which now had the right to register religious associations, control their activities, collect financial and other data, and adopt bills that could restrict (or expand) a religious association’s activity.

The government stated that it controlled religious education both domestically and of its citizens abroad in order to prevent “illegal education, propaganda and dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and enmity.”  There were reports of governmental action against students studying abroad.  At a February 5 press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said 3,694 citizens had been studying abroad at religious educational institutes.  According to the CRA, 3,377 people had returned to the country; 88 of them returned to their former places of education.  According to Davlatzoda, they went back abroad under the pretext of labor migration but in fact resumed religious studies.  Some were working again but were also studying “illegally” on the side.  Davlatzoda stated that 405 citizens were studying illegally at religious institutions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.  According to 2017 CRA data, 60 individuals returned home from foreign madrassahs, with some of them continuing education inside the country.

On May 12, during a meeting with civil society representatives, President Emomali Rahmon stated that more than 3,400 citizens who had studied religion outside the country without authorization had returned to the country.  He said parents and relatives should actively work to prevent their children from falling prey to destructive radical, terrorist, and extremist forces.  He also noted that one of the main reasons youth attended religious educational institutions abroad in violation of the law was because some parents did not want them to have a purely secular education.

NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce the ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing.  On February 9, the Tajikistan Times published an op-ed by journalist Abdumudassir Ahmadov criticizing the decision of the National Library of Tajikistan to prevent the entrance of bearded men.  Ahmadov said that in the past he had argued about beards with the members of the banned IRPT and asked them not to make beards a religious issue.  He stated that now he was doing the same with state agencies to stop politicizing the issue of whether or not men wore beards.

On February 26, the Khovar state-run news agency reported that the Ministry of Culture (MOC) had proposed guidelines for national dress, which were awaiting government approval.  An official from the MOC told the media the reason for creating clothing guidelines was “to prevent the impact of foreign cultures” on national traditions.  Minister of Culture Shamsiddin Orumbekzoda told journalists during a February 7 press conference that the ministry would soon publish a book about the “ethics of wearing clothes.”  He said the book was a recommendation aimed at presenting national culture and national and historical values so that citizens adequately represented their country.  He noted the book would take into account norms of both national and European clothing and that throughout the world there were certain rules and “ethics of wearing clothes.”

On March 19, the Asia Plus news agency reported that the MOC issued recommendations on women’s clothing.  The ministry published a book with sketches of female models entitled “Instruction on recommended clothes for girls and women in the Republic of Tajikistan” with guidance on how to dress for work in state agencies, for national and state holidays such as Navruz and Mehrgon, as well as for brides at weddings and family celebrations.  It also described clothing not recommended for girls and women, which included forms of Islamic dress such as hijabs.

The government continued to restrict distribution of religious literature; reportedly scheduled a major exam on a date widely anticipated to be designated Eid al-Adha; limited the numbers of those allowed to go on the Hajj; and defined acceptable practices for children attending mosques and for funeral observances.  The government continued to close for one-day national holidays in observance on both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.

On June 6, the Ulema Council refuted media reports stating that the MES had decided to hold exams on June 16, the Eid al Fitr holiday.  On the following day, June 7, the Ulema Council declared that Eid al Fitr would be June 15.

On August 27, Asia Plus news agency reported that authorities set new restrictions on acceptable dimensions for graves “to prevent pomposity and the material well-being of citizens.”  CRA representatives and local authorities are responsible for enforcing the decree.

On July 3, media reported that Imam of Nuri Islom Mosque in Khujand Ibodullo Kalonzoda proposed introducing Islam into the school curriculum strictly as an academic subject.  Speaking at a roundtable entitled “Countering Terrorism and Extremism – the Main Factor in creating a Democratic and Legal society” held in Guliston in July, Kalonzoda noted that offering such a subject in high schools would be a way to counteract “distorted perceptions” of Islam.

On July 3, the Radio Ozodi website reported that the court of Norak town fined cleric Abdukarim Saidov 350 somoni ($37) for providing illegal religious education.  Authorities charged him with organizing religious education for eight children between six and 16 years old beginning in June 2017.  The children’s parents had paid Saidov 300 to 500 somoni ($32 to $53) a month along with groceries as payment.  Saidov, a graduate of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan, told the media he did not know it was illegal to organize religious lessons for children at home.

On July 8, Akhbor news agency reported that Khairullo Najmiddinov, Mahmadayub Junaidov, and Husein Rizoev, three imams from Tojikobod District, were fined 500 somoni ($53) each for establishing an illegal madrassah at home.  The government also fined the children’s parents.

On May 17, Radio Ozodi reported that imam-khatibs in mosques throughout the country were ordered to watch the play “Obu Otash” (“Water and Fire”) by writer and playwright Mansur Surush, which, according to proponents, promoted tolerance and mocked religious fanaticism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A group pledging allegiance to ISIS claimed responsibility for the July killing of four foreign tourists, including two Americans, and the injuring of three others when the attackers drove a car into a group of cyclists.  Following the collision, the assailants attacked the victims with knives and firearms.  Authorities said the leader of the attack was a member of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party, which the government had outlawed in 2015.

Individuals outside government continued to state that they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief.  Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations between members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.  People said they felt more comfortable discussing violations of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or government curtailment of religious freedom.

Leaders of some minority religious groups stated their communities had positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, whom they said did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations.  Other minority religious group leaders, especially from proselytizing religious groups, stated their members experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors because they were no longer Muslims.  Members of the Baha’i Faith particularly noted they faced discrimination from many ordinary citizens.  They said there were some in the country that viewed the Baha’i Faith as incompatible with Tajik nationality.

Members of the Christian community reported on the desecration of cemeteries in the southern Khation Region, with fences, crosses, memorial plates, and tomb ornaments looted for the value of their metal.  According to local statistics, half of the 3,000 Christian graves in the region, which dated to the Soviet era, had been looted.  An Orthodox Church rector in Bokhtar said he had visited the city’s Christian cemetery and noted cattle grazing and children playing on the graves.  In Yavan, another Khation district, thieves looted items from 50 graves in the area’s two Christian cemeteries.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In August a visiting Department of State officer conducted an in-depth working visit to the country, meeting with independent analysts, religious leaders, and members of a wide array of faith communities, as well as government representatives from the CRA and the Center for Islamic Studies, to assess conditions on the ground and advocate for greater religious freedom.  In meetings with government officials, the Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding the restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, rejection of attempts by minority religious groups to register, restrictions on the religious education of youth, and limitations on the publication or import of religious literature, as well as the lack of due process in court cases involving religious belief.  Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.

On June 8, the embassy held an iftar with religious community leaders, civil society representatives, and government officials responsible for policy on religious issues, including representatives from the CRA and the Center for Islamic Studies.  Topics of discussion included the state of religious freedom in the country, local religious traditions, and the impact of government policies.

On February 8, the embassy hosted a dinner for Religious Tolerance Day.  Representatives of various religious groups, including religious minorities, attended the event.  Participants discussed the state of religious freedom in the country and ways religious groups could further collaborate.

The Charge d’Affaires released an op-ed dedicated to Religious Freedom Day (January 16), which was published in all the local newspapers, including those printed in Tajik, Russian, and English.  The Charge candidly discussed the challenges related to religious freedom in the country and the role religious freedom plays in the stability of a country.

Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.

Turkmenistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies.  The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs.  The religion law requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to operate legally, a process also involving the concurrence of numerous government agencies.  The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the country’s constitution or if it is not recognized as a religion by the relevant state body under the grand mufti’s leadership.  The law also states that the government may dissolve a religious organization for activities violating the lawful interests of the country’s citizens or for harming their “health and morale.”  It prohibits all activity by unregistered religious groups.  According to the international religious freedom advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service.  Authorities arrested and detained individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions.  Forum 18 said there were more than 100 Muslim prisoners of conscience, most being held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison.  According to Forum 18, in July the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years’ prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  The government did not register any new religious groups during the year.  The government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors, and in September rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation that it do so.  Local human rights activists stated Ministry of National Security (MNB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups continued to face harassment, raids, fines, seizure of literature, and house searches.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained and questioned both adults and children regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities.  The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics, to prevent the importation of religious literature, and to create difficulties for religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.  Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

Individuals deviating from so-called “traditional” religious beliefs and practices continued to report societal criticism, harassment, and occasional physical violence, including denunciation by family members, friends, and neighbors for converting to a different religion.  Members of registered Christian religious organizations continued to report ongoing hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation.  Ethnic Turkmen who had converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concern about arrests and detention of members of religious communities, and harsh prison conditions.  U.S. officials, including the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and urged the government to improve its treatment of religious minorities, create civilian service alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors, clarify registration and reregistration procedures for religious organizations, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature.  In October the embassy held a roundtable with various religious organizations to discuss the status of their reregistration, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018 the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other.  There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.

Most ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church or Armenian Apostolic Church.  Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller religious groups.

There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, made up of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, located along the border with Iran and in the western city of Turkmenbashy.

According to the Israeli embassy, 200-250 Jews live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies.  The constitution separates the roles of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs or carrying out state functions.  The constitution states public education shall be secular in nature.  It provides for the equality of citizens before the law regardless of their religious preference.

The 2016 Law on Religious Organizations and Religious Freedom requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to register with the MOJ to operate legally within the country.  The law permits only the registration of “religious organizations,” which must have at least 50 resident members above the age of 18.  The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies, as well as to provide religious education, and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation.

According to the law, the State Commission on Religious Organizations and Expert Evaluation of Religious Information Resources (SCROEERIR) is responsible for helping registered religious organizations work with government agencies, explaining the law to representatives of religious organizations, monitoring the activities of religious organizations to ensure they comply with the law, assisting with the translation and publication of religious literature, and promoting understanding and tolerance among different religious organizations.  The law states SCROEERIR must approve all individuals appointed as leaders of religious organizations, although the law does not specify the procedures for obtaining the consent of SCROERRIR.  SCROERRIR operates under the leadership of the grand mufti, who by law is appointed by the government, as are all other senior Muslim clerics.  The deputy chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers for education, health, religion, sports, tourism, science, new technologies, and innovation oversees SCROEERIR’s work.

To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; a registration fee of 200 manat ($57); and the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders.  Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), MNB, MVD, and other government offices.  According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request biographic information on all the members of an organization applying for registration.  The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but does not define that term.  Each branch of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.

The tax code stipulates registered religious organizations are exempt from taxes.

The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the constitution or if SCROEERIR does not endorse its application.  The law does not specify the standards SCROEERIR uses to make that determination.  The law assigns the Office of the Prosecutor General to monitor the compliance of a religious organization with the constitution.  The law specifies a court may suspend the activities of a religious organization if it determines the organization to be in violation of the constitution.  The law also states that grounds for dissolution of a religious organization include activities “that violate the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of citizens” or “harm their health and morale.”

The administrative code covering religious organizations delineates a schedule of fines for conducting activities not described in a religious organization’s charter.

Unregistered religious organizations and unregistered branches of registered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities; establish places of worship; gather for religious services, including in private residences; produce or disseminate religious materials; or proselytize.  Any such activity is punishable as an administrative offense by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($29 to $290), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for lay members.

The law states MOJ officials have the right to attend any religious event held by a registered religious organization and to question religious leaders about any aspect of their activities.

The administrative code stipulates penalties from 200 to 500 manat ($57 to $140) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or right to abstain from worship.

The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals.  According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine up to 1,000 manat ($290) or detention for 15 days.  The criminal code states such an obstruction is punishable with a fine up to 6,500 manat ($1,900) or one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home.  If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison.

The law allows registered religious organizations to create educational establishments to train clergy and other religious personnel after obtaining a license to do so.  The Cabinet of Ministers establishes the procedures for obtaining a license.  The law also states individuals teaching religious disciplines at religious educational establishments should have a theological education and carry out their activities with the permission of the central governing body of the religious organization and the approval of SCROEERIR.

Local governments have the right to monitor and “analyze” the “religious situation” within their jurisdiction, send proposals to SCROEERIR to “modernize” legislation on religious freedom, and coordinate religious ceremonies conducted outside of religious buildings.

In June the government amended the family code to ban polygamy, effective September 1.  Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 8,800 to 13,200 manat ($2,500 to $3,800).

The law prohibits the publication of religious literature inciting “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred,” although it does not specify which agency makes this determination.  SCROEERIR must approve imported religious literature; only registered religious organizations may import literature.  Registered religious organizations may be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without government approval.  The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 200 to 2,000 manat ($57 to $570), for producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials.

The law on religious freedom and religious organizations states religious customs, rituals, and ceremonies may be held on residential property, but the housing code states communal housing should not be used for activities other than habitation.

The law allows local governments, with the consent of SCROEERIR, to make decisions regarding the construction of religious buildings and structures within their jurisdiction.

Religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum.  The law allows registered religious organizations to provide religious education to children for up to four hours per week with parental and SCROEERIR approval, although the law does not specify the requirements for obtaining SCROEERIR’s approval.  Persons who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, and who obtain approval from SCROEERIR, may provide religious education.  According to the law, citizens have a right to obtain religious education, although obtaining religious education in private settings such as residences is banned.  Persons offering religious education in private settings are subject to legal action.  The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious organizations from providing religious education.  The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 100 to 500 manat ($29 to $140), for providing unauthorized religious education to children.

The constitution states two years of military service are compulsory for men over the age of 18.  Per the provisions of the constitution and the law, the government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors.  Refusal to perform the compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison or two years of “corrective labor.”  In addition, the state withholds part of the salaries of prisoners sentenced to corrective labor in the amount designated by the court.  Salary deductions range between 5-20 percent.  The law states no one has the right for religious reasons to refuse duties established by the constitution and the law.

The constitution and law prohibit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and the law prohibits the involvement of religious groups in politics.

The law does not address the activities of foreign missionaries and foreign religious organizations.  The administrative code, however, bans registered religious organizations from receiving assistance from foreign entities for prohibited activities, including missionary work.

The law requires religious groups to register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and provide interim and final reports on the use of funds.  The administrative code provides a detailed schedule of fines – up to 10,000 manat ($2,900) – for both unregistered and registered religious groups for accepting unapproved funds from foreign sources.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to Forum 18, during the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors aged 18 to 24 were imprisoned for refusing military service.  According to Forum 18 and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the conscientious objectors were sent to the Seydi Prison in Turkmenabat Province.

According to Forum 18, on July 11, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of five Muslim men who were sentenced in 2017 to 12 years prison labor for meeting to pray and study the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi.  Four of the five were reportedly held at the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison in the Karakum Desert, where, according to Forum 18, “prisoners have suffered torture and death from abuse or neglect.”  The fifth man, reportedly a former police officer or other official, was sent to a special labor camp for former law enforcement officials at Akdash near Turkmenbashi.  Forum 18 said authorities in various states in the region accused Muslims who meet to study Nursi’s works of being members of an “extremist” group named “Nurjylar” (from the Turkish word “Nurcular,” meaning “Nursi followers”); however, Muslims who study Nursi’s work denied any such group exists.

According to the Christian rights advocacy NGO Open Doors USA, in April authorities raided a house meeting of Christian converts.  They arrested everyone present, took them to the police station, and questioned them for several hours.  Police released them after questioning, but group members remained under strict police surveillance.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that because the group was not registered, officials “mistreat the Witnesses, raid their peaceful meetings, seize their religious publications, try to restrict any religious activity, and pressure them to renounce their faith.”  Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities searched homes, seized religious literature, confiscated mobile phones they said contained religious material, and interrogated individuals at police stations.  Police also interrogated children of Jehovah’s Witnesses at their schools and forced them to sign statements about participating in religious events.  Courts fined individuals for possessing religious material.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in one case, authorities interrogated two female Witnesses, searched their apartment, seized a Bible and other religious literature, and then took them to the police station.  The officers accused one woman of being a spy, and threatened to jail her and send her child to an orphanage.  In another case, a court fined two students who had the JW Library application (which contained religious publications) installed on their mobile phones for storage and distribution of materials of religious extremism.

According to reports, prison conditions for individuals, including members of religious communities, were harsh, including overcrowding, lack of heat or air conditioning, poor food, lack of bathing facilities, and poor medical care.  Forum 18 reported the government continued to refuse to provide information on persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs.  Severe restrictions on communication with prisoners prevented Forum 18 from establishing their status, including whether they remained alive.

According to Forum 18, more than 100 Muslims from in and around Turkmenabad remained in prison, most of them held in the high-security Ovadan Depe Prison, accused of meeting to study and pray.  The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, an international NGO, reported in its online media outlet Chronicles of Turkmenistan that in September the country rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to end incommunicado detention of prisoners, including those held in Ovadan Depe.

On July 9, the Russia-based human rights NGO Memorial issued a statement citing “a trustworthy source” as saying that authorities allowed more than 30 relatives of inmates convicted on what Memorial said were “charges of so-called ‘Islamic extremism’” to visit their loved ones in Ovadan Depe Prison on June 28.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that Memorial said the government granted the visits after pressure from international human rights groups.

Forum 18 and the Russian online news agency Fergananews.com reported that in September the government formally rejected the UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation, made in the Universal Periodic Review of the country in May, to adopt alternatives to military service for conscientious objectors.

According to Open Doors USA, “It is very common for members of Protestant churches to be regarded as followers of an alien sect aiming to depose the government – reinforcing the government’s need to control and eradicate Christians.”

In April the official daily newspaper Neytral’nyy Turkmenistan reported the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe organized a two-day seminar in Ashgabat on combating the threats of extremism and radicalism.  Various ministries and agencies took part in the seminar.  Participants highlighted what they termed the country’s unique experience with preventing youth radicalization.

RFE/RL reported that in July a deputy foreign minister met with foreign ministers from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyz Republic.  The government agreed to increase cooperation against what it termed international terrorism and religious extremism, but did not take any follow up action as of year’s end.

The government did not register any new religious organizations during the year, as compared with reregistering five in 2017.  Several religious groups stated they had submitted applications, which the MOJ returned citing administrative errors.  By year’s end, the government had not provided any new information regarding the registration process for religious organizations, and the registration process remained unclear.  According to the NGO International Christian Concern, in January six evangelical Christian churches submitted a letter to the president asking to be allowed to register as official religious communities.  In the letter, the churches requested permission to open a Christian bookstore and to obtain their own building, which the six groups could collectively share for services.  As of year’s end the government had not acted on the request.

In October the government reported there were 131 registered religious organizations operating in the country.  Of the 131, 107 were Muslim (102 Sunni and five Shia); 13 Russian Orthodox; and 11 categorized as other religious groups, including Baha’is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Local human rights activists stated MNB and MVD officers responsible for fighting organized crime and terrorism continued to monitor members of religious minorities, including Christian groups, through telephonic and undercover surveillance.  The activists said the attitudes of senior government officials toward religion reflected Soviet-era practices, despite legal provisions protecting freedom of religion.  According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Report, which covered 2018, “The police, secret services and local authorities monitor religious activities, raid nonregistered churches and infiltrate church services.”  Open Doors USA said Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches “may also experience Sunday services being monitored.”

Turkmen who converted from Islam continued to say the government scrutinized them more closely than ethnic non-Turkmen converts.

Unregistered groups stated their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly” in addition to fines stipulated by law.  Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.  According to Open Doors USA, in areas where churches have not been registered police repeatedly raided, threatened, arrested, and fined Christians.  According to International Christian Concern, some evangelical Christian church groups met secretly in cafes and restaurants.

Local religious groups continued to report that security services regularly interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities.

Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children.  Multiple groups said the government denied them permission to conduct study groups and seminars, even when it permitted them to hold weekly services.

In July the government announced it would sponsor Hajj travel for 153 pilgrims, a decrease from previous years and the lowest number since 2009.  In 2017, Forum 18 reported those allowed to join the government-sponsored Hajj group needed approval from several state agencies, including police and the MNB.  Joining the government-sponsored group cost approximately 7,000 manat ($2,000), according to Forum 18.  The government reported 2,100 persons were self-funded but did not report how many individuals applied for the pilgrimage.  As in previous years, the government allowed self-funded pilgrims to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj.

Religious groups reported the government continued to prevent them from importing religious literature and from subscribing to foreign religious publications.  Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s complex customs procedures made it extremely difficult.  The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes.  Few translations were available in the Turkmen language.  The government continued to refuse to authorize distribution of a Turkmen-language translation of the Bible printed in Russia.

Members of various religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes.  Registered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.

In September a new mosque opened in Ashgabat’s Parahat 7/3 district.  This was the first mosque built in Ashgabat in the last 14 years.  Mosques were under construction in Tejen and in Turkmenabat at year’s end.

Theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education.  The MNB reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program.  It was not possible to study theological subjects other than state-approved Islamic theology.  Women remained banned from the program.

According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.

The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics.  The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.

According to Forum 18, the MVD and security services continued to place many religious believers on a “travel blacklist.”  Officials subjected persons permitted to travel abroad to close scrutiny upon departure and re-entry into the country.

According to an article published by the Alternative News of Turkmenistan website habartm.org, officials at the Ashgabat airport questioned returning travelers from Turkey, particularly if they had Turkish residence permits.  Authorities questioned women wearing the hijab.  According to the article, in January one woman said authorities asked her why she was wearing the hijab, how often she prayed, whether she attended a mosque, and how long she had been practicing these religious activities.  She said the officials also questioned her about her Turkish husband’s religious practices.

The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity.  Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork.  As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed to visit the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied.

In October the government reported religious representatives from Germany, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States visited the country at various times during the year and met with fellow believers.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local sources said persons deviating from traditional religious beliefs and practices continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors.  Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation.

Persons who joined so-called “nontraditional” religious groups reported continuing societal criticism.  Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than ethnic non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minorities.

According to Open Doors USA, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure and occasional physical violence from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith.  Open Doors USA said some converts were locked up by their families for long periods, beaten, and sometimes expelled from their communities.

Forum 18 reported the level of societal harassment again increased for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who stated they continued to be treated with suspicion and scrutiny by fellow citizens.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and visiting U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about the arrests and detention of individuals, including members of religious communities, in harsh conditions.  In October the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities and other Department of State officials met with high-level MFA representatives to discuss abuses of religious freedom, such as the imprisonment of members of religious communities for engaging in peaceful religious practice, and to urge the government to take positive steps to improve religious freedom.  The Special Advisor and other U.S officials urged the government to create civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors to military service, clarify registration procedures for religious organizations, streamline the process of registering new groups, and lift restrictions on the importation and distribution of religious literature.

In October the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities and other Department of State officials met with five religious organizations to discuss the registration and reregistration process, limitations to the importation of religious literature, and restrictions to their religious rights.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion.  In May the parliament approved a religious freedom “roadmap” to implement all twelve of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed.  It simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 17 recognized religious groups.  Through presidential pardons, the government released 185 prisoners convicted on religious extremism charges.  In September the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Parpiev for diverging from his government-approved sermon.  For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, run by a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, near Tashkent.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a significant drop in police harassment of their members:  114 cases compared with 240 in 2017.  According to multiple sources, until late in the year, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, detain participating individuals, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.  Courts continued to sentence detained individuals to fines and prison; however, for the first time, higher courts overturned some of these sentences.  Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution.  Authorities fined members of some groups, including unregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, for engaging in collective worship and other religious activities.  The Ministry of Education issued a new dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs, in schools.  Media reported authorities ordered more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs or face expulsion.  Police detained and fined nine bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques.  According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education instructed educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers.  Human rights activists said police continued to check the identities of worshippers and blocked entrance to most mosques for anyone under 18 years old.  According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government banned a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses.  Media reported the government intentionally blocked access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion.  Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including government pressure to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so.  Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, and Baptists, 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.

Senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve religious freedom.  Steps raised included releasing individuals detained for engaging in peaceful religious activities; relaxing requirements for registering faith-based organizations so they may all operate legally and not be subject to fines or raids; allowing members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship; removing restrictions on the importation and use of electronic and hardcopy religious literature; and providing protection for public discourse on religion.  Embassy officials urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and routinely met with religious groups and civil society regarding religious freedom and tolerance.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan had been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30 million (July 2018 estimate).  Uzbek government statistics estimate the country’s population at 33 million.  According to U.S. government estimates, 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 93-94 percent of the population is Muslim.  Most are Sunni of the Hanafi School.  The government states approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari School, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand.  Approximately 3.5 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, according to reports, and Russian migration statistics indicate this number continues to decline as ethnic Russians and other ethnic Slavs emigrate.  The government states the remaining 3 percent includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists.  According to members of the Jewish community, the population, a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Bukharian) Jews, numbers fewer than 10,000.  There are approximately 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharian Jews, concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley.  The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion or belief, including freedom of not professing any religion.  According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society.  The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality.  The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.

The 1998 law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief.  The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.

In June the parliament approved a new law “On Countering Extremism.”  The legislation states it aims to provide for individuals’ security, protect the society and the state, preserve the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, retain peace, and provide for multiethnic and multireligious harmony among citizens.  The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism as well as extremist activities.

The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.”  It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups.  It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four million to eight million som ($480 to $960), to organize or participate in an illegal religious group.  The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison.  The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups.  Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.

By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ).  The law states a religious organization may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it.  The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local MOJ branch.

Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee.  They must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register.  The law also requires that local governments (khokimiyats) concur in registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected mahalla committees.  After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and then send the documents to the CRA for review.  By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application.  The MOJ may approve or deny the registration, or cease review without issuing a decision.

The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.

The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered.  The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy.  Individual clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

The CRA oversees registered religious activity.  The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups.  It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.

The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity.  Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal.

The law restricts the activities of NGOs, the government classification for religious congregations.

The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children under 16 years old without parental permission.

The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es).  The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and MOJ representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.  Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.

The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of religious groups without state permission.  The law also criminalizes unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings, as well as literary and other study groups related to worship.  The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($1,100 to $2,220) or up to 15 days imprisonment.

The administrative code requires all religious organizations to inform the CRA, local magistrate, and the local MOJ representative one month in advance of religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies that are to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region.

Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees and nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police.  These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.

The law prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places.  The government does not enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire.

The law prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.  The criminal code punishes proselytism with up to three years in prison, and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.

The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials.  The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications.  Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.  To receive a Bible, individuals must complete a “Bible application,” which is subject to government clearance before the group or individual may purchase a government-authorized version of the Bible.

The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (3,686,000 to 18,430,000 som – $440 to $2,200) for individuals.  The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage ($1,100 to $3,300).  The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.”  Courts issue fines under the administrative code.  In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages.  The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (18,430,000 to 36,860,000 som – $2,200 to $4,400) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code.  In practice, criminal code violations for religious literature are rarely applied.

The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications.  Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years.  According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The law prohibits private teaching of religious principles.  It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors.  Children may not receive optional religious education in public schools, except for some classes providing religious information or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.

Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license.  Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach.  These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or belief, or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.

The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction.  Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education.  The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.

The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government.  The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam.  According to government officials, clerics from various religions, including the Shia Muslim and Jewish communities, who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.

The law allows individuals objecting to military service based on their religious beliefs to perform alternative civilian service.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to the report issued in February by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in October 2017, freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritized security over freedom.  The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share their religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations.  He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and could restrict activities protected under international law.  He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.  The special rapporteur provided a list of 12 recommendations, which included revising the 1998 Law on Religion, simplifying registration procedures, and allowing religious education for children.

In May the parliament approved the “Roadmap to ensure freedom of religion or belief” in an effort to implement all 12 recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed.  The roadmap also included the mechanisms needed for their implementation, suggested deadlines for these actions, responsible agencies, and the expected results.  In May and September the government reduced the fee for registration of religions organizations from 100 to 20 times the minimum monthly wage (from 18,430,000 to 3,686,000 som – $2,200 to $440); reduced organizational reporting requirements from four times per year to once; and adopted the practice of suspending a religious organization’s activity only at the organization’s discretion or by a court decision.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee – including representation from the Committee on Religious Affairs and providing a platform for 16 participating religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to develop recommendations on religious freedom for the committee.

According to the government, 1,503 persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities.  President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pardoned 185 individuals who had been previously convicted of membership in movements the government labeled extremist, compared with 399 in 2017.  NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention.

Civil society groups expressed concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad.  NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.

On September 19, the government issued a presidential decree creating a procedure for citizens to apply for release of criminal liability for joining terrorist, extremist or other banned organizations.  In accordance with the decree, citizens would be exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.  The decree established the Republican Interdepartmental Commission to review cases.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and arrested several individuals based on their participation in such gatherings.  Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members.  Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 114 episodes of “hostile acts” by authorities against their members, affecting 233 persons, ranging from interrogations to physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 240 episodes of such acts affecting 480 persons in 2017.

According to unregistered evangelical Baptist Congregation representatives, in August the city court in Chust, Namangan Region, sentenced Pastor Alisher and his assistant Abror to 10 days of administrative detention.  Judge Bokhodir Kazakov found them and six women guilty of “illegal religious activity” for gathering at Alisher’s home.  Authorities fined the women one million som ($120) each and confiscated their mobile phones.

According to human rights groups, in August and September police and secret police officers detained up to nine bloggers in at least five regions of the country.  The bloggers had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls for women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques.  Courts assessed fines and jail terms of up to two weeks.  One of the Tashkent-based bloggers, Adham Olimov (also known as Musannif Adham), was fined and jailed for 15 days.  According to independent local news agencies, the bloggers were released on September 6-11.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists website and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Uzbek Service, blogger Ziyodilla Kabirov (also known as Ziyovuddin Rahim) was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative arrest and fined 184,300 som ($22).  Blogger Otabek Usamov, who wrote commentaries for the religious website Azon.uz, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, on July 17, a Fergana court overturned a district court decision giving Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov a three-year suspended prison term on charges of disseminating “extremist material” and using religion to disturb public order.  According to RFE/RL, Bobojonov heads the Ezgulik (Compassion) human right group’s branch in the eastern city of Andijon.

In February two Muslim sisters, Zulhumor and Mehrinisso Hamdamova, were released after spending more than eight years in prison.  Authorities arrested them in 2009 for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  In a closed trial in 2010, the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court sentenced the sisters to between six and one-half and seven years in prison.  Authorities convicted both sisters under sections of the criminal code regarding attempting to change the constitutional order, holding materials threating public security and public order, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations.

According to Forum 18, in March Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov, a Tajik citizen, was released after serving most of a five-year sentence for possessing an electronic copy of the Quran and Islamic sermons on his mobile phone while transiting through Tashkent.  A court convicted Mirzorakhimov in 2013 under the section of the criminal code covering smuggling material to “propagandize religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

According to Forum 18, on January 8, in the Parkent District of Tashkent Region, a court fined Yevgeni Kupayev, his wife Natalya Kupayeva, and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,843,000 som ($220) for distributing religious literature on the street.  According to Forum 18, on February 25, police officers in Parkent District, led by Senior Lieutenant Khozhiyev, arrested Kupayev and Natalya Kupayeva, along with Aliya Sadikova and Elmira Davletshina, at a bus stop when they were returning home from sharing their religious beliefs with persons in the village of Karakalpak.  They were all released immediately after questioning.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that police physically forced them into a patrol car and took them to the police station, where police questioned them and a male officer conducted a body search of all four individuals, including the three women.  Sadikova and Davletshina were not charged.  On March 14, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kupayev and Kupayeva for “illegal manufacture, storage, import or distribution [of] religious materials.”  On November 9, a Tashkent court ordered their telephones confiscated and fined Kupayev and Kupayeva 10 times the monthly minimum wage each, – 1,843,000 som ($220).

In January Jehovah’s Witnesses Dilbar Odinayeva and Turabek Asadov were summoned to the Samarkand police station and interrogated.  A police officer threatened them and demanded they convert to Islam, according to congregation sources.  Authorities subsequently released them without charges.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Radjabbanu Khodzhayeva reported that mahalla representatives and four police officers in Bukhara came to her home.  They questioned her about her beliefs and demanded she start reading the Quran.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Iroda Razikovna reported that Tashkent police searched her home and interrogated her.  Police demanded she write an explanation of her beliefs and reason for leaving Islam.

Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where participants discussed religious issues.  According to multiple sources, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.

According to the 2018 Jehovah’s Witnesses Country Report, on March 28, police in the village of Uzinavo in Karshi District interrupted a peaceful religious meeting of six Witnesses in a private home.  The officers conducted what the Witnesses said was an unlawful search of the house and seized a Bible and other religious literature in the Uzbek language.  Police interrogated the group at the police station until 1:30 a.m.  According to the report, police ignored requests for medical assistance from two of the women who suffered from high blood pressure.  Police released the accused after questioning and did not pursue criminal charges.

According to Forum 18 news service, on November 25, 40 plainclothes officials, including members of the National Guard, the State Security Service secret police, the MOJ, and Yashnobod District police, raided Baptist Sunday worship services in the Yashnobod District of Tashkent.  The congregation was part of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches.  Officials searched the building and confiscated approximately 7,800 items of literature and DVDs.  Forum 18 reported police took 14 individuals, including a 14-year-old boy, to the Yashnobod police station and made them wait outside in the cold while officials tried to force them to sign statements admitting to participating in “an unauthorized meeting.”  When they refused, police interrogated them for nine and a half hours.  According to Forum 18, police recorded names, addresses, workplaces, and other personal details of all the individuals present at the service and on November 27 came to the home of one of the participants for a “passport check.”  Authorities later released all individuals without charges and returned the confiscated literature.

Forum 18 reported that on November 23, police raided the home of Sharofat Allamova in Urgench where she, her two daughters, and four friends, including the pastor of her church Ahmadjon Nazarov, were having dinner.  Police searched the home without a warrant and confiscated a New Testament.  According to Forum 18, police filmed everyone present and recorded their personal details and addresses.  On November 24, Captain Mukhammad Rakhimov, head of the Urgench Police Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department, brought one of the dinner participants to the mahalla committee and tried to pressure her to accuse the host and the pastor of holding “unauthorized religious meetings” by threatening to take away her two children.  According to Forum 18, when the woman refused to sign a statement about what one officer called “illegal Christian Wahhabi activity,” police brought her mother-in-law to the station and ordered her to beat the daughter-in-law until she signed.  Forum 18 also stated police tried to pressure Nazarov to sign a statement but he refused.

According to Forum 18, on September 30, police in Tashkent raided a group of 40 Protestants meeting at a private home for a meal and Bible study.  Without a search warrant, police detained the group and confiscated Bibles and other literature, including DVDs and CDs, the group had purchased legally from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Forum 18 said police applied “psychological pressure” to the group; one woman and a five-year-old girl were subsequently hospitalized.

According to local congregation members, in July in Urgench, police officers detained seven Christian teenagers who were decorating greeting cards.  Ten security officials entered the apartment of the leader of a local evangelical Christian community, Akhmed Nazarov, where Nazarov’s wife, Elena, and the teenagers were the only individuals present.  Police confiscated a calendar with popular proverbs, six greeting cards, a notebook that contained Christian music, another notebook with Uzbek-language quotes from the Bible, and two pieces of paper with handwritten scripture.  Authorities charged Nazarov with holding an unauthorized religious meeting and destroyed all the confiscated materials.  In the entire Khorezm Region, where Urgench is located, according to Nazarov, there was one registered Protestant religious organization, commonly known as “the Korean Church.”  Nazarov told Fergananews.ru that he collected the necessary number of signatures for registration, but an employee of the regional department of the Ministry of Justice told him, “Uzbeks will not be registered.”

In April in Chimbay City, Karakalpakstan Region, local police raided an all-Christian birthday party, according to congregation members.  Police took the participants to the local police station and charged them with holding an “illegal religious meeting.”  Police released them early the next morning.  On July 13, a local judge found all the individuals who had been present except the minors guilty of engaging in illegal religious activity.  The judge sentenced all the women to pay penalties of 1,254,000 to 1,672,000 som ($150 to $200) each, and the owner of the house to pay 8,360,000 som ($1,000).  The 11 men involved were sentenced to five to seven days of administrative detention.  Later, the Superior Court of Karakalpakstan vacated the fines and returned all confiscated possessions.

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations.  Groups the government labeled “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions.  The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country).  The sources said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services.  The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In September the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Fazliddin Parpiev from his position at Tashkent’s Omina Mosque after Parpiev posted a video appeal to the president asking him to allow more religious freedom, including lifting the country’s ban on women’s Islamic headscarves and on men’s beards.  In his Friday sermon, Parpiev also addressed the right to mosque attendance and religious education for youth.  While the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan did not specifically mention the reasons for dismissing Parpiev, the imam told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that shortly prior to his dismissal, an official of the state’s religious affairs department had told him that “You shouldn’t have deviated from the script” – an apparent reference to his questioning state policy on Islam.  The dismissal letter, signed by four top officials of the Muslim Board, said the board’s ethics commission made the decision to terminate Parpiev’s contract.  Parpiev subsequently left the country, according to media reports.

The government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to religious freedom, including local registration decisions, but reports continued to state that there was ongoing coordination.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the new registration rules adopted in May and September contained many of the same obstacles to registration for all groups as the 1998 law.  According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,260 registered religious organizations representing six different faiths.  Muslim religious groups operated 2,052 Sunni mosques, four Shia mosques, 15 scientific centers, and 12 educational institutes.  According to the CRA, the total number of mosques reached 2,056, compared with 2,043 in 2017, and the highest number since 1998.  The 177 non-Muslim groups include 36 Orthodox churches, five Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, nine Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple.  There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, despite their growing numbers.  At year’s end, they had only one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality.  Their inability to register left them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

In October Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to mahalla committees in Fergana and Karshi for permission to open a Kingdom Hall, one of the first steps of a multistep process in receiving government registration.  In Fergana, the mahalla committee categorically refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ request, responding “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous to young persons because of their radical views…have violated the law among Christians…[and are] forbidden in many countries.”  In Karshi, the mahalla committee noted in its rejection that there were already two registered Christian churches (a Korean Evangelical Church and Russian Orthodox Church) in the city and recommended the Jehovah’s Witnesses use those church facilities for their services.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities.  Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application.  Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members.  In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered.  These included the Bethany Baptist Church, Life Water Church, Tashkent Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, Uyushma Church, and Anapa Church in Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church, United Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; Association of Independent Churches and Union Evangelical Church in Urgench; Pentecostal Church in Andijan; and a Seventh-day Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, Miral Protestant Church, Samarkand Presbyterian Church, Our Brotherhood Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Samarkand.  Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren remained unable to register their churches after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts.

In April Jehovah’s Witness Fazliddin Tukhtayev reported visiting the Shekhonchi mahalla committee in Bukhara to seek the committee’s approval to register a Kingdom Hall.  Tukhtayev provided a presentation kit about Jehovah’s Witnesses to the committee to explain the mission of the organization and its activities.  Following the presentation, mahalla council officials filed an official complaint with police.  Subsequently, Tukhtayev was charged with production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials, and fined 1,722,400 som ($210).

For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, approximately 50 kilometers north of Tashkent.  The government offered to register a central office for the Jewish community, but members declined the offer, citing lack of funds and community interest to sustain a central office.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques.  The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan in the northwest part of the country because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.  There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in all of Karakalpakstan, which has a population of approximately two million persons.

Despite the Jewish community’s efforts to obtain recognition for additional rabbis, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharian, in 2014, and none since.  The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi.  Members of the Jewish community said the lack of rabbis limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community.  Jews continued to be concerned about the future of their congregations as the current generation of adherents either emigrated or died.

Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.

In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region.

In July authorities fined Tashkent resident Yulduz Baltaeva 10,334,400 som ($1,200), for carrying out illegal religious activity.  Baltaeva accompanied three deaf adult men to Chirchik, the location of the only registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation in the country, for a religious convention.  Because the CRA did not approve the convention, the CRA determined that Baltaeva’s attendance and her assistance to others to attend constituted illegal religious activity.

Media reported security services continued to film participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques.  Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and said authorities continued to prohibit a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats.  Other communities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.

In September Tashkent District’s department head of public education sent a letter to schools to prevent schoolchildren from attending Friday prayers and instructed that additional school events should be planned for Fridays, according to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik Uzbek Service.  According to the report, Muslims said police had begun cordoning mosque entrances and performing identity checks on youth, as well as prohibiting admission to anyone younger than 18.  Media reported police broadly implemented these measures in the Fergana Valley, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

On October 17, human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told Forum 18 that police and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored individuals who went to mosques, especially during Friday prayers.  According to Ganiyev, authorities paid particular attention to young men and boys under the age of 18.  Ganiyev stated that after they were identified, police would visit their parents’ homes to pressure them into stopping their children from attending mosques.  Ganiyev told Forum 18 that he knew of approximately 50 such cases involving men and boys from July to October.  Ganiyev said officials in Bukhara Region put less pressure on Muslim young men attending mosques during the year than in 2017.

Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.  Muftiate authorities stated they and mahalla committee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on what they characterized as a family’s spiritual needs.

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible.  Family members of prisoners said, and UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed also stated during his October 2017 visit to the maximum security Jaslyk Prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately.  According to Shaheed, authorities did not permit inmates to pray five times a day and refused to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.  These restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses.  As in 2017, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia.  Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old.  Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims.  According to human rights groups in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it remained exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.  A commission established in 2017 continued to review participation eligibility.  New regulations require that pilgrims apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats.  The CRA uses the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah.  During the year, the government allowed 18,000 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 10,000 in 2017.  Beginning in September, the government removed all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to travel for Umrah.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school.  Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles.  The government reported that 1,000 Qurans were made available for hotels.  Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca.  All airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

According to civil society observers, authorities allowed Muslims for the second year in a row to celebrate Ramadan openly and the number of public iftars was greater than in the previous year.

The government sponsored multi-stage Quranic recitation competitions among men and women followed by Hadith (a collection of Islamic traditions containing sayings of Muhammad) competitions.

In September the minister of education issued a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools.  The government expressly forbade religious symbols of all types, such as skullcaps and crosses.  The policy continued the ban on students wearing hijab.  In September, at the beginning of the school year, authorities forced more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs under threat of expulsion, according to the BBC Uzbek service.

According to some Muslims, the ban on teaching religious principles in private resulted in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.”  They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faiths with each other or to exchange ideas on matters of religion.  Some Muslims said religious discussions were considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The CRA continued to prohibit and penalize religious groups in possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA.  Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles.  The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission.  It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.”

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority.  According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 26 in Jizzakh, Director of the Counter Terrorism and Extremism Department Bobur Boymurodov interrogated Jehovah’s Witness Muborak Abdurakhmanova about possessing and sharing religious content.  Officials seized her mobile phone, found e-copies of religious literature and videos, and initiated administrative charges against her.  According to the report, on May 31, police officers separately detained and interrogated three Jehovah’s witnesses:  Dilyafruz Sheralyeva, Nasiba Umarova, and Sarvinov Esonkilieva.  Police inspected their mobile phones and pressured them to write statements admitting to communicating with Abdurakhmanova about religious content.  On June 3, police interrogated Jamshid Umatov and told him to provide a statement admitting that he had received religious content from Abdurakhmanova through his mobile phone.  On June 4, police also interrogated Jamshid’s sister, Dilnavoz Umatova, and told her to provide a statement.

According to congregation members, in April and May authorities raided Jehovah’s Witnesses worship meetings in private homes in Samarkand and Fergana, and twice raided a home in Karshi.  Authorities also raided Jehovah’s Witnesses homes for religious literature in Urgench and in the Yangiyul District of Tashkent Region.  After the Yangiyul search, a court fined two members of the local community 921,500 som ($110) under an article in the administrative code that prohibits production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials.

Forum 18 reported that on July 17, a Tashkent court upheld Gayrat Ziyakhojayev’s June 12 conviction for sharing texts that the lower court said contained “a threat to public security and public order,” even though he downloaded the texts from an Uzbek website that was not banned.  The court ordered his phone and computer destroyed.  Ziyakhojayev was immediately released.  According to BBC journalists, the court summoned him again prior to year’s end.

According to congregation members, in July an administrative judge in the Uchkuduk district court of Navoi Region fined Baptists Igor Zherebyatnikov and Iskhok Urazov for possessing various Christian materials, including three Bibles, one copy of “Bible Stories,” and one copy of “Stories from the Holy Scripture.”  The judge ordered the materials destroyed.

According to congregation members, in October approximately 20 officers of the Bostanlyk District police in Tashkent Region raided a group of 40 Protestants, including members of an ethnic Korean church and other Protestant churches, meeting at a Protestant center in Kyzl-Su.  Police searched the center and confiscated numerous items of church property, including a laptop computer, guitar, overhead projector, loudspeaker, three microphones, three electric kettles, music stands, a writing board, and two Christian books.  Police provided no formal record of the confiscations.

According to Forum 18, police fined persons suspected of storing authorized versions of the Bible, purchased from government stores, and confiscated them.  Forum 18 stated that on November 19, police in Pap, in eastern Namangan Region, raided a group of Protestants meeting for a meal and Bible reading in a private home.  Police confiscated Bibles, booklets, and DVDs and CDs containing Christian films, songs and sermons.  Forum 18 reported all of the confiscated literature had been purchased from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Police arrested the eight individuals and took them to Pap Police Station, where police questioned them until 3 a.m. the next morning.  The report stated police forced most of the Protestants to sign statements admitting guilt and said they might prosecute them for illegal possession of religious literature.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses online news service JW.org, between March and November the Supreme Court reversed four lower court decisions that resulted in fines for possessing Bible-based literature and electronic versions of the Bible.  According to the web site, the court of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan also reversed a lower court decision finding an individual guilty of possessing religious material and imposing a fine.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, police in Samarkand raided a private home where seven Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting.  Police inspected the personal belongings of all those present and confiscated an Uzbek-language book of Proverbs from one person and a mobile phone containing electronic religious publications from another.  On May 22, a court found the two Witnesses liable under an article in the administrative code and fined each of them 861,200 som ($100).

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 24, police in Samarkand raided a private home where nine Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting and seized a phone that contained electronic copies of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.

The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to worshippers, authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported authorities continued to seize religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA:  the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

Christian groups stated they needed more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith.  Religious leaders said they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.

According to Muslim representatives, some official imams said they could not teach Islam to children because the government forbade all religious education not controlled by the state.  In 2017 the government approved fee-based courses on the Arabic language and Quranic studies for the public, but in June it limited participation to adults.

According to the television channel Uzbekistan 24, during the first half of the year, the staff of the State Security Service uncovered 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras).  Uzbekistan 24 reported that for calendar year 2017, the comparable number uncovered was 33 hujras.  Authorities raided and closed each establishment.  In the summer, the government released a film on what it said were the dangers of underground mosques that featured a number of organized underground hujras.  According to media reports, in Andijan Region, Nosirbek Turgunov created a religious school in the basement of his house where boys 5-6 years of age studied religion.  According to the film, Turgunov locked pupils in a cramped room, deprived them of food, and applied corporal punishment.  According to the film, an investigation revealed Turgunov had had no formal study of theology.  He said his knowledge of Islam came from his parents.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.  No Islamic religious institutions in the country could receive private funding because of a government prohibition.  In April a presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.  The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors, improve the research and professional skills of scholars, educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith and kalam (Islamic doctrine), and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

At a July 25 event in Washington, D.C., Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov stated the country’s “new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties,” but that under these treaties “religious rights are not absolute…  when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens[.]”  He said religious missionary work and proselytism would continue to be banned under the new laws being created under the road map because such activities could lead to “disagreements in society” that threatened religious peace and could incite hatred among religions in his country.  At a December event in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov said there were “some difficulties with the implementation of our [religion] laws, especially at the regional and local level, but they are all reduced to a few incidents and are not systematic in nature.”  Vakhabov also stated Uzbekistan had committed to ceasing raids on unregistered religious organizations as well as simplifying registration procedures.

State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

In the March 29 edition of progovernment newspaper Khordik Plus, an article entitled, “Oh, miserable people … Religion is worship, not a crime!” the author said, “What about the various missionary societies?  We have not forgotten how many young people unable to distinguish between the white and the black, were fraudulently lured by them.”

An article in the June 9 edition of Khordik Plus described police officers searching the house of Anna Mologina (a Jehovah’s Witness) and her mother, Svetlana Mologina (not a Jehovah’s Witness).  Police officers seized printed literature, and authorities opened a criminal case.  The article stated that any illegal missionary activity in Uzbekistan was subject to penalty.

The March 29 edition of Khordik Plus noted that Jehovah’s Witness Matyakubova Zamira, “propagandizes” among her fellow believers.  That article stated that there would be consequences for missionary activity.

The online Russian news magazine Sputnik reported in a July 26 article entitled, “The Minister of Justice helps in ensuring interreligious peace in the country,” that Minister Davletov said missionary activity and proselytizing would lead to a comparison of religions and to social tensions and controversies.  The minister also stated, “Many foreign visiting experts say that we should remove this ban.  But this is a matter of principle for us.”

RFE/RL reported the government banned a “flash-mob protest” set for September 5 in Tashkent at which the singer known as Young Zapik had planned to debut his song “Beautiful Girl in Hijab.”  Young Zapik subsequently released the song on social media.

In October the government rescinded an order issued in March to demolish a Buddhist temple in Tashkent, the only active Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the country’s only legal place of worship for the small, mostly Korean, Buddhist community.  City authorities earmarked the temple, a tourist destination and point of interest for visiting religious officials, including the chief Buddhist monks of Burma and Thailand, for demolition to widen a city road.  The government’s reversal came after members of the Buddhist community registered a protest on the president’s virtual portal and with local area diplomats and journalists.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country:  the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Tashkent Islamic University, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara.  According to official figures, 593 persons were studying at Islamic universities (509 in Tashkent and 84 in Bukhara).

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Activists and human rights groups reported there was social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion from Islam.  Religious community members said ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity faced harassment and discrimination.  Some said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials and that Muslims in the community forced them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or allowed burials only with Islamic religious rites.

In February, according to witnesses, a father removed his daughter from a religious meeting at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik.  The Witnesses said the woman’s father humiliated and beat her in public, demanding that she return home and return to Islam.  According to congregation members, her parents threatened other relatives who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and other fellow believers.  Police officers interrogated her and had a conversation with her regarding her religious convictions.

Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christian, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christian Churches, stated they continued to face societal scrutiny and discrimination.  They said their neighbors regularly called police to report their activities.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses members, in May the counterterrorism police unit detained Lazizbek Isomov and Ilvos Ashrapov in Bukhara, along with their supervisor, after coworkers lodged complaints against them for sharing a religious video.  Police seized their mobile phones and searched their homes for Jehovah’s Witnesses publications.  A judged fined both Isomov and Ashrapov 516,720 som ($62), for sharing the video.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, senior officials from the Department of State and other senior U.S. government officials addressed religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership.  In September the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country and met with the country’s senior leadership, including the president, foreign minister, and members of parliament.  The Ambassador noted ongoing concerns about religious rights and privileges for Muslims including religious education and attire for children, the inability of Christian organizations to register and grow their churches, and systematic and persistent harassment of the Jehovah’s Witness community.  He commended the government for religious freedom reforms under the leadership of the president and noted that implementing the road map would help ensure religious freedom is more fully protected across the country.  In June the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities visited the country and raised issues, including prisoners of conscience, impediments to registration of religious groups, and overly broad application of antiterrorism statutes with the foreign minister, the CRA, and leading members of parliament.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador and the Charge d’Affaires met with senior government officials, including the president, foreign minister, and officials from the National Human Rights Center and CRA, to raise concerns about imprisonment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and raids on religious groups.  The Ambassador also raised the lack of access to religious literature and general harassment of religious groups.  At various levels of government and in different forums, U.S. officials continued to urge the government to amend the religion law to allow members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship and relax requirements for registering faith-based organizations.  They pressed the government to provide protection for public discourse on religion and remove restrictions on the importation and use of religious literature, in both hardcopy and electronic versions.  They also discussed the difficulties religious groups and faith-based foreign aid organizations faced with regard to registration, and with authorities confiscating and limiting their access to religious literature.  The U.S. government supported the adoption of a religious freedom roadmap and the drafting of legislation overhauling the law on religion as concrete steps to enhance religious freedom.

Embassy representatives frequently discussed individual religious freedom cases with foreign diplomatic colleagues to coordinate efforts on monitoring court cases and contacting government officials for updates on police cases.

In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held in Washington, the Secretary of State stated, “When religious freedom flourishes, a country flourishes.  As one example today, we applaud the steps that Uzbekistan is taking towards a more free society.  We have great confidence that a degree of religious freedom greater than before will have a positive ripple effect on their country, their society, and the region as well.”

In its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy drew attention to the continuing inability of Christian groups to register houses of worship, of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss their beliefs openly in public, and of Muslim parents to take their children to mosque or educate them in their faith.  Embassy officials and visiting U.S. officials, including a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, met with representatives of religious groups and civil society, and with relatives of prisoners, to discuss freedom of conscience and belief.  Embassy engagement included meetings with leaders of the Baptist and Catholic Churches on registration of congregations and with members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to address their concerns about police raids on parishioner homes.  They also met with expatriate Bukharian Jews and those still living in Bukhara to discuss their concerns about the future of their community, and with Buddhists about the proposed government demolition of their temple.

In October the Charge d’Affaires posted on the embassy’s website an opinion piece commemorating International Religious Freedom Day.  Several major news websites in the country republished the piece.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan was designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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