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Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the MFA, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. These bilateral discussions took place both in the country as well as in Washington, D.C. during the U.S.-Kazakhstan annual dialogue and in New York during the UN General Assembly session. U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the 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. As a result of these discussions, Kazakhstan and the United States formed a Religious Freedom Working Group, which held its first meeting in Nur-Sultan in May.

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 encouraged the government to eliminate the burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

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. 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.


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, to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities.

In June the embassy hosted an iftar with the grand muftiate, which included local imams and religious representatives. A senior embassy official also hosted an iftar with religious experts and government officials. During both iftars, embassy officials discussed tolerance, religious freedom, and interreligious engagement.

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 Ambassador had regular meetings with members of religious communities, including the grand mufti, representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Baptist and Evangelical Unions of Kyrgyzstan, and discussed religious registration, interreligious relations, and religious extremism.


Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government and CRA officials several times throughout the year. On May 16, the Ambassador met with CRA officials to discuss policy restrictions and initiatives aimed at achieving greater religious freedom in the country. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding 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 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 May 17, the Ambassador hosted an iftar attended by religious community leaders, civil society representatives, and government officials responsible for policy on religious issues, including representatives from the CRA, Center for Islamic Studies, and the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights. Topics of discussion included the state of religious freedom in the country, local religious traditions, and the impact of government policies.

On May 30, embassy officers hosted an iftar attended by civil society representatives, government officials, international community representatives, and former participants in U.S. government exchange programs. Participants discussed religious freedom issues such as government restrictions on registration and religious attire. The group also discussed ways to raise these issues with the CRA and Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights.

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 December 26, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions as required in the important national interest of the United States.


Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. These included the legal status of conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. U.S. officials engaged counterparts both in Turkmenistan and the U.S.-Turkmenistan Annual Bilateral Conference in Washington, D.C. The Ambassador, personally in meetings, and the embassy, via diplomatic notes, requested that President Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors.

In October the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom sent a letter to President Berdimuhamedov urging him to “take the concrete steps necessary to bring Turkmenistan’s laws and practices on religion into line with international standards…” and “…allow us to remove Turkmenistan from the CPC list.”

Embassy officers met on a regular basis with eleven minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedoms. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interreligious cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities. Outreach to majority Muslim communities remained difficult due to government restrictions, government control of Islamic clergy and institutions, and fear of government reprisal for speaking with foreign officials.

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 December 18, 2019, 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 IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials and senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, raised religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials met with multiple senior government officials, including the president, foreign minister, and officials from the National Human Rights Center and CRA, and raised concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs and bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups.

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with senior government officials when they visited the United States, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and of the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. In May the Ambassador at Large met with Senator Alisher Kurmanov and with Akmal Saidov, the director of the National Human Rights Center. In July he met with Foreign Minister Kamilov at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington and again in September during the UN General Assembly High-Levels Week in New York. Religious freedom issues were also on the agenda for the annual bilateral consultation, held in February. Several Department of State principal officials also raised religious freedom points in their high level meetings, including the Under Secretary for Political Affairs and the Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia.

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 to 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 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 its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy drew attention to the continuing inability of certain 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. government officials 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 virtually all religious denominations in the country.

On December 18, 2019, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State renewed Uzbekistan’s place on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. Uzbekistan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006 to 2017 and moved to a Special Watch List in 2018 after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future