The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional 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 again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In August an Almaty court sentenced eight Muslims to between five and one-half and eight years in prison for propaganda of terrorism and incitement of discord. Several followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir stood trial for participation in activities in the organization, which is banned in the country. Forum 18, an international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO), cited 159 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law during the year, compared with 165 in 2018. In January, in a decision praised by many religious communities, the government withdrew draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious practice.
Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” In June television news in Karaganda Region covered a government-sponsored law enforcement and expert working group meeting, during which participants referred to some minority Christian groups as “nontraditional” and “destructive” “pseudo-religions” and called for measures to protect young people from them. In an online newspaper, the head of expert analysis on religious groups within the CRA reportedly criticized smaller Christian organizations and other small religious groups, such as the Baha’is. The CRA official stated that the organizations were deliberately preaching in the Kazakh language to convert more persons and lamented that more and more ethnic Kazakhs were converting to these religions in recent years. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they counted more than 50 defamatory articles and broadcasts. NGOs and academics said members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as certain Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other U.S. officials engaged 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 MISD and CRA. 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. 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 visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The most recent national census in 2009 reported approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school. Other Muslim groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.
Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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 registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.
In February then president Nursultan Nazarbayev renamed the Ministry of Social Development the Ministry of Information and Social Development. The Committee on Social Affairs within the ministry became the Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), which continues to regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD 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 MISD 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 MISD 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 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 of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord 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.
Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of those convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.
The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($660). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.
A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” 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 be active only 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 region (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 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, 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 CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($330) and 505,000 tenge ($1,300).
The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,300) 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 CRA; systematically 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 126,250 tenge ($330). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.
If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 252,500 tenge ($660). Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($990) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.
According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,300), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,300), and its activities are banned.
The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities can be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.
The government bans individuals who are fined and do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.
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 law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise 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 prison’s internal regulations. 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 CRA.
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 MISD 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 CRA. 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 15.2 million tenge ($39,900) or up to six years’ imprisonment. 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 CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA 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 CRA 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 a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent 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 to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent 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 law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to Forum 18, at year’s end, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs, 10 of whom were convicted during the year. An additional six Muslims, all convicted in 2017 or 2018, were serving restricted freedom sentences; 15 individuals whose prison terms had ended remained under bans on religious activities; and 27 individuals with completed sentences still had their bank accounts blocked.
On August 5, an Almaty court sentenced eight Muslims from different regions to serve between five and one-half to eight years in prison for propaganda of terrorism and incitement of discord. According to the court, one of the defendants created a WhatsApp group “for propaganda of terrorism and Salafi ideas” and “to increase the followers of such ideas.” The messages shared in the WhatsApp group contained quotes of prominent Wahhabi or Salafi scholars. Media reported the defendants maintained their innocence and appealed. On November 20, the Almaty City Court rejected their appeal. Tirek, a domestic alliance of human rights organizations, included the eight men on its list of prisoners of conscience.
Media reported that on October 15, Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova stood trial in the Almalinski District Court in Almaty for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in the country as an extremist organization. The government charged the two women with inciting religious discord and disseminating Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas in a WhatsApp group. At year’s end, the trial was ongoing.
According to local media, on October 17, a trial began in the Alatau District Court in Almaty against Bekzhon Shalabayev, charged with propagandizing terrorism and participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The investigation concluded Shalabayev used Facebook and WhatsApp to spread terrorist propaganda. He denied the charges but admitted he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The trial continued at year’s end. Shalabayev did not appear for hearings on December 19 or 29, and the court placed him on its list of wanted persons.
Forum 18 reported the court allowed Saken Tulbayev, released on November 29 after serving a four-year prison term for adherence to the banned Tabligh Jamaat movement, to go to mosque but banned him from conducting “missionary activity” and from membership in “extremist organizations.” Like other former prisoners, his bank accounts remained blocked. According to Forum 18, the government typically added those convicted under terrorism or extremism charges to the Ministry of Finance’s list of individuals “connected with the financing of terrorism or extremism,” freezing their bank accounts. Families often discovered accounts were blocked only after going to the bank. Forum 18 reported relatives were allowed to withdraw small amounts if they did not have other sources of income.
According to media and Forum 18, on January 9, the Balkhash City Court sentenced Abilai Bokbasarov to three years in prison for holding “secret meetings” and recruiting other Muslims to the banned Tabligh Jamaat movement. The court also banned him from engaging in religious activities for five years after completing his prison term. Media reported that Bokbasarov admitted his guilt during the investigation and agreed to a plea bargain. According to Forum 18, the court also ordered that Bokbasarov pay compensation to victims amounting to 48,100 tenge ($130) and a fee of 1,255 tenge ($3) for the government’s analysis.
On May 2, the Al-Farabi District Court of Shymkent convicted ethnic Uzbek Dilmurat Makhamatov of “inciting religious hatred” and “propaganda of terrorism” and sentenced him to eight years in prison. The court also banned Makhamatov from preaching for life. Makhamatov denied the charges and said he would appeal the court decision. Prosecutors stated he conducted “illegal preaching among Kazakhstanis via the internet” while in Saudi Arabia. According to media, Makhamatov lived in Saudi Arabia with his family for approximately 10 years until October 2018, when Saudi authorities arrested him and extradited him to Kazakhstan.
Forum 18 reported that on February 21, a German court rejected Kazakhstan’s request to extradite Sunni Muslim Murat Bakrayev. The court released him from detention the same day. Authorities accused Bakrayev, who left the country in 2005, of inciting religious hatred, expressing support for terrorism or extremism, and participating in a banned organization. Previously, in December 2018 the Atyrau City Court convicted two Muslim men, Erzhan Sharmukhambetov and Ermek Kuanshaliyev, and sentenced them to three and one-half years of restricted freedom, a form of probation, for incitement of discord and participating in the activities of a banned religious association. According to Forum 18, Bakrayev’s family and friends said police arrested Sharmukhambetov and Kuanshaliyev to pressure them to testify against Bakrayev.
Between September 2018 and August, 32 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors initially encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported. They said that at first, local enlistment officers considered the certificate issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The local religious communities then provided clarification on their eligibility for exemption and letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.
Religious freedom NGO Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK) reported consistently that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. For example, according to Forum 18, during the year, of 159 administrative charges, 139 ended with convictions, with 135 individuals, two religious communities, and one company being fined. Muslims, members of minority Christian groups, and commercial and private sellers were the targets of most of these prosecutions, Forum 18 reported. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. In comparison, according to Forum 18, authorities carried out 171 administrative prosecutions in 2018 and 284 in 2017. AROK stated that authorities targeted minority religious groups for allowing children younger than 18 to attend religious and community events. Although the law requires religious leaders to “take measures” to confirm that all participants are older than 18 or have the permission of both parents, some leaders said this was difficult in practice.
In July the Mugalzhar District Court in Aktobe Region determined that Jehovah’s Witness Bolat Isabayev had violated procedures established in the law for conducting rites by holding an unapproved meeting for worship and fined him 88,375 tenge ($230), the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported. In May Isabayev invited 13 guests to his house, including children, to watch videos and conduct a religious rite. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police, called to Isabayev’s house at the request of neighbors, arrived to interrupt the gathering. The court determined Isabayev violated the religion law by not obtaining permission from his neighbors and from local authorities. On July 2, the Aktobe Regional Court upheld the lower court’s decision.
On May 2, the Taranovsk District Court found Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Nurmanov guilty of “violations of requirements on holding religious rites, ceremonies, and/or assemblies.” Nurmanov had conducted religious meetings at the registered address of his religious organization. The court, however, penalized him for conducting these meetings without obtaining permission from his neighbors. The court fined him approximately 88,375 tenge ($230). On June 3, the Kostanay Regional Court upheld the decision.
On February 3, approximately a dozen law enforcement officials raided an apartment in Atyrau where the registered Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) had gathered for a religious meeting. Police said they were responding to an anonymous complaint about noise and suspicious persons and interrogated the worshippers. Authorities then initiated a case against the ISKCON members for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. On February 25, some members of the organization received a summons to the regional Department for Religious Affairs, where officials asked them to write explanations and threatened them with administrative penalties. No further action was reported at year’s end.
According to Forum 18, police harassed founders of Oskemen’s New Life Church when it sought reregistration under a new name in May. The church last gained reregistration in October 2012. Officers visited several founders late at night and issued threats when one refused to open her door. Church members told Forum 18 that “the founders do not think their rights are being protected by the law or its representatives”; rather, they “are being subjected to pressure, which cannot help but arouse concern about the right to freedom of conscience.”
In December 2018 the ISKCON community in Aktau in Mangistau Region began facing “intrusive questioning,” according to Forum 18. On January 22, head of the regional Department for Religious Affairs Yerlan Esbergenov stated that unless all 62 founders completed questionnaires, officials would not register the community. The community had applied for registration in November 2018. Authorities required, among other information, “the reason for supporting the Krishna religion” and how long the founders had participated in the community’s activity, Forum 18 reported. In February members complained to then minister of information and social development Darkhan Kaletayev and asked him to check the legality of the department’s actions. According to Forum 18, the minister responded on March 6, stating that instances of religious communities providing inaccurate information in their registration applications were increasing and such inspections were “to avoid such occurrences.” At year’s end, officials were still processing ISKCON’s application.
On May 16, an appeals court reversed the decision of the Glubokovsk District Court in East Kazakhstan Region, which had found that Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Merkulov violated the religion law by conducting religious meetings in his home. The district court fined Merkulov 126,250 tenge ($330). Merkulov appealed to the East Kazakhstan Regional Court. The appeals court found no evidence that Merkulov had violated the law.
Courts continued to fine individuals for illegal missionary activity. Religious organizations said 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.
According to Forum 18, on April 10, Kyzylorda Specialized Administrative Court found two Muslims in Kyzylorda, Mukhtar Gadzhiyev and Darkhan Shilmanbetov, guilty of illegal missionary activity and teaching religion to children. The court imposed a fine of 176,750 tenge ($460).
On March 26, the Baizak District Court of Zhambyl Region convicted member of the Council of Baptist Churches Pavlo Omelich of illegal missionary activity and distributing religious literature and fined him 252,000 tenge ($660), Forum 18 reported. After Omelich appealed the court decision, authorities reclassified his case as violation of the regulation on importing and distributing religious literature and reduced the fine to 126,000 tenge ($330).
On January 4, police in Shymkent charged two female Jehovah’s Witnesses with public nuisance for sharing their faith with others. The court fined the women 12,625 tenge ($33). Later in January, however, the Shymkent City Specialized Administrative Court annulled the fines.
In May a court fined a woman in North Kazakhstan Region 88,375 tenge ($230) for an administrative violation of the law on dissemination of religious literature. According to the court, the woman attempted to sell electronic versions of the Quran on the internet.
Media reported in June that a resident of Petropavlovsk shared audio and video files with religious content over social media, a violation of the law on dissemination of religious literature. He received a fine of 126,250 tenge ($330). According to a police spokesman, “Supporters of destructive religious movements . . . use various methods and methods of recruitment,” such as illegal distribution of religious literature. The report added that there were 12 legal resellers of religious literature in North Kazakhstan.
On January 29, the government withdrew from consideration amendments to the religion law that would have placed 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 have further infringed religious liberty, and they praised the decision to withdraw the amendments.
The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law. Community representatives reported authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels, and police followed and surveilled them as in prior years. Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches and 18 administrative court cases during the year. For example, media reported that police in Taraz raided Council of Baptist Churches’ Sunday worship services on February 10 and 17 and March 3. Police officers filmed the services and the worshippers and requested that they all provide written explanations for why they took part in the activities of an unregistered religious organization. Brothers Yakov and Viktor Fot subsequently received fines of 252,500 tenge ($660) and 126,250 tenge ($330) for leadership of and participating in an unregistered religious organization, respectively.
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 the Aktobe Department of Education, eight girls in Aktobe Region were not permitted to attend classes because they wore headscarves. Authorities fined Nuraly Shakkozov 50,000 tenge ($130) for violating the school uniform requirement in connection with his three daughters. Aktobe School No. 31 stated the three girls came to school every day during the fall, but the school could not allow them to enter because they violated the school uniform requirement. Mergali Tilepin, father of three girls attending Aktobe School No. 13, told media his daughters had to remove their headscarves before entering the school building and put them back on when leaving the school. He said many parents had to agree to these conditions.
Lawyer Agysbek Tolegenov, who represented parents filing headscarf cases against the government, stated to media that parents filed no cases challenging the ban on wearing headscarves in school during the year, compared with 18 unsuccessful court cases filed in 2018.
According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement about their faith. Yerlan (no last name provided), a Muslim from a village in North Kazakhstan Region’s Kyzylzhar District, told Forum 18 he was the subject of “intrusive” police questioning on July 20 because of his faith – the latest in six years of questioning, he said. According to Yerlan, the officer had a report indicating he was a Salafi Muslim. He said surveillance and questioning started after an anonymous complaint that he was a terrorist. “Officers keep coming and asking me what religion I follow, what movement within it, how long I have belonged to it,” Yerlan told Forum 18. He added, “I have the right to reveal or not to reveal my faith. They never say on what basis they are asking these questions.” The Interior Ministry told Yerlan, in a response to his complaint on a public inquiry section of the minister’s blog, that the July 20 questioning had been in accordance with police practices.
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 MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state 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, although religious leaders reported 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 SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided directives for sermons during Friday prayers.
The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there are 2,638 mosques in the country. The government and news media offered varying statistics that were occasionally inconsistent. In March then president Nazarbayev launched the construction of a new mosque in Nur-Sultan, which when completed would be the largest mosque in Central Asia and among the 10 largest in the world.
According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,770 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,715 in 2018. The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,640 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. Based on a slight increase in demand, Saudi Arabia increased its 2019 pilgrimage quota for Kazakhstani Muslims to 3,200, from 3,000 the previous year. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs 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. There were 15 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, an increase from 11 schools in 2018, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.
During the year, the MISD transferred authority for monitoring the internet and collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content to a new commission within the ministry, the Center for Religious Expert Analysis. This work was previously undertaken by the Scientific-Analytical Center under the Ministry of Social Development, which did not operate during the year. The new center did not make public any information about the substance of its work or statistics on the number of websites it found containing what it considered to be harmful information.
In a September 4 interview posted on the Kostanay News website and also on a government-affiliated research organization’s webpage, the head of expert analysis on religious groups within the CRA spoke critically of smaller Christian organizations and other small religious groups, such as the Baha’is. The expert said the organizations were deliberately preaching in the Kazakh language to convert more people and lamented that more and more ethnic Kazakhs were converting to these religions in recent years, sometimes now constituting 50-60 percent of the membership in such groups.
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.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
AROK and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” In June a news broadcast on local channel Aqsham Telearnasy in Satpayev, Karaganda Region, reported on the meeting under the aegis of a police department program on preventing extremism and terrorism. Members of the government-supported group, including historians and religious experts, spoke of the need to protect youth from “nontraditional,” “destructive,” “pseudo” evangelical Christian and other minority Christian groups.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they counted more than 50 defamatory articles in various media outlets during the year. For example, on April 30, zakon.kz online newspaper published an interview with Baizhol Karipbayev, a professor at Karagandy State University, that negatively portrayed the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the interview, the professor characterized the religion as not holding “the common values of traditional religions,” that is, “the universal humanitarian ideals and the values of our society.” He further stated that followers hold themselves in “mild” opposition to the government because the tenets of the faith “lead to the formation of indifferent young people who do not feel a sense of responsibility to society, to Kazakhstan.” He criticized the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytization and emphasized that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in neighboring Russia. Although registered in the country since 1992, he said, official registration does not mean the government fully accepts the ideological components of the religion.
NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming indicated “nontraditional” beliefs, including Islamic headscarves and beards. Media reported on a sociologist’s study that found citizens around the country were affected by discrimination based on their religion. The region where people are most affected was West Kazakhstan, sociologist Gulnara Ismukhanova said in an interview, and many of those affected were Muslims. Many of those who experienced discrimination said it was because of their appearance, i.e., wearing religious clothing. She said the violations of their rights, negative attitudes, and injustice against them were a “disappointing consequence of the securitization of Islam.”
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.
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. The law criminalizing “extremist material” was revised in January; the new law requires that law enforcement demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials in order to charge a suspect with a crime. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) proposed amendments to the religion law, and government agencies conducted a review of their constitutionality. The amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. After the review, the SCRA submitted the amendments to parliament for review and debate. In March the UN Human Rights Council issued a judgment finding that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution. This judgment echoes an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The law, however, remained unchanged, since the parliament did not by year’s end pass amendments to the Law on Religion that would introduce new, constitutional guidelines for religious registration. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups, and Forum 18, an international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported that even registered religious groups were prevented from meeting in public by police and other government actors. The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.
According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. In March Eldos Sattar uuly, a Christian who was attacked for his religious beliefs by fellow villagers, fled the country after ongoing threats against him and his family. His lawyer was also threatened as a consequence of her work for Sattar uuly, and according to an NGO there were reprisals against other Christians from his village. In January unknown vandals desecrated a Russian Orthodox cemetery.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met with religious leaders, including representatives of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups. Issues discussed included the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (midyear 2019 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. There is also a small Ahmadiyya Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.
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. 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
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” 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 law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship.
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 registration 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 in cases where courts concur that a religious organization has undermined the security of the state; has undertaken actions aimed at forcibly changing the foundations of the constitutional system; created armed forces or propaganda advocating war or terrorism; has engaged in the encroachment on the rights of citizens or obstruction of compulsory education of children; has coerced members to remit their property to the religious group; or has encouraged citizens to refuse to fulfil their civil obligations and break 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.” The law also 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 may 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 state 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. In January President Sooronbay Jeenbekov approved updates to the criminal code, including the law governing extremist materials. The updated law now requires that law enforcement demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials to arrest a suspect. Prior to the changes to the law, simple possession of extremist materials was deemed sufficient to arrest suspects.
The law allows public 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 108 hours of community service or pay a fine of 25,000 som ($360). If males are unable to serve due to family circumstances and have not paid by the age limit, they must pay 18,000 som ($260). 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. It is obligatory to serve in the military for 12 months, though the law provides for alternative forms of community service. Religious groups are not exempt from this law and must pay to opt out of military service.
The country is a party to the ICCPR.
On June 19, officers of the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) and the Interior Ministry detained six members of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir in the At-Bashi District of Naryn Oblast (province).
The government maintained its bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups it considered to be extremist, including: 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, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification 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 to ban 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.
According to open sources, extremism arrests dropped significantly after the change to extremism laws in January, with six arrests reported in the press during the year, compared with 213 the previous year. Official government statistics were not available. Extremist incidents included membership in a banned “religiously oriented” organization, distribution of literature associated with a banned organization, and proselytizing on behalf of or financing a banned organization. The GKNB reported that, during the first nine months of the year, 399 pieces of extremist materials were seized by the government, but that criminal cases were not initiated due to the changes to the extremism law. Ethnic Uzbeks said that the police targeted and harassed them, usually in connection with the possession of banned religious literature or support of banned organizations, which they said was based on false testimony or planted evidence. Leadership of two Christian denominations reported that both the SCRA and the GKNB made unannounced visits to their places of worship, under the guise of preventing extremism, in which they demanded that churches present their financial records and religious texts.
Parliament continued to consider 2018 draft amendments to the religion law submitted by the SCRA. The revised amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing and a requirement to notify the government prior to undertaking religious education abroad. 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. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to express concerns with the draft amendments. The SCRA submitted the amendments to parliament early in the year and at year’s end were being reviewed under a second reading before parliament. Generally, proposed laws undergo three readings in parliament before floor debate and a vote.
On March 29, the UN Human Rights Committee found that the provision of the law requiring that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship was in violation of Article 18 of the ICCPR and the constitution. The Supreme Court had in 2014 found this provision to be unconstitutional. Jehovah’s Witnesses noted that the provision of the law remained in force, stating that parliament failed to amend the law to reflect the decision of the Supreme Court.
NGOs working in prison reform and countering violent extremism reported that the laws mandating separate facilities for prisoners convicted of terrorism and extremism were often poorly implemented. NGOs reported that violent extremists were not separated from inmates who were incarcerated for lesser crimes, including simple possession of extremist materials, which they said could lead to radicalization of other populations in the prisons. NGOs reported that prison authorities required religious literature other than the Quran or hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed) to be approved by the muftiate.
Religious groups continued to report the SCRA registration process was cumbersome, taking anywhere from one month to several years to complete. One group reported that the SCRA had not registered it, after five years of attempts. 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 Protestant, eight Presbyterian, three Pentecostal, three Baptist, and four evangelical Protestant congregations during the year. The SCRA reported that 2,669 mosques were legally registered under the law, and approximately 300 mosques did not receive registration due to a lack of documentation.
According to Forum 18, the SCRA registered more than 60 Christian churches and organizations, most of them Protestant, between the end of 2018 and June. Authorities registered the Jehovah’s Witnesses Community in Osh early in the year after 10 years of seeking registration. Forum 18 reported that Jehovah’s Witness communities in Naryn, Jalal-Abad, and Batken Oblasts were still unable to register, however.
According to Forum 18 News, despite some religious organizations successfully registering, registration “does not remove many obstacles to exercising freedom of religion and belief.” Members of various religious communities stated they could still not hold public meetings outside their registered addresses without permission, and that authorities usually did not grant permission. They also stated that religious literature could not be imported without going through state censorship, and that members could not publicly share their beliefs.
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 2019. The SCRA has also refused to register Tengrism as a religion since 2013, on the stated basis that government theologians said that Tengrism is a philosophical movement and not a religion.
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. The State Forensic Service, with support from SCRA on religious matters, screened the content of websites, printed material, and other forms of media for extremist content.
Jehovah’s Witness representatives stated that the SCRA and other government organizations continued to use spurious applications of the law to prevent the establishment of new congregations. On August 28, the SCRA rejected an application by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for the registration of a religious organization in the city of Kadamjay, citing an article in the housing codex as the rationale for rejection, noting that industrial or commercial activities were prohibited in residential housing. According to a letter from the SCRA, since the Jehovah’s Witnesses were attempting to register their religious organization through a residential address, the SCRA could not approve their application. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that the refurbishment of an established Kingdom Hall in Sovietskaya, Jalalabad Oblast, was halted after the city government formed a committee to investigate the construction. The committee stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were engaged in proselytism, and that their community had failed to register with the local council. In light of these findings, the committee, which included the SCRA representative in Jalalabad Oblast, demanded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses cease all religious activity that was not approved by local residents in order to prevent the threat of religious conflict. While the law does not require examination of all religious literature and materials, religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated that SCRA required they submit 100 percent of their religious material for review.
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 again held interfaith dialogue forums in all seven oblasts 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 the GKNB. The forums focused on religious tolerance, cooperation, and mutual understanding among representatives of religious communities, as well as between the state and religious organizations. Religious groups stated they were generally happy with the interfaith platforms, though there were few concrete results.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. Sources reported at least five separate cases in which members of minority religious groups were refused burial in public cemeteries. 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, the policy had not been implemented as of September.
According to civil society activists, incidents of harassment of minority religious groups typically occurred in small towns and villages with majority Kyrgyz populations. In 2018, according to Forum 18 News Service, Eldos Sattar uuly was attacked for his Protestant religious beliefs in the village of Tamchi. After ongoing threats against him, his lawyer, and his family, including threats during police questioning about the attack, Sattar uuly fled to Ukraine. In July police dropped the charges against his alleged attackers, citing the accuser’s departure from the country as the rationale. In the aftermath of Sattar uuly’s departure from the country, Forum 18 stated his lawyer was threatened with prosecution for the incitement of national, racial, or religious hatred, in reprisal for her legal representation of him. According to Forum 18, there were reprisals against other Christians from Sattar uuly’s village, including violence against other Christians.
On January 11, vandals desecrated a Russian Orthodox cemetery in Ananievo village, in Issyk Kul Oblast. According to local residents, 89 gravestones were damaged. Authorities were not able to identify suspects.
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.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison. There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media reports, on February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. The detainees said that during their interrogation, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied the men’s hands behind their backs, beat them, stripped them naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns. Authorities continued to fine, detain, and imprison members of other religious minority groups and organizations for alleged extremism, including individuals belonging to the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. As of the end of the year, the human rights NGO Memorial identified 245 persons who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or affiliation, an increase from 177 in 2018. The majority were Muslim, including 157 detained as of October for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including private homes, for religious services. On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” Critics said the court’s ruling, which included limitations based on the rights of neighbors and health and safety requirements, was vague and gave law enforcement too much discretion to stop home worship activities. Authorities continued to fine, arrest, and prosecute individuals under the Yarovaya Package, a set of legislative amendments passed in 2016 that prohibits, among other things, “unauthorized missionary activity.” Authorities fined a Buddhist man for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit, and a Baptist pastor for publicly baptizing a new congregant in a river. Officials continued to delay and/or prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and denied renovation or construction permits for houses of worship. They also continued to deny religious organizations ownership of property expropriated during the Soviet era, such as churches and church-affiliated schools. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals, including a Baptist pastor from Germany, for what authorities said was illegal religious activity.
A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, however, found that approximately 10 percent of the population held negative views about Jews. According to the Levada Center poll, approximately 15 percent held negative views about Muslims. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they were harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. According to the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), there were 19 reported cases of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 in 2018. These included individuals setting fire to Russia’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow Region, as well as unknown individuals knocking down a cross at the site of a tenth century Christian church near Stavropol, defacing the grave of a 19th century rabbi in Kaliningrad, and damaging 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the Astrakhan Region. According to the SOVA Center, national and local media, including state-run media, continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious minorities were dangerous.
During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities. The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country. Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns. On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut for their involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention there in February.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 141.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). A poll conducted during the year by the Public Opinion Foundation found that 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, and 7 percent identify as Muslim. Religious groups constituting approximately 1 percent or less of the population each include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, Scientologists, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000; however, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia states the number of Jews is approximately one million, most of whom live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is nearly 1.5 million. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, the Muslim population reached 25 million in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the total population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia are mostly Muslim. The majority of Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”
The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.
The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,200) or 500,000 rubles ($8,000), depending upon which code governs the offense.
By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.
In December 2018, the government amended anti-extremism legislation, stipulating speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” on the basis of group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative, rather than criminal, penalties for first-time offenses. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($320) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for legal entities. Individuals who commit multiple offenses within a one-year period are subject to criminal penalties, including fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment of up to five years.
The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.
Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($12,800) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as to persons in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities, the prescribed prison term is seven to twelve years, or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($11,200). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.
Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative penalties for violating these laws.
A Supreme Court 2017 ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses activities, including the organization’s website and all regional branches. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”
The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2003; Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”) in 2008; and Tablighi Jamaat in 2009. In 2015 the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) added the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to its Federal List of Extremist Organizations.
The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.
The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional MOJ, of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with proper notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.
An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.
To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, “and other religious items.”
The Expert Religious Studies Council, established by the MOJ, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.
Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.
The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.
The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.
The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. Currently, there are more than 120 chaplains in the program.
The country’s 83 federal subjects (excluding Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.
Federal law, as amended by the Yarovaya Package, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing him or her to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.
Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($80 to $800) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($480 to $800) and are subject to administrative deportation.
The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.
Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte, i.e., of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. There is no legal procedure for removal from the list, even if a court declares an item should no longer be classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and reissued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.
According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($16 to $48), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($32 to $80) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.
The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”
The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If a structure (e.g., the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.
Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.
The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.
The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.
Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 rubles ($1,300) fine to six months in prison.
By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations and not to their individual members.
The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber, initially by the president. Subsequently, the selectees themselves choose additional members to serve in the group. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.
The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”
Foreigners engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.
Amendments to the law enacted in May and July grant religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities, both on a paid and free-of-charge basis.
Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.
As of December 31, Memorial identified 245 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. This was an increase from 177 in 2018. In October Memorial’s list of persons it identified as political prisoners included 66 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 157 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts. In October Memorial also identified an additional 140 Jehovah’s Witnesses as “victims of politically motivated prosecutions” whom it did not consider to be political prisoners because they had not been placed in custody.
Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist. Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs reported authorities raided homes, seized personal property, and detained hundreds of suspected members. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights NGOs, and media, authorities physically abused adherents while in detention. On February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk Region detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the men, during their interrogation at the police station, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them. Authorities stripped the men naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns for two hours. Authorities demanded to know where local Jehovah’s Witnesses met and who attended the meetings. Multiple domestic and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses called for an investigation into the accusations of abuse. In March the Khanty-Mansiysk Investigative Committee division said after an internal investigation it found no evidence its staff had used unlawful force. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a case with the ECHR.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on June 26, law enforcement officers in Kaluga raided the home of Roman Makhnev and took him and Dmitriy Kuzin into custody. At the station, officers handcuffed Makhnev to a pipe and left him there overnight. For the next three days, officers denied him food while they interrogated him. Authorities charged Makhnev and Kuzin with organizing extremist activity and held them in pretrial detention for six months. On December 25, a judge approved their release from the facility, but according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the case remained pending at year’s end.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 6, authorities in Uray conducted searches of eight Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and took Andrey Sazonov into custody. The officers beat the man on the palms of his hands, forced him to kneel during his interrogation, and threatened him. According to Sazonov, when he would not answer questions about fellow believers, investigators turned off the recording machine, beat him more severely, and then resumed the interrogation. Two days after the search, Sazonov’s mother was expelled from the marketplace where she sold goods and her market stand was destroyed. On August 22, an appellate court banned Sazonov from participating in Jehovah’s Witnesses religious activities.
According to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while exact numbers were unavailable, 5,000 to 10,000 adherents had fled the country in fear of persecution since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. The association estimated more than 150,000 adherents remained in the country. One source estimated there were at least 26,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia continuing to worship clandestinely.
The SOVA Center reported criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions, meaning criminal prosecutions were ongoing in 52 regions at year’s end. The SOVA Center stated authorities accused 313 individuals of belonging to the group and filed charges against 213 of them during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported as of November, 287 members were subject to ongoing criminal prosecution. Of these, 46 adherents were in pretrial detention, 23 were under house arrest, and at least 135 were under travel restrictions.
According to the SOVA Center and Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of extremism for practicing their religion during the year in criminal cases; nine of them were sentenced to prison, including three who received six years in a penal colony. The remainder received suspended sentences, probation, fines, and/or community service. According to media and Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, on February 6, a judge in Oryol sentenced Danish citizen Dennis Christensen to six years in prison, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness to receive a prison term for “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Authorities had detained Christensen since May 2017. On May 23, the Oryol Regional Court denied his appeal and on June 6 authorities transferred him to a penal colony in Lgov, Kursk Region.
Media and Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that in September the Leninsky District Court in Saratov sentenced six Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms of between two and 3.5 years for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization. In November a judge in Tomsk sentenced local resident Sergei Klimov to a six-year prison sentence for the same offense. Klimov had been held in pretrial detention since June 2018. In December a court in Penza sentenced Vladimir Alushkin to six years in prison, also for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.
According to the international human rights NGO Forum 18, a court in Khabarovsk sentenced Valery Moskalenko to two years’ forced labor followed by six months’ probation for “participating in the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Forum 18 reported the prosecution based its argument on a 10-minute recording of Moskalenko reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at a Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering.
Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the Investigative Committee, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police carried out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 44 regions between January 2018 and October 2019. Citing Jehovah’s Witness sources, Human Rights Watch reported 491 raids on homes and apartments during the year, compared to 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witness sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, and conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered the residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 19, agents from the Center for Countering Extremism and FSB agents disrupted a religious meeting in the home of an 81-year-old adherent and searched her home for five hours, during which the woman fell ill and required medical attention. On April 3 in Porkhov, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported masked FSB agents dressed in camouflage broke into the apartment of one Jehovah’s Witness couple. They struck the man several times on the head and legs and knocked him to the floor. Officers accessed his online accounts and seized electronic devices and money. They took the couple into custody and interrogated them. Authorities charged the man with participating in the activities of an extremist organization. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that on October 10 in Sochi, groups of armed and masked security officers, some with dogs, conducted 36 home searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities took Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin into custody and charged them with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.”
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, at year’s end the group had 49 applications pending with the ECHR and five complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings.
According to Memorial, during the year, the government detained, arrested, and/or sentenced at least 25 individuals it accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This number excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula who were initially detained by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea before being transferred to Russia where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir was legal in Ukraine.
On September 12, media reported authorities completed a criminal investigation of Eduard Nizamov, whom the government alleged to be the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention. As of year’s end, his trial was pending.
Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the human rights monitoring and reporting outlet OVD-Info, on March 13, the Volga District Military Court sentenced five men from Tatarstan to between 14 and 22 years in a maximum-security prison. The judge found one of the men guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and the others guilty of organizing the activities of a terrorist organization.
The courts continued to sentence individuals for what authorities said was membership in other Islamic organizations. Local media reported that on September 25, a court in Tatarstan sentenced three persons to prison terms of between two and six years for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, which Memorial characterized as a peaceful international Islamic missionary movement. On October 4, the FSB detained a Kyrgyz preacher whom authorities said was linked to Tablighi Jamaat. A court in Smolensk subsequently ruled that the man, a Kyrgyz national, be deported to the Kyrgyz Republic.
Although the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi continued to be banned, authorities did not pursue any new cases against his followers during the year. Experts from the SOVA Center continued to state that Nurdzhular, an organization purportedly based on Nursi’s teachings and banned as extremist by the authorities, did not actually exist in the country, and a number of individuals accused of belonging to the organization also denied its existence as part of their defense.
Several individuals continued to serve out prison sentences for what authorities said was their adherence to Nursi’s teachings. According to Forum 18, Ziyavdin Dapayev, Sukhrab Kaltuyev, Artur Kaltuyev, and Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev continued to serve prison sentences ranging from three to eight years for organizing the activities of a banned religious organization. Imam Komil Odilov was released in March after serving nine months of a two-year sentence in a labor camp, but was ordered to spend the next eight years on probation and under curfew (not allowed to leave his home between 10 PM and 6 AM). According to Forum 18, Odilov remained on the government’s list of terrorists and extremists.
In May the SOVA Center reported authorities stripped Yevgeny Kim, a naturalized Russian citizen since 2005, of his citizenship due to what they said was his allegiance to Nursi. This decision rendered Kim, who was nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence, stateless, since he had previously given up his Uzbek citizenship. At year’s end it was unclear whether authorities deported him; experts believed he remained in a detention center in Russia.
On June 19, a district court in Kazan sentenced five members of the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to five to seven years in prison. Although the Fayzrakhmani group was considered an extremist organization, the SOVA Center described it as a “typical closed religious community” that lives a secluded life and maintains religious practices different from traditional Islam.
Media reported in May that Sahib Aliyev, an accountant in the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology (COS), pled guilty to organizing an extremist community, illegal entrepreneurship, and “humiliation of human dignity.” Authorities arrested Aliyev and four other members of the COS in June 2017 as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship,” incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy. According to Newsweek, in March police raided the offices of the COS in Moscow and St. Petersburg in connection with fraud investigations. Authorities accused the COS of raising approximately 2.8 billion rubles ($45 million) in seminars and other events around the country and sending the money to the United States. They also said the group stole money from investors. The state news agency TASS reported that in November authorities released from custody Ivan Masitsky, the head of the COS in St. Petersburg, after he spent more than two years in a pretrial detention facility. At year’s end, the case against Masitsky and COS officers Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva remained pending.
Media continued to report official harassment against Muslims. Moskovskaya Gazeta reported on March 27 that police detained 27 Muslims praying at a mall in Moscow and accused them of violating the rules for holding public events. According to the SOVA Center, the men received administrative fines.
Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of 2018 (the latest year for which information was available) there were 30,896 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.
The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”
Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom. They said officials often cited concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence. They said the broad definition of missionary activity in the legislation included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization. In 2018, Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and authorities applied the law inconsistently.
The SOVA Center stated in its annual report, “Persecution of religious organizations for ‘illegal’ missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments package continued, although, judging by the Supreme Court data for the first half of 2019 [the time period for which data was available], its intensity ha[d] slightly diminished.” The majority of the 174 cases initiated under “violation of the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations” during the first six months of the year were for missionary activity. Seventy-four individuals, two officials, and 26 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts in the first six months was 1,899,100 rubles ($30,500), compared with 2,471,000 rubles ($39,700) for the same period in 2018.
Forum 18 and the SOVA Center reported that on January 15, authorities in Yoshkar-Ola fined Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin, members of an unregistered Baptist group, 5,000 rubles ($80) each for passing out literature at a bus stop in Ryazan without a permit; on March 6, a district court ruled their actions constituted illegal missionary activity and upheld the fine. On February 7, authorities fined a Buddhist man in Sochi 5,000 rubles ($80) for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit.
According to the SOVA Center, in November a municipal court in Ryazan fined a man identified as Oleg Alekseyevich K. 5,000 rubles ($80) for illegal missionary activity for distributing Bibles at Ryazan State Radio Engineering University. The SOVA Center also reported that in August, the Mufti of Moscow, Ildar Alyautdinov, and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow were fined 30,000 rubles ($480) each for distributing literature without proper markings. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, in February authorities in Novosibirsk fined two Jewish lecturers, one from the United States and one from Israel, 2,000 rubles ($32) each for conducting missionary work while on tourist visas. The men spoke at a seminar for Jewish youth hosted by the Beit Menachem Jewish Community Cultural Center. The SOVA Center and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that on April 7, authorities, including police and FSB officers, firefighters, and representatives of the city administration, disrupted services in a house in Verkhnebakansky, a town near the Black Sea, at which Pastor Yuri Korniyenko and 50 Baptist congregants were celebrating the Annunciation. On April 9, the prosecutor charged Korniyenko with engaging in illegal missionary work. Authorities sealed the house and banned the pastor and congregants from using it for religious purposes.
RFE/RL also reported that in November authorities fined a Baptist pastor in Tatarstan 20,000 rubles ($320) for organizing an unsanctioned public gathering in June at which a group of adherents assembled to watch him baptize a new member in the Kama River. On December 11, Kommersant reported a judge in the city of Satka fined the New Generation Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) 50,000 rubles ($800) for holding weekly meetings in a cafe without proper documentation.
On October 10, the Constitutional Court overturned a lower court 2018 decision imposing a fine on the Reconciliation Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, registered in Yoshkar-Ola, for illegal missionary activities for distributing printed materials outside the borders of the municipality in which the group was registered. The Constitutional Court ruled the scope of missionary activities of religious associations was wider than the territorial scope of their main religious activities.
In December the Russian Union of Evangelical Christina-Baptist reported that a Baptist pastor from Germany who had lived in Sverdlovsk Region since 1994 was deported after the regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs revoked his residence permit. The group said that without evidence, the FSB alleged he “advocated a violent change of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” and “urged citizens to refuse to fulfill their legal duties and to confront the Russian Orthodox Church.” According to media reports, in March two American volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ were detained in Novorossiysk, fined 30,000 rubles ($480), and deported for teaching English without a license and violating the terms of their visas.
Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,003 as of December, compared to 4,514 as of October 2018. There were reportedly no new Islamic or Jehovah’s Witnesses materials added to the list during the year but there were additions of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox Christian materials. During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,964 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared with 1,133 during the same period in 2018. According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, including before the ban. The government’s ban on all Jehovah’s Witnesses websites, imposed in 2017, remained in effect.
As of year’s end, the government did not act on the 2018 ECHR finding that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECHR ruled the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, and their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. The court further ruled the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,400) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.
The SOVA Center reported that on September 11, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree requiring religious organizations to alter their places of worship to conform with specific counterterrorism measures in order to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities had to be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 had to have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 had to be guarded by private security guards or Rosgvardiya (National Guard) personnel. The SOVA Center stated, “It is obvious that few religious organizations have the financial ability to meet these requirements, and the penalty for noncompliance is high: fines of up to 100,000 rubles [$1,600].”
Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose,” i.e., for religious services. Officials reportedly continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship. Forum 18 stated in September, “Since municipal authorities are usually unwilling to permit the construction of purpose-built churches and mosques, congregations can be obliged to meet in residential, agricultural, or commercial buildings. This leaves them vulnerable to the complexities and contradictions of the legislation which regulates the use of land.” Forum 18 reported that between January and October there were 21 known instances of individuals being fined for using homes as places of worship, compared with 10 in 2018. Forum 18 reported on November 14, however, that the Constitutional Court ruled that providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship and/or for use as a legal address “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” The court stated religious use of residential premises must take into account the rights and legitimate interests of residents and neighbors, as well as health, safety, and environmental requirements. The court further stated it would be “unacceptable” for a dwelling to lose the features of a residential premises and acquire those of a religious or administrative building. The case involved a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rostov who allowed the congregation to use her home as its legal address and meet there for four hours per week for religious purposes. According to Forum 18, on November 20, human rights lawyer Vasily Nichik said in a blogpost, “Some words in the ruling do not have regulatory certainty, which leaves ample room for interpretation by law enforcement.”
Authorities continued to demolish houses of worship. According to Forum 18, on May 22, authorities demolished an Islamic prayer house located on private farmland in Chernyakhovsk District of Kaliningrad Region after several raids by FSB agents. Officials said the mosque violated planning regulations by being used for nonagricultural purposes.
Authorities continued to confiscate the property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center. In February the Syktyvkar City Court seized a house of worship after ruling the real estate agreement concluded in 2007 transferring the property to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was void, and returned the building to the municipality.
Media in August reported Sverdlovsk regional authorities rejected proposals made by members of the Buddhist Shedrub Ling Monastery to preserve the stupas and outdoor Buddha statues around the monastery on Mount Kachkanar. A court ordered the religious buildings and statues to be demolished to allow for mining operations in the area. On October 18, the Sverdlovsk Region vice governor announced the mining company and the Buddhist community had signed an agreement whereby the community would relocate to a different area but would have periodic access to the religious structures on Mount Kachkanar until their demolition. A Buddhist leader interviewed by Novaya Gazeta stated the agreement was contrary to his community’s interests but there was no other way to avoid conflict with the company and the local population. Under the agreement, the Buddhists must leave the area permanently by November 2020, after which the company plans to demolish most of the religious structures.
Forum 18 reported that on January 25, a Moscow court ordered the Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists to suspend all activities for 60 days after the federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor found fault with the organization’s theological bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff. In February the seminary was prohibited from admitting new students. Representatives of the seminary told Forum 18 Rosobrnadzor inspectors said staff had not undergone required medical examinations and the seminary was not following approved curricula. The seminary stated it was allowed under the education law and the religion law to develop nonaccredited courses that were not subject to the same requirements as state-accredited equivalents. The court subsequently suspended the seminary’s license to engage in educational activities indefinitely. At year’s end, the case was pending.
In December media reported Rosobrnadzor posted on its website that it had prohibited the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg from admitting new students for “failing to comply with requests in a timely manner.” Rosobrnadzor did not provide further details.
As in years past, according to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law recognizing the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. The ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations. During the year, Saratov Region authorities transferred the former Old Believers Kazanskaya (Gorinskaya) Church to the Russian Orthodox Gymnasium after refusing to return it to the Old Believers community. Per a decision by the Property Relations Committee of St. Petersburg, authorities gave the building housing the School of Olympic Reserve Specializing in Nordic Combined to the Orthodox Spaso-Pargolovsky parish over the objection of school staff and parents. No archival documents confirming that the ROC had previously owned the building were presented to the parents or school staff.
Some government officials continued to make anti-Semitic statements publicly. According to media, during a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov told a group of expatriate ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemies of Islam.” The meeting was broadcast on Chechen state television. The month prior, he told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.” In an op-ed published on the Zavtra news website on May 6, Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, wrote that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, together with American and “extreme right-wing forces in Israel,” could orchestrate a “massive relocation” to replace the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine with “inhabitants of the Promised Land.” Glazyev denied the op-ed was anti-Semitic, saying it did not mention Jews. On April 24, the acting mayor of Lipetsk, Yevgeniya Uvarkina, responded to a question at a public hearing from a local resident seeking to halt local stadium construction by wondering aloud whether the resident had a “Jewish last name.” She apologized for the remark the next day.
Multiple officials supported the construction of Orthodox churches, stating the country was an Orthodox nation. According to the Moscow Times, Yekaterinburg City Deputy Alexander Kolesnikov expressed public support for a proposed plan to build a new cathedral in a popular central park. Kolesnikov said, “If there is no cathedral, there will be mosques, and you will get another Switzerland. The government will work better if church bells are ringing.” According to media, in May thousands demonstrated for several days to protest the municipal government’s unilateral decision to locate the cathedral in the park without consulting local residents. Following a referendum, municipal authorities made plans to construct the cathedral at an alternate location.
The government continued to withhold property expropriated during the Soviet Union from minority Christian groups. Media reported Father Grigory Zvolinsky, a Catholic priest in the city of Kirov, had lost five court appeals since 2011 for the return of the Alexander Church, a Catholic church built by the Polish community in 1903. For several years, the church has been used as a concert hall. The city administration allowed Zvolinsky to rent the church for Mass on certain days but informed his lawyer near the end of the year that he would be allowed to continue doing this only if he dropped his court case altogether. Zvolinsky refused and declared his intention to continue trying to reclaim the church, despite being subject to official harassment and surveillance.
The SOVA Center reported authorities returned some properties to religious communities during the year. In June in the Altai Region, following lengthy litigation with the Barnaul city administration, the Catholic community regained ownership rights to its church building that had for many years housed a pharmacy. Media reported that in August the municipality of Syzran in the Volga Region returned a synagogue to the local Jewish community approximately 90 years after Soviet authorities had closed it. The community of approximately 150 members requested the return of the synagogue in 1943. Its request was denied at the time and the synagogue became a cultural center. The reports stated the community planned to rededicate the synagogue within two years.
Among issues cited by the Jehovah’s Witnesses were government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($89 million), which remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In November the Anti-Defamation League released the results of a survey on anti-Semitic views of the country’s residents. The survey cited stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they believed such statements were “probably true” or “probably false.” The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was: 39 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Russia; 50 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; and 50 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.
A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center concluded that attitudes toward various religious denominations remained relatively unchanged over the past 10 years. Nearly all Russians held positive views about Christians, and the majority held positive or neutral views about members of the other religions included in the survey (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus). Approximately 10 percent admitted to holding negative views about Jews and approximately 15 percent admitted to holding negative views about Muslims.
Media reported that in August a group of Krasnodar residents entered a synagogue and interrogated a rabbi for an hour, accusing him of spreading alien religious practices. The group’s leader later announced that she would commence “partisan actions” against a Jewish community center.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report adherents were increasingly harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in April a Jehovah’s Witness working as a psychotherapist in Chelyabinsk was forced to resign after a woman posted on the website of the city’s health department that the therapist had used her professional role to promote a banned organization. In February authorities dismissed a firefighter in Surgut after two decades on the job due to his religious affiliation as a Jehovah’s Witness.
The SOVA Center reported 19 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 incidents in 2018, continuing the general downward trend of such vandalism over the past decade (from a high of 177 incidents in 2010).
The SOVA Center reported that on April 18, the day before the beginning of Passover, unidentified individuals set fire to the country’s largest yeshiva, Torat Haim, located in the Ramensky District of Moscow Region, and drew swastikas on the walls. No one was injured, but a storehouse burned down. In March unknown individuals in Kaliningrad defaced the grave of Israel Salanter, a 19th century rabbi, drawing on the tombstone a swastika and abbreviations associated with a neo-Nazi movement. The same month, unknown persons near Stavropol knocked down a granite cross erected on the site of a tenth century Christian church; the cross had been previously defaced with swastikas and pagan runes in October 2018. On June 2, unknown individuals set fire to a building belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kabardino-Balkaria. In September police arrested a man accused of setting fire to an Orthodox church in St. Petersburg. On June 18, unknown individuals damaged 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the village of Osypnoy Hill in Astrakhan Region. On June 17, police arrested a woman who attempted to set fire to the door of a Catholic church in St. Petersburg.
According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The state-owned television channels Rossiya-1 and Zvezda broadcast negative stories about Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, respectively. In April the St. Petersburg TV channel 78 broadcast a story about Falun Gong practitioners, accusing them of extremism and espionage. According to the SOVA Center, in October the Tatarstan-based internet information agency Sobytiya made defamatory and xenophobic statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses when announcing an upcoming October trial of the organization’s members in Naberezhnye Chelny. The former head of the Department of Religious Studies at Kazan State University, Larisa Astakhova, invited as one of the experts, said that Jehovah’s Witnesses “had to be disposed of” since the government had made the decision to ban them.
Many congregations said they pursued ties with other faith communities. A leader in the Catholic Church in Yekaterinburg said his church had ongoing relationships with local ROC, Muslim, and Protestant communities, as well as with immigrant communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with a range of government officials throughout the year and expressed concern regarding the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict the activities of religious minorities. They also urged authorities to investigate the credible claims of torture and abuse that Jehovah’s Witnesses and alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir made against local law enforcement officials.
In June senior officials from the Department of State met with Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country.
Consular officials attended many administrative hearings of U.S. citizens accused of violating visa or other administrative requirements. Some of the U.S. citizens in these cases stated they believed the government targeted them for being members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or other religious minorities.
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with members of religious and nongovernmental organizations and held discussions with leaders from multiple religious organizations to emphasize a commitment to religious freedom and the value of interfaith dialogue. In April the Ambassador met with Dr. Yuri Kanner, president of the Russian Jewish Congress, to discuss interfaith relations and combating anti-Semitism. The Ambassador also participated in events with other Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, emphasizing the U.S. commitment to combating anti-Semitism, and discussing the challenges the Jewish community faced. Throughout the year, the Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC, representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, legal representatives of the COS, and a leader of the Church of Jesus Christ to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In November the Charge d’Affaires held a roundtable with representatives from Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, and Orthodox Christian organizations to explore how the embassy could facilitate better cooperation among them. The embassy also partnered with religious organizations, such as the Russian Jewish Congress, for a number of events, including one honoring American citizens recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Representatives from the Consulates General in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with the ROC, rabbis and leaders of the Jewish community, muftis and other Islamic leaders, Protestant pastors, Catholic priests, and representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These discussions covered developments related to legislation affecting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases.
The embassy used its social media platforms during the year to highlight issues related to religious freedom, including expressing specific concern on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On February 6, the embassy spokesperson posted on Twitter, “Deeply concerned by the six-year sentence imposed on Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Christensen. We agree with President Putin that persecuting peaceful believers is utter nonsense, and call on Russia to respect freedom of religion. #ReligiousFreedom.” The embassy also invited speakers and organized programs designed to promote religious tolerance and interfaith understanding, especially through art and music. In June the embassy funded the visit of the Chicago-based theater company Silk Road Rising to Moscow and St. Petersburg to perform American playwright Jamil Khoury’s play Mosque Alert in Russian. The play addressed the topics of anti-Muslim sentiment and Muslim-American relations. In November the embassy sponsored performances by Joseph Malovany, a leading American cantor, at the Moscow Conservatory to promote the importance of Jewish musical traditions.
On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on Vladimir Petrovich Yermolayev, Head of the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and Stepan Vladimirovich Tkach, Senior Investigator at the Investigative Committee in Surgut, and their immediate family members, for Yermalayev and Tkach’s involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention in Surgut in February. When making the announcement, the Department of State spokesperson said, “Russia should end its unjust campaign against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and immediately release the over 200 individuals it currently has imprisoned for exercising their freedom of religion or belief.”
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
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 religious associations 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 the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a 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. On September 10, a Khujand City court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Shamil Khakimov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to seven-and-a-half years in a high security prison. On October 9, an appeals court upheld his conviction. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. There were reports that officials prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from registering their organization. Registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures. On February 22, international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained for holding a joint service. Forum 18 reported police raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses occurred in the northern cities of Khujand and Konibodom, and that police officers confiscated laptops, mobile phones, and passports. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported authorities detained and questioned adults regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations. 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. 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 hijabs.
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding 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. Throughout May the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address these issues and to discuss concerns about government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.
In 2016, the country was 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 December 26, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to local academics, the country is 90 percent Muslim, of whom 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.
The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox. There are small communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants. There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
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. In October 2007, the government banned the religious organization Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse military service.
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 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 a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes. The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law. 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. 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 the 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 addresses and dates of birth. The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage. A religious association must provide information on its houses of worship, which also includes religious centers, central prayer houses, and religious educational institutions. 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 other places of worship. A religious community functions on the basis of a charter, after registering with the CRA. 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 the 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 may 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 it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities. The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; 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 ($36-$52), heads of religious associations 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($100-$160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($520-$1,000). For the same offenses repeated within a year of applying first fines, penalties are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($62-$100) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($210-$260) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,600-$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.
The Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, religious organizations must report all activity to the state, and the state must approve the appointments of all imams.
The amended Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations states freedom of conscience and worship may 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 representing state ideology. Religious activities promoting racism, nationalism, hostility, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order or the organization of armed groups are prohibited. The amended law also states the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.
The amended law broadly empowers 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 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, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of 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, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by an authorized state body responsible 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 that 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, to be located 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 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 (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned 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 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 sometimes censors the content of Friday sermons.
The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. It 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. It bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and the return of Hajj travelers. Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha holidays.
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 (not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of covering a woman’s head, known as Ruymol. 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 containing religious content after receiving CRA approval. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that 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 CRA permission. 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-$360) for individuals; 2,500 to 7,500 somoni ($260-$780) for government officials; and 5,000 to 15,000 somoni ($520-$1,600) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations. According to the law, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($260-$520) and confiscation of the material.
The law prohibits individuals under the age 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Individuals under 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The law allows individuals under 18 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 mandatory school hours. According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum. As part of the high school curriculum, students must take “history of religions” classes. 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. It 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 degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA. The law stipulates fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($260-$520) for violating these restrictions.
The constitution requires men to serve two years in the armed forces. The law neither allows for conscientious objection on religious grounds nor allows conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
On February 1, according to Forum 18, authorities interrogated Shamil Khakimov, a 68-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, for eight hours regarding his membership in the community. After releasing him, security officials confiscated Khakimov’s computer, tablet computer, religious literature, and passport. They arrested him on February 26 and held him in pretrial custody in Khujand Investigation Prison. Forum 18 reported that during Khakimov’s detention, officials did not allow him access to a Bible. During his trial, which began on September 5, authorities said three local imams had analyzed Khakimov’s Bible at the government’s request and concluded that the Bible “causes confrontation and schism, leading to misunderstandings” within the country. On September 10, a Khujand City court convicted Khakimov of “inciting religious hatred” and sentenced him to seven-and-a-half years in a high-security prison. Khakimov also received a three-year ban on engaging in religious activity following his release from prison. On October 9, an appeals court upheld his conviction.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on February 5, police searched the apartment of a female adherent in her absence, confiscated her passports, and interrogated her for eight hours about Khakimov. On February 6, police interrogated her again for five hours while hitting and threatening her. On the same day, police took the woman’s 14-year-old son from school and interrogated him for five hours. On February 27, police questioned the woman again for three hours. She subsequently filed complaints with the office of the president, the regional prosecutor’s office, and the government’s ombudsman; the government provided no response.
On January 29, according to Forum 18, police reportedly took a female member of Jehovah’s Witness to the police station and questioned her for six and a half hours, threatening to beat and imprison her, while leaving her unattended minor children at home. On January 30, police took a family of three Jehovah’s Witnesses into custody. Authorities interrogated the parents for nine hours and their adult daughter for 20 hours. The daughter suffered a concussion after police pushed her against a wall. Police questioned the family repeatedly during February, with interrogations lasting between five and ten hours each time.
On February 22, Forum 18 reported police detained 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses for holding a joint service. Forum 18 said police raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses occurred in the northern cities of Khujand and Konibodom, and that police officers confiscated laptops, mobile phones, and passports. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported authorities detained and questioned adults regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities.
The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region, most of whom had received religious education abroad, for membership in banned extremist organizations. Local and international human rights organizations said the government “intimidates and arrests” opposition figures on the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism.
On March 23, Radio Ozodi, an affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), reported an Ismoili Somoni District court sentenced Mukhtadi Abdulkodyrov to probation. In December 2018, police arrested Abdulkodyrov shortly after he returned to the country after working for four years in Saudi Arabia. Sources stated police arrested him for his ties to Salafi Islam, which the Supreme Court banned in 2009. Radio Ozodi reported that prior to Abdulkodyrov’s return from Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) had 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.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on August 13, authorities summoned a 19-year old adherent, Jovidon Bobojonov, to the armed forces’ enlistment office. On August 22, Bobojonov formally applied for alternative civilian service in lieu of military duty. On October 6, enlistment officers forcibly put him on a train to an assigned military unit. In response to a complaint by Bobojonov’s parents, government and military authorities denied that Bobojonov had the right to claim conscientious objection, stating that although the law refers to the possibility of alternative service, no separate law establishing alternative service is in force. They said Bobojonov’s refusal to serve was a crime and that the actions of enlistment officers were lawful. At year end, authorities confined Bobojonov to his military unit while he awaited trial.
The government adopted an antiterrorism law in 1999 that prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations; authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups. International NGOs said that a number of these organizations were considered to be potential political opponents of the government and in fact had never advocated or participated in acts of violence. The government’s list of extremist organizations included the National Alliance of Tajikistan, 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). The NGO Freedom Now in July stated, “Individuals accused of being threats to national security, including members of religious movements and Islamist groups or parties, are at particular risk of arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detention, torture and other ill-treatment.” The NGO Norwegian Helsinki Committee, in a June briefing to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated: “The IRPT represents a moderate political Islam….” Throughout the year, the government continued to assert that the IRPT had planned and/or executed multiple acts of terrorism starting in 2014. Press reported a May 20 prison riot resulted in the death of 32 persons, including 29 inmates and three guards. In the riot, MIA said, 17 members of ISIS, whose organization claimed credit for starting the riot, and three members of IRPT were killed. In a statement, the IRPT said it held the government “fully responsible” for the violence. RFE/RL said the dead IRPT inmates included two prominent members of the party who were serving lengthy sentences that international NGOs and opposition figures described as politically motivated.
In October, RFE/RL reported the Supreme Court had sentenced the two sons of the founder of Jamaat Ansarullah, Amriddin Taborov, who had been extradited from Afghanistan, to 23 years and 16 years’ imprisonment on August 29. Authorities convicted the two men of organizing a criminal group, calling publicly for the overthrow of the state’s constitutional order, and possession of illegal weapons.
On September 21, authorities arrested Sadriddin Hauruddinovich Mulloyev, a member of Tabligh Jamaat, a Salafist movement banned by the government. Forum 18 reported that Mulloyev had returned to the country in February after several years abroad in response to a government amnesty program. In a video released by the government, Mulloyev renounced his membership in the group. After his arrest, prosecutors charged Mulloyev with calling for the overthrow of the government, membership in a criminal group, and “mercenary activity.” In October prosecutors asked Dushanbe’s Sino District Court to sentence Mulloyev to 18 years’ imprisonment. At year end, he remained in custody while awaiting trial.
In March Human Rights Watch (HRW) and eight other NGOs called for the immediate release of Muhammadali Hayit, formerly deputy head of the IRPT, whom the groups described as “seriously ill.” The Supreme Court found Hayit guilty of terrorism and extremism in 2016 and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Hayit told his wife in a March 9 visit that prison officials had beaten him for refusing to record a video denouncing Muhiddin Kabiri, IRPT’s leader living in exile. Hayit’s wife said he also suffered from kidney and liver problems and lived in a “tiny, dirty cell” with other prisoners. In September an NGO reported Hayit’s imprisonment continued.
In an RFE/RL blog interview with Qishloq Ovozi published on January 27, Kabiri denied the party was involved in the July 2018 killing of foreign tourists cycling in the country and said ISIS was responsible for the attack. In the interview, Kabiri said, “Under the guise of battling terrorism, [the government is]…carry[ing] out a genuine war on the opposition, and on those who think differently and those who do not agree with their policies.” He later stated, “ISIS and other extremist groups consider us [the IRPT] to be their ideological opponents, and we consider them as such.” In a July submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), Freedom Now stated the government has used “laws such as the Law on Combatting Terrorism (1999)…to ban peaceful political opposition groups, such as the Islamic Renaissance Political Party of Tajikistan”. The government, however, continued to assert that the IRPT was a terrorist organization and that it received support from Iran.
On January 28, police searched the apartment of a Jehovah’s Witnesses family of four in Khujand, confiscating their cell phones and passports and interrogating them. The interrogations continued into the following day, with some sessions lasting up to 14 hours, while police threatened family members with imprisonment. One family member required hospitalization as a result of the detention. On April 2, MIA stated religious publications confiscated during a search of the family’s apartment contained were illegal. On June 18, police initiated a criminal investigation of two family members. The case remained unresolved at the end of the year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on January 19, police detained two female adherents for proselytizing. On April 4, authorities interrogated another member after some of his coworkers alleged that he had offended their religious feelings by talking to them about his faith.
Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government supported Ulema Council that prohibited women from praying at mosques. Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in Badakhshon and Dushanbe. In its third Universal Periodic Review of the government’s adherence to its commitments under the ICCPR, the UNHRC stated on August 22 it remained concerned “that interference by the State in religious affairs, worship, and freedom of religion and the ensuing restrictions… are incompatible with the Covenant.” UNHRC identified these restrictions as including: (a) interference with the appointment of imams and the content of their sermons; (b) control over books and other religious materials; (c) the requirement of state permission for receiving religious education abroad; (d) the prohibition against entering a mosque for those under 18 years of age; (e) the regulations regarding the registration of religious organizations; (f) the regulations on wearing clothes during traditional or religious celebrations and the prohibition of certain attire in practice, such as the hijab; and (g) restrictions imposed on Christian religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During the year, the government invited the UN Special Rapporteur for religious freedom or belief to assess the government’s actions as they pertain to religious practice. At the end of the year, the UN Office of Special Rapporteur had not yet confirmed a date for the visit.
Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups from registering their groups as associations with the government, pursuant to the government’s 2007 ban on their activities. In January the CRA reported 68 non-Islamic religious organizations had been permitted to register, but it provided no details on when those organizations were permitted to register.
According to Forum 18, a registered religious group member said CRA officials renewed demands to religious communities in January to provide the CRA with “information on the number of their members, finances, and activities.” Officials also demonstrated particular interest in community finances, and whether children under the age of 10 attended meetings. Forum 18 stated officials acted as if there were no legal controls on their actions; accordingly, a religious community asked Mukhiddin Tukhtakhojayev, responsible within the CRA for non-Muslim communities, for a formal written request for the information he sought. Tukhtakhojayev stated he would not put anything in writing; “You must obey my verbal commands… [They] are the law, since I represent the law. If you don’t obey my verbal commands you will be in trouble. We [the CRA] will come and seize any documents we want.”
NGOs reported continued government restrictions on imam-khatibs and imams, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.
According to the Akhbor news agency, government officials in Nurobod District banned Friday prayers at a local mosque. They declared prayer would be allowed only after the district reached its military conscription target. On April 26, as district residents were preparing to pray, authorities ordered the worshippers to leave the mosque.
In a June submission to the UNHRC, HRW stated the government “severely curtails freedom of religion or belief, proscribing certain forms of dress, including the hijab for women and long beards for men.” While there is no legal prohibition against wearing a hijab or a beard, NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce the ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing. In a June submission to the UN, the NGOs Human Rights Vision Foundation, Eurasian Dialogue Institution, and the Tajik Freethinkers Forum said official media stigmatized and persecuted religious women, and that local police and ruling party activists organized surprise public inspections of women wearing hijabs, requiring them to remove the headwear. The NGOs also said female patients wearing hijabs were refused treatment in public health clinics and faced restricted access or were denied entrance to educational establishments and administrative buildings. According to an Akhbor news agency report, a government protocol prohibits the import and sale of clothing “alien to national culture.”
Local women were permitted to cover their hair in a traditional Tajik-style head scarf known as a Ruymol, in which the scarf covers a woman’s hair and is tied in the back.
In May a local news website showed security officials stopping and questioning women wearing the hijab on a street in Dushanbe. In December the press reported that Nilufar Rajabova accused Dushanbe police of insulting and threatening her after she was detained with some two dozen others in a raid targeting women wearing hijabs. On October 22, police in Dushanbe arrested a young woman and ultimately fined her 175 somoni ($18) for refusing to remove a black-colored hijab. In January RFE/RL reported passport officials demanded young men return to their office without beards if they wanted a passport. RFE/RL stated many officials regarded beards as a foreign intrusion on local culture and a telltale sign of religious or other extremism.
In August Payom news portal reported the MIA instructed public transportation drivers to pick up women wearing hijabs along their routes around Dushanbe and take them to the MIA. Once the women were registered by the MIA, they were released.
Multiple sources continued to report on the conversion of mosques into other facilities. During a press conference on January 29, Chairman of Isfara City Sijouddin Salomzoda said that in 2018 the government closed 56 mosques in Isfara due to poor sanitation and lack of registration. According to Salomzoda, the government converted these mosques into social facilities, kindergartens, and medical clinics. He said there were 112 mosques, including one central Friday mosque, 11 Friday mosques, and 100 five-time prayer mosques functioning in Isfara.
In February Akhbor news agency reported 67 mosques were closed in Bobojon Ghafurov District due to poor sanitation and lack of registration. The mosques were also converted to social and cultural facilities. According to Akhbor news agency, there are 116 mosques, including one central Friday mosque, 16 Friday mosques, 98 five-time prayer mosques, and one Christian church in the district. Akhbor also reported Chairman of Istaravshan City Bahrom Inoyatzoda said 12 mosques were closed in 2018.
On August 16, Akhbor reported authorities had converted the former Khoja Ansori madrassah in Khovaling District into a music school.
According to press, the government established a commission in February to assess whether the country needed new mosques or should reopen some of the mosques it had closed in recent years. On February 6, CRA Chairman Sulaymon Davlatzolda said the commission would submit its findings to the government, which would decide where mosques should be built or reopened. As of the end of the year, the commission had not submitted its findings. The press report also stated authorities had reopened dozens of mosques in recent months, including 100 in the southern district of Bokhtar.
The government continued to state it controlled the religious education of its citizens both domestically and abroad to prevent “illegal education, propaganda, and dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and enmity.” The government mandated that anyone wishing to study religion aboard should receive government approval and should study at a government-approved religious institution.
At a February 6 press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said 3,758 citizens had been illegally studying abroad at religious educational institutes. According to the CRA, 3,571 individuals returned from studies abroad over the past 10 years; 113 of them returned to their former places of education in the country and 54 persons returned to their studies abroad. Davlatzoda stated 241 citizens were studying illegally at religious institutions in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan. According to a December 14 report by RFE/RL, an estimated 3,400 students have returned from studying in foreign madrasahs since 2010, when the president demanded that parents bring their minor children home to prevent them from “becoming terrorists.” The report stated children who returned were required to undergo “readjustment” in local boarding schools and that authorities continued to monitor them long after returning to the country.
Rahmonali Rahimzoda, head of the enforcement branch of the Customs Service, stated to RFE/RL on February 14 that authorities had confiscated and burned 5,000 evangelical Christian calendars ordered by a state-registered Baptist church. Rahimzoda stated it was “illegal to bring religious literature” into the country without the permission from the Ministry of Culture. The calendars included Bible verses. Authorities fined the church 400 somoni ($41).
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. Individuals said they were more comfortable discussing abuses of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or restrictions on religious freedom.
On September 30, three women reportedly approached girls wearing hijabs in Dushanbe’s Sino District, telling them that wearing a hijab is “alien to Tajik culture.”
Leaders of minority religious groups stated their communities enjoyed positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, who, they said, did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations. Other minority religious group leaders stated that converts from Islam experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors. Baha’i faith members said they continued to face discrimination from the general public.
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.