Accessibility links

Kyrgyz Converts From Islam Ask, 'Where Can We Bury Our Dead?'

  • Bruce Pannier

The grave of the 14-year-old Baptist boy outside Naryn

The path to the grave is the last journey people take on this planet. And finding a final resting place in some parts of Kyrgyzstan recently became much more complicated.

A predominantly Muslim country, Kyrgyzstan is home to more than 80 different ethnic groups, so naturally there are a number of different religious beliefs represented. For years, the differences of faith have not been much of a problem, but recent incidents indicate a lack of tolerance is growing in some areas.

The most glaring example of interfaith discord happened in the village of Kulanak, in the northern Naryn province, in May. A 14-year-old boy, whose family had converted from Islam to Baptist, died and the burial turned into a fiasco.

Felix Corley of the Norway-based Forum 18 organization, which monitors religious freedom, says that the boy's burial was "obstructed" by "the head of the local administration, the police, and the village mob." He says the boy's family "faced a lot of pressure, which they felt was an attempt to drive them out of the village."

The police ended up taking the body and burying it 40 kilometers away in Ak-Kiya, near the city of Naryn, in "a place that's been designated for burying Kyrgyz who are not Muslims, people who have accepted other faiths," Corley adds.

Official Denial

However, Kanybek Kalbaev, the regional prosecutor, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the "problem between Muslims and Baptists arose from land problems. According to the Baptists, they received a decision from the regional department on land apportionment [for their cemetery]. But residents [of Kulanak] say that the land given for the Baptist cemetery is located next to agricultural land and that there would be sanitary-ecological concerns."

The head of the state agency for religious affairs, Kanybek Osmanaliev, says Kulanak is not the first example of religious tensions over a burial, but he downplays the significance of such incidents, describing them as "local conflicts."

But Corley of Forum 18 says the "conflict" over burial sites is more than an isolated, local problem. He said it affects more than just Baptists and that government officials are avoiding involvement in the dispute.

"A number of ethnic Kyrgyz or ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan have joined other faiths, they've become either Protestant Christians or Jehovah's Witnesses or Hare Krishnas or Baha'is, a variety of faiths and the government appears to be unwilling to solve this problem," Corley says, "they won't rule on -- are these cemeteries the property of, or under the control of the local administration and there for everyone who dies, or are they Muslim cemeteries under the control of the Muslim community or the Muslim board and therefore only available for Muslims who have died."

Finding Solutions

Forum 18 quoted one Kyrgyz Jehovah's Witnesses leader as saying negotiations with local officials were usually necessary before their community could bury their dead. Corley notes that "once somebody has died you can't hang around and engage in endless discussion and negotiation because the family is waiting to bury the body."

One Baha'i believer says his community often allows local Muslim leaders to perform a traditional Islamic ceremony for deceased Baha'i members, "but of course we are not happy with this situation."

Kyrgyzstan's Russian Orthodox community has not experienced such problems and sometimes the other Christian groups are able to arrange burials in Orthodox cemeteries. But that is not an option for the Hare Krishnas and Baha'is.

The problem does not seem likely to be resolved in Naryn anytime soon. Akylbek, a Baptist resident of the city of Naryn, came in May to Kulanak to show his support for the boy's family. He says that the distance to the officially approved cemetery is an extra burden.

Akylbek says the Baptists "are being tormented.... We can perform burials at Ak-Kiya, but we shouldn't have to go there to bury someone every time."

The state agency for religious affairs held a meeting earlier this month to discuss ways to defuse the tensions.

According to Forum 18, religious minorities said the meeting failed to find a solution. Religious affairs agency chief Osmanaliev said the only agreement from the meeting was that "each time such a problem occurs, the heads of [the various] religious communities should meet to find a common solution."

Amirbek Usmanov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report