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Tension In A Tajik City After Authorities Hand Mosque To Homeless Family

The Khati Roh prayer house is among dozens of so-called unregistered mosques that officials in Kulob Province have closed down. 

The Khati Roh prayer house is among dozens of so-called unregistered mosques that officials in Kulob Province have closed down. 

KULOB, Tajikistan -- There’s a tug-of-war between the state and society in Tajikistan over mosques, and Savsan Jonova is stuck right in the middle of it.

Jonova lives in a mosque -- an unregistered prayer house that was taken away from the believers who built it and given to her by authorities in the southern city of Kulob.

For Jonova, a single mother of two who was left without a roof over her head after her divorce 15 years ago, the one-story structure in Khati Roh, an unremarkable neighborhood of modest houses and defunct factories, is a dream of home ownership come true.

For the jittery government of authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon, whose fears of a surge in extremism have been stoked by the departure of hundreds of Tajiks to join Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, it is part of a solution to the perceived problem of unregistered mosques.

But Jonova’s neighbors -- at least the ones who built the house of worship in 2014 -- are not so happy.

While they acknowledge building the mosque without official permission, they see the government’s move as an affront -- and have made that abundantly clear to the newcomer.

While many in Khati Roh declined to comment, a 60-year-old man who chipped in to build the mosque said that he and others were “extremely angry,” particularly when authorities first moved Jonova into the building.

The man, who did not want his name published, said some “furious” residents would throw stones in the direction of Jonova when she passed by -- aiming not to hit her but to make clear that she and her family were not welcome.

Savsan Jonova: "No peace and quiet"

Savsan Jonova: "No peace and quiet"

Jonova told RFE/RL that her neighbors have given her “no peace and quiet” since she moved in earlier this year.

In addition to what she described as verbal attacks, she alleges that neighbors once cut the power lines to the building, prompting her to file a complaint with prosecutors.

"They come in groups every now and then, demanding that I pay for water pipes or a transformer they had installed here," she said.

Several of Jonova’s neighbors in Khati Roh declined to comment to RFE/RL. The head of the district, Sharifkhon Tabarov, said that "only those who took part in the construction of the building are unhappy."

The government risks making many more people unhappy.

The Khati Roh prayer house is among dozens of so-called unregistered mosques that officials in Kulob Province have closed down in recent months.

Seven of them have been given to homeless families, while others are now being used as community centers, teahouses, and the like -- an echo of the Soviet era when the communist government turned houses of worship into warehouses and barns.

In Khovaling district, adjacent to Khati Roh, five unregistered mosques were recently given to five low-income families who had been sharing a single, small home.

The closures in Kulob are part of a persistent, nationwide crackdown on phenomena that the long-ruling Rahmon believes could foster religious extremism and help militants abroad find followers in the poor, predominantly Sunni Muslim country, where echoes of a 1992-97 civil war that pitted Islamists and other opposition forces against the government are still strong.

Last year, the country’s sole Islamic political party was shut down and officially branded a terrorist organization. Several of its leaders have been imprisoned. In most cases, minors who do not study at state-run religious schools are prohibited from praying in mosques.

Tajik authorities have shut down hundreds of unregistered mosques across the country in the past decade.

There are 3,930 officially registered mosques in the nation of some 8 million people -- most of them simple one-story buildings with no minarets. Mosques and Islamic schools outside the mainstream have come under increased scrutiny as officials express concern over more than 1,000 Tajik nationals joining IS militants in Syria and Iraq.

Rahmon has named Kulob Province, which borders Afghanistan, as one of several regions where extremist tendencies have become increasingly prevalent.

In a speech in January, Rahmon said that "religious extremist groups mostly use mosques, religious institutions, and the Internet to recruit people," especially the young.

He said there were 1,470 unregistered mosques operating in Tajikistan and urged local officials to build other places for people to spend their spare time, such as sports facilities.

Authorities in Kulob Province say they have since closed down 54 unregistered prayer houses.

Kenjamo Majidova, the deputy mayor of Kulob, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that authorities warned the residents of Khati Roh before moving Jonova and her family into the mosque.

"We gave them the option of giving the building to a local family who had no place to live,” he said -- as opposed to Jonova, who is from another part of Kulob. “We also offered to turn it into a sports center, but they rejected that, saying no one would come to play sports in a mosque."

"Then we and law-enforcement officials moved Jonova into the building," she said, adding that Jonova is now the legal owner of the property.

Jonova previously lived in the regional office of the Communist Party, with a statue of Lenin peering out from a corner.

Jonova previously lived in the regional office of the Communist Party, with a statue of Lenin peering out from a corner.

The neighbor who spoke to RFE/RL disputed this account, saying officials had not consulted residents about the issue.

Jonova, 45, says she is thrilled to own a home and has no intention of moving out, whatever the neighbors say or do.

She has moved the family's belongings -- not much more than a few cushions, an old television set, and a hot plate -- into the former mosque, which consists of a single large room and a corridor.

Jonova plans to "slightly change the inside of the building,” where she lives with her 24-year-old son. Her daughter, who is older, is married and lives elsewhere.

After her own marriage ended in divorce, Jonova and her children had no place to live.

"None of our relatives helped us," Jonova says. "I've been asking authorities and parliament to help my family to get a roof over our heads."

Before moving to the former mosque, Jonova lived for six years in the regional office of the Communist Party, of which she is a member -- an unusual arrangement that required her to move her belongings to the side to make room for meetings. In that makeshift home, a bust of Bolshevik Revolution leader Vladimir Lenin peered out from a corner behind a bed.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mahmudjon Rahmatzoda in Kulob