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Kyrgyzstan: Survey Reports Positive Findings On Religious Freedom

A new report on religion in Kyrgyzstan shows that both registered and unregistered religious communities appear to function freely. However, a conflict surrounding last year's closure of six mosques in southern Kyrgyzstan continues. Also in the south, concerns are growing that Christian proselytism is sparking anger among Muslim believers.

Prague, 9 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Igor Rotar, the Central Asian correspondent for the Forum 18 news service, recently visited the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as well as the south of the country. He found that both registered and unregistered religious communities appear to enjoy relative freedom to practice their beliefs.

Forum 18 is a Norway-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Rotar says unregistered religious communities enjoy considerable freedom in Kyrgyzstan, despite a 1996 presidential decree requiring religious communities to register. "Despite [the fact that] formally the religious communities need registration, if you work without registration you have no serious problem," he said. "The situation in the [Kyrgyz] republic is very good. Really, the believers don't have serious problems."

Elsewhere in Central Asia, the situation facing religious activities is far from ideal, especially in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where meetings of unregistered groups often lead to fines, imprisonment, or other punishment.

But in his survey of religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan, Rotar notes that the only devout Muslims in the country to face persecution are members of the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir, because of the fears associated with their political activities.

As in other Central Asian republics, authorities in Kyrgyzstan have banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international Islamic organization advocating the creation of a region-wide Islamic caliphate and a return to Islam in its pure, original form.

Ambassador Markus Muller, head of the Bishkek mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), agrees with Rotar's assessment. "The religious groups in general are working and functioning here very freely," Muller said. "And I did not hear [of] any major problems." But he added that there may be one exception -- Hizb ut-Tahrir, which he said "is considered by some people as a militant Islamic group. The group [has] faced some problems."

However, the report mentions several incidents last year raising concerns over violations of believers' rights by local authorities.

Six mosques were closed down and ordered destroyed by the head of the local administration in a district of the southern Djal-alabad region. He claimed that they had been built illegally on state-owned land.

In the same region, teachers in the town of Bazar-Kurgan told children not to perform daily prayers, even at home. Meanwhile teachers in several schools in the southern city of Karasuu in the Osh region forbade female pupils from attending lessons if they were wearing headscarves.

After several weeks, Rotar notes, the pressure on the schoolchildren ceased. But the closure of the mosques has not been overturned and the official who ordered it has not been punished.

According to Rotar, the most serious problem is the authorities' temptation to launch a campaign against Christian proselytism. The correspondent says Protestant missionaries are actively working in southern Kyrgyzstan, which arouses great displeasure among the local population.

"The policy of freedom followed [by the] Kyrgyz authorities [allows] proselytism. Now, maybe for authorities proselytism will become a big problem [because it] may provoke conflicts in the south of Kyrgyzstan, [where] 30 percent of the population is Uzbek. And these people are very [devout Muslims] and are very unhappy that Protestant priests can preach freely," Rotar said.

Occasionally, rural communities shun Christian converts and try to exile them or refuse to let them be buried in the local cemetery.

But according to Markus Miller of the OSCE, there is no negative opinion in general against new religions. He stressed that all religions, including Islam, are developing -- much as they are elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.

"[New religions] are observed. People are very much attentive to their work. But for the time being they have not had any major problem. Religion itself is becoming a topic again. And people discuss religion, they are becoming religious again. Now the [Protestants], the Catholics, the Orthodox but also the Muslims [are] developing again. They are filling a vacuum which was created during the Soviet times," Miller said.

Nevertheless, Bishkek resident Stalbek Nurmambet-uulu says there are risks of conflict, even in the capital's surroundings. "Religious diversity creates different opinions in the society and could lead to divisions between the people. Some religious sects are using this moment when people are experiencing hardship and poverty. They are attracting Kyrgyz youth from outside Bishkek. They convert them by using tricky methods. In these areas, there are risks of clashes. I think we have to work more to explain Islamic rules," Nurmambet-uulu said.

The Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ has been accused of using such methods. It claims around 10,000 members in Kyrgyzstan, 40 percent of whom are ethnic Kyrgyz.

The Church of Jesus Christ is facing obstruction in registering affiliated congregations and a tax bill of more than $100,000, even though religious groups are officially tax-exempt. But authorities threatened to seize their church building in Bishkek if the tax was not paid, and to close down the church.

But as Rotar notes, the authorities seem to have eased pressure on the church, much as they have on Kyrgyzstan's other religious groups.

(Ainura Asankojoeva of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)