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Interview: Refugee Uzbek Imam Calls For Religious Freedom

Obidkhon Qori Nazarov (RFE/RL) Prominent Uzbek dissident imam Obidkhon (Qori) Nazarov has broken eight years of silence in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Alisher Sidikov on March 31. After receiving refugee status by the United Nations, Nazarov and five family members resettled in an undisclosed European country in mid-March. They had been living in hiding in Kazakhstan since 1998.

Nazarov's eldest son, Khusnitdin, disappeared in Tashkent in May 2004. The family claims the Uzbek security service abducted him and is keeping him in an effort to put pressure on his father.

Nazarov, who is 47 years old, left Tashkent for Kazakhstan after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of religious extremism and terrorism. The UN concluded that Nazarov was a victim of political persecution by the Uzbek authorities and needed to be protected, In the early 1990s, Nazarov became one of the most popular imams in Central Asia and had thousands of followers. Many believe this is the reason he was persecuted by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government. Today, Nazarov is one of the leading figures supporting the secular opposition and democratic changes in Uzbekistan.

Obidkhon (Qori) Nazarov: This is a very difficult and challenging time for Muslims in Uzbekistan -- the consequence of the government's wrong attitude towards Islam. There were many imams who the government pressured. Those who wished to remain independent faced strong persecution.

RFE/RL: What do the authorities want from clerics? Why do you think they want to arrest you?

Nazarov: There has not been a fair attitude toward Islam [on the part of the authorities] since the old times. People in power used to put their will over the wishes of the people. Now in Uzbekistan we see the same situation. They don't want to give broad opportunities to the people. While, in fact, Allah wants people to live freely and have lots of opportunities. [Officials] wanted to rule using communist methods. I told them that times are different and I didn't want to carry out their orders.

RFE/RL: You have been in hiding for eight years in Shymkent city [Kazakhstan] not far from the capital, Tashkent, though in a neighboring republic. Some say that the Uzbek government could have arrested you if they wanted to? What do you think about that?

Nazarov: It seems not to be true. The fact that we were hiding in Shymkent became known only recently to the security services of both countries. And that signalled to us that we must leave [Kazakhstan].

RFE/RL: But why didn't you contact the UN before so that they could take you out [of the country] much earlier?

Nazarov: First we went [from Tashkent] to Shymkent as we did not have any place to live. We continued to live there under God's protection, hoping that there would be freedom again in Uzbekistan so we could easily go back.

RFE/RL: The Uzbek government accused you of being a terrorist and the leader of Wahhabists in Uzbekistan. Are you a terrorist?

Nazarov: What we are preaching is in line with Allah's words and his prophet's interpretation. But those who do not want us accuse us in many ways. It is ridiculous but for the [Uzbek goverment], human rights defenders are the terrorists; journalists are the terrorists. In this situation one should never react when they call you the same as well. I do not support a change of government with arms. We believe things can get better through peaceful means.

RFE/RL: Do you want an Islamic state to be established in Uzbekistan?

Nazarov: Islam does not mean the establishment of an Islamic state. It is wrong to think that those who preach Islam preach the establishment of an Islamic state as well. We don't think about an Islamic state -- we just want those thousands of Muslims who want to pray freely or wear headscarves to exercise their freedom to do so. We want those thousands of Muslim prisoners of conscience who have been tortured there to be released. This is our wish. If there was freedom of religion in Uzbekistan it would be Muslims who would benefit from it. That also would be very suitable for Christians and other religions. We want a society where human rights are respected and freedom of religion is guaranteed.

RFE/RL: Do you support the Uzbek secular opposition which is calling for democratic changes?

Nazarov: We support democrats willing to rescue the Uzbek people from oppression, stand for their well-being, and help them. Islam teaches us to cooperate for the good and to stand against evil. So we support opposition that working on that common good aims.

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