DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan's Religious Affairs Committee has announced that the country's highest Islamic institution, the Islamic Council of Ulema, will be reformed in accordance with new legislation, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
Abdurahim Kholiqov, the head of the Religious Affairs Committee, said on September 10 after Eid al-Fitr prayers at the state Islamic Center of Tajikistan Mosque that the Islamic Council of Ulema will choose new leaders and then implement reforms "for the freedom of religion and benefit of the religious institutions."
The announcement comes after the death of council head Sheikh Amonulloh Nematzoda, who died of cancer on September 6.
Sheikh Nematzoda, 75, was the head of the council that replaced Tajikistan's muftiat (religious administration) when it was dissolved in the late 1990s.
In the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics were overseen by a Central Asian Directorate of Islamic Affairs. Tajikistan created its own muftiat in 1993, two years after the country gained independence.
Nematzoda did not have as much influence as previous muftis and his death has increased government concern that influential religious leaders who are not part of the council will exert more influence over the population and encourage religious extremism.
Some experts believe reforming the Islamic Council will allow for more government involvement in mosques and the lives of citizens via the council.
Earlier this year, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon reinstated the Religious Affairs Committee that had been relegated to a branch of the country's Culture Ministry in 2006. The committee has since implemented regulations and restrictions on religious practices in the country.
But Marufullo Rahimov, the former deputy head of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan, who will temporarily lead the Islamic Council until a new head is chosen, told RFE/RL that changes to the Islamic Council are timely. He added that the reforms will improve the cooperation of the religious institutions under the Islamic Council's supervision.
Saidahmad Kalandar, a religious affairs expert, told RFE/RL that since independence the Islamic Council has changed its name and purpose three times. He noted that the council members were educated in the Soviet Union when there were no religious schools and that they are loyal to the government.
Abdullo Habibov, a security expert, disagreed, saying, "This idea that the Islamic Council is under the command of the government has no basis. [The government] does not influence [the council]. The state and religion are separate."
Habibov said there are currently some 30 mosques in Tajikistan that are partly run by the Islamic Center of Tajikistan.