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Tajikistan Criticized Over Restrictive Religion Law

Emomali Rahmon
DUSHANBE (Reuters) -- Tajikistan has introduced a new religion law which the United States has criticized as highly restrictive.

The law empowers the government to impose stricter control of religious groups in the former Soviet republic, which tolerates only the state-approved version of Islam.

The law was signed by President Emomali Rahmon and will come into force after its official publication.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the law would only "legalize harsh policies already adopted by the Tajik government against its majority Muslim population."

"The picture for religious freedom in Tajikistan is growing dim," the commission, which advises the U.S. government on religious freedom in the world, said ahead of the signing.

"The passage of this problematic new law could severely limit religious freedoms in Tajikistan," it said in a report.

Countries across former Soviet Central Asia, including Tajikistan, have been criticized in the West for using the threat of extremism as an excuse to crack down on political dissent and religious groups outside state-sponsored Islam.

The new law imposes censorship on religious literature and restricts performing rituals to state-approved venues. It makes it harder for new religious communities to get registration.

In Tajikistan, religion has been a particularly thorny issue since Rahmon's Moscow-backed forces defeated an alliance of Islamists and liberals in a 1990s civil war.

Like elsewhere in Central Asia, most people in Tajikistan, a mountainous Persian-speaking nation, practice the Sunni branch of Islam, but there is a substantial Shi'ite minority.

Other minorities include Protestant and Jewish communities. Last year Tajikistan demolished its only synagogue to make way for a presidential palace.

In a gesture possibly aimed at sweetening the decision, Khasan Asadullozoda, Rahmon's brother-in-law, donated a new building to the Jewish community, community members said.

"We are extremely grateful," said chief rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov. "Now we have a place of worship again."

Rahmon tolerates little dissent and has been tightening his grip on power. Worried about resurgent Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, he says his main goal is to maintain political and economic stability in his impoverished homeland.

The opposition, which is weak and carries little weight in domestic politics, criticized the law.

"People's religious rights are violated in every article of this law," said Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, one of the leaders of the main opposition Islamic Revival Party.

"It would have been more accurate to call this law not 'Law On The Freedom Of Consciousness,' but 'Law On Its Restriction.' "