Local school officials in Uzbekistan's Andijon Province are on a mission to keep kids in school -- even if it means dragging them out of the mosque.
The effort follows a "special order" handed down last week during a meeting of provincial education and government officials meeting to discuss youth and crime. In the course of the meeting, it was decided that more should be done to keep minors away from Internet cafes, game clubs -- and even mosques -- during school hours.
But some see the initiative -- which includes "raids" on mosques in search of truants, and requesting parents to keep close tabs on their children's whereabouts -- as a part of a government effort to suppress religious freedoms.
Karimov's political opponents and human rights groups accuse the government of exaggerating the risk of extremism and terrorism, and using it as a pretext to crackdown on dissent.
One local school director, who spoke to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity, shed light on some of the measures he is taking to follow up on the directives.
"I asked the heads of each classes to check if their students go to prayers," the director says, "but the teachers said, 'We don't have such students.' Nevertheless, we organize raids to mosques. Even if the teachers see children from other schools in mosques, they tell the children they have to be at school attending their lessons."
While the country has no legal stipulations in place regulating the age of those attending religious centers, the school director said that in general, education officials throughout the country "do not recommend underage students" going to mosques.'It's Like A Contract'
Most recently, in Andijon province, parents have been asked to give written pledges promising that their children will stay away from Internet cafes, game clubs, and mosques.
Addughaffor Dadabaev is an Andijon province parent who was asked to sign a form agreeing to keep closer watch on his child's activities.
"They have made it like a special form and asked all parents to sign them. It is like a contract between parents and the school," Dadabaev says. "They make you write, 'I promise to check whether my children come to school on time; to check their school attendance; to make sure they won't join all kinds of groups; won't go to Internet cafes to play all kinds of games; and that I keep my children under control.'"
Felix Corley, editor of the Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, says more intrusive steps have been noted as well, and not just in Andijon province.
"We've had cases of parents being summoned to the police and required to write statements about why their children were attending places of worship," Corley says. "We’ve had school directors holding school meetings and so on to warn children not to attend places of worship. That’s a sort of unified campaign by the police, local press, mahalla committees."
Andijon officials have reportedly said the effort is part of a broader effort to counter rising crime levels among Uzbek youths. But considering Uzbekistan's recent history with extremism, and the fact that about 60 percent of the country's population is under the age of 25, some see it as an attempt to restrict religious institutions.Lack Of Tolerance
The Uzbek government has come under international criticism for its lack of tolerance toward religious groups and centers, particularly in the wake of terrorist attacks blamed on Islamic extremist groups in recent years.
Uzbek leaders, and President Islam Karimov in particular, have repeatedly blamed such groups, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir, of trying to undermine the country's constitutional order.
But Karimov's political opponents and human rights groups accuse the government of exaggerating the risk of extremism and terrorism, and using it as a pretext to crackdown on dissent.
The government tries to keep people in darkness, because this way it would be easier to rule over them.
Human Rights Watch, for example, estimates that some 6,000 peaceful followers of Islam have been imprisoned by the Uzbek authorities, possibly after "confessions" were extracted under torture.
And some experts note that the government has become wary of public gatherings, seeing in them a risk of social unrest owing to rising poverty, rampant unemployment, and a lack of civil liberties.
Considering the increasing importance of mosques as community gathering places for youth and elderly alike, Toshpulad Yuldoshev, a Tashkent-based expert on political and social affairs, tells RFE/RL that officials are especially keen on keeping a watchful eye on them.
"The reason is, when people get together, they would surely discuss their unhappiness with the social situation. For instance, they would talk about our migrants' plight in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other places," Yuldoshev says. "In every gathering, in every function, people usually discuss politics. And when people discuss this issue, there is always a possibility of them to unite."
Yuldoshev says other avenues of gaining information, such as Internet cafes, are also being watched closely.
"Although, you cannot access independent news websites in Uzbekistan, there are still many options and sources on the Internet for young people to gather information," Yuldoshev says. "And the government doesn't want them to have access to such information."
"The government tries to keep people in darkness," Yuldoshev says, "because this way it would be easier to rule over them."RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report