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Kyrgyz Authorities Cry Foul As Children Sent Abroad To Bangladeshi Madrasahs

Kyrgyz boys during Friday Prayers in Bishkek (file photo)
Kyrgyz boys during Friday Prayers in Bishkek (file photo)
Naryn Oblast, Kyrgyzstan -- It's hard to imagine a life more remote than that of Sairakan Baljyrova, an elderly grandmother who lives in the mountainous village of Baizak.

But Baljyrova is at the center of a growing controversy in Kyrgyzstan's Naryn Oblast over a program sending children as young as 10 to Bangladesh for religious studies that can last more than a decade.

Baljyrova's grandson, Ulan, left home eight months ago at the start of fifth grade, traveling some 2,500 kilometers to a madrasah in an undisclosed location in the South Asian state.

She says she talks to him regularly by phone and occasionally sends him parcels but it will be many years before they see each other again.

"My grandson will come back in 12 years," Baljyrova says, adding, "Only eight months have passed so far."

"I'm planning to send my other grandsons as well when they reach fifth grade," Baljyrova says. "The National Security Committee staff came by and made me fed up, asking for explanations; then a police officer came. They're creating panic around this situation. Instead of leaving our boy alone, they're disturbing us. The officials can't do anything about common street crime. Instead, they just bother your children."

Few figures are available as to how many Kyrgyz children have been sent to Bangladesh or what conditions they may be living in. But in pockets throughout Naryn, residents have acknowledged that small groups of children are now studying there in madrasahs at a cost of some $1,000 per family.

Officials from Kyrgyzstan's State National Security Committee (GKNB) began investigating after hearing complaints from local families and teachers.

The committee on June 12 accused the country's highest religious authorities of colluding with a controversial Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat, to promote the Bangladesh program.

A scene from Naryn, near Kyrgyzstan's border with China
A scene from Naryn, near Kyrgyzstan's border with China

Nurlan Toktaliev, a National Security Committee spokesman, says the program violates national laws designed to protect a child's right to a complete secondary education at home.

"According to preliminary findings, the religious movement Tablighi Jamaat is involved in sending these children, as is the Muftiyat and some members of the central mosque in Bishkek," Toktaliev says. "According to Article 6.5 of the Kyrgyz law on religious freedom, children can be sent abroad to study at high or secondary religious schools only after they have received their mandatory full secondary education here."

Seeking Clues

The focus on Naryn sharpened in recent weeks after local officials sought to tie the madrasah program to a string of recent child disappearances in the oblast.

Security officials, however, say there is no evidence of any children being kidnapped and sent to Bangladesh.

The Muftiyat, which as Kyrgyzstan's Islamic-affairs council is the country's highest religious body, has denied any connection to the Bangladesh initiative.

Ravshanbek Eratov, a leading Muftiyat authority, likewise denies any ties between the council and the Tablighi Jamaat movement, which goes locally by the name Davaat.

"This is the parents' decision, where to send their children," Eratov says. "No one else has organized it. They've blamed the Mufiyat, but there are no links to either the Muftiyat, the Central Mosque, Davaat, or Tablighi Jamaat. None of them has anything to do with this case."

'Wrong Idea'

Tablighi Jamaat -- which has large followings in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere -- has been active in Kyrgyzstan for the past two decades.

The movement, which stresses missionary work, claims to avoid political activism. But it has come under sharp scrutiny in Central Asia, where authorities have grown increasingly suspicious of ties between religious groups and terrorist activities.

Kyrgyz authorities this spring placed Tablighi Jamaat on a security blacklist, although the group is not banned outright.

Authorities have offered few explanations for why the children in Naryn have been sent specifically to impoverished Bangladesh, rather than to madrasahs in Egypt or the Gulf states, as has been the custom for Kyrgyz students in the past.

Nurollo Mambetov, the imam of the Ikhlas mosque in central Naryn, denies any role in the current madrasah program despite the fact that he personally spent two years on a pilgrimage to Bangladesh.

He also dismisses fears about Tablighi Jamaat, saying the movement's influence in Kyrgyzstan has been overblown.

"People are always talking about [Tablighi Jamaat], but that's a misunderstanding on their part," Mambetov says. "For example, if you venture out on a davaat, a missionary trip to preach, they automatically say, 'He's from Tablighi Jamaat.' If my neighbor has performed a davaat, they'd say the same thing. People just have the wrong idea."

Watchful Eyes

The current debate comes as the state continues its drive to impose greater regulations on religious authorities amid rising fears of Islamist extremism.

Kyrgyzstan's state religious-affairs commission has pressed Muftiyat authorities to suspend the activities of many groups whose activities are seen as falling outside mainstream Islam, even if the groups have not been connected with any extremist activity.

Orozbek Moldaliev, a Bishkek-based political analyst, says the Bangladesh controversy should remind authorities of the importance of keeping the country's spiritual bodies under closer watch.

Moldaliev speaks favorably of neighboring Tajikistan, which in the past year has moved to restrict foreign religious study for its citizens and has even banned children and teenagers from entering mosques.

"Over past 20 years we haven't done any regulations in religious education," Moldaliev says. "Look at Tajikistan. They faced real danger and has made proper regulations in the system. The Tajik authorities brought all its citizens studying at religious [Islam] schools abroad and clearly said that they can get education only in Tajikistan. This attempt was essential and efficient."

Written and reported by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Toktosun Shambetov in Naryn Oblast and contributions by Gulaiym Ashakeeva

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