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Kyrgyz Weigh Extended Friday Prayer Break For Muslims

The initiative comes three years after an abortive bill to reshape the work week from its current Monday-Friday to Sunday-Thursday, also in keeping with the practice in many states with Muslim majorities.

Kyrgyzstan, at times, appears to grapple with its religious identity. Around lunchtime, say, on any given Friday.

A push is on by some lawmakers to force employers in the predominantly Muslim, but officially secular, Central Asian republic to allow employees extended lunch breaks to attend Friday Prayers, the main worship service for many Muslims around the globe.

The initiative comes three years after an abortive bill to reshape the work week from its current Monday-Friday to Sunday-Thursday, also in keeping with the practice in many states with Muslim majorities.

The latest debate accompanies years of broader discussion on the role of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, where the authorities have expressed alarm over the dangers of radical Islam but tended to look the other way as illegal practices like bridenapping and polygamy continue.

All state and private employees would have the right to be absent between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to attend Friday Prayers under the newly proposed changes to the Labor Code.

The length of lunch breaks on other days -- up to one hour -- would remain unchanged.

Religious Rights

Prayer five times a day, known as "salat," is one of the five so-called pillars of Islam, although some interpretations of Islam discourage women from attending prayers in mosques.

But supporters of the Friday lunch-hour extension argue that it simply defends the rights of employees, while critics insist religious norms should not steer labor practices in a secular country.

"It's only one hour a day, once a week, or the equivalent of two calendar days a year," says lawmaker Tazabek Ikramov, who supports the changes and adds that "many lawmakers support it."

He argues that "people are attending mosque prayers anyway, and it would continue that way even if we didn't change the law."

About three-quarters of Kyrgyzstan's nearly 6 million people are Muslims.

Deputy Mufti of Kyrgyzstan Akimzhan Ergeshev welcomed the bill, saying it would spare practicing Muslims from "having to break rules."

"Currently, our religious people have to break laws, facing warnings at work, and losing jobs and money to practice their faith," Ergeshev told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

Religions Equal?

Not everyone welcomes the proposal, including some practicing Muslims among the opponents of the bill. "I am a Muslim and I follow and respect Islamic religious rituals, but I think it's wrong to cut short working hours because of prayers," Bishkek-based journalist Bayana Kulova says.

Kulova suggests that practicing Muslims perform Friday Prayers in their offices instead. "Many workplaces have special rooms for prayers," she says. "Especially lawmakers each have their own offices, so they can pray there if they wish to pray."

Lawyer Nurdin Asanov warns that the bill might set an awkward precedent. "What if representatives of other faiths demand changes to the law to accommodate their religious norms, too?" he says. "After all, we have followers of the Orthodox Church and Catholics, and then Muslims are divided into Sunnis and Shi'a, and all have their different rules."

Parliament has not yet scheduled a date for the debate.

Former Kyrgyz rights ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu in 2013 unsuccessfully proposed that parliament change the legal work week to make Friday the first day of a two-day weekend, as is the case in many Muslim countries.

Kyrgyz authorities routinely detain alleged members of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned throughout the region, and have tried to crack down on the radicalization of young Muslims, including to fight in Syria or Iraq for groups with ties to extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

A recent push threatened to revoke the teaching licenses of dozens of principals among the country's 100 or so Islamic schools, or madrasahs.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service correspondent Ilich Kulnazarov