When a grieving Jyldyz Azaeva sought to bury her 76-year-old mother in their remote village in southern Kyrgyzstan, she had no idea of the woes still to come.
Over the course of a few days last week, Kanygul Satybaldieva's remains would be twice buried and dug up before finally being interred in a secret location.
The experience highlights the extent to which religious choice can be narrowed in secluded communities of this mountainous Central Asian republic, despite official commitments to freedom of faith.
Azaeva’s ordeal began when Satybaldieva died in her home village of Sary-Talaa, in southern Kyrgyzstan's Ala-Buka district, on October 13. Her bereaved family did what generations of villagers before them have traditionally done: They planned to bury her in the local cemetery, next to the graves of other members of her generation who had gone before her.
But the Azaevs quickly found themselves in the middle of a rapidly escalating dispute in which almost the entire village was arrayed against them. The problem? Satybaldieva had been a practicing Christian in a village that was overwhelmingly Muslim, and local religious leaders restricted the cemetery to Muslims.
The fact that the family itself was of mixed religions -- Satybaldieva’s husband is Muslim, while his wife and two daughters converted to Christianity -- did nothing to ease tensions. Instead, the village imam appeared to regard the mother’s death as an opportunity to pressure the daughters to renounce Christianity as the price for burying their mother in the village cemetery.
On October 14, a large crowd led by the imam -- the village’s most prominent mullah -- came to the family's home.
"They asked me to leave Christianity and convert to Islam," Azaeva told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. "I had to accept for the sake of mother. They forced me to do so, and they said they wanted it to be a lesson for others."
But even that bargain proved insufficient. Shortly after Azaeva agreed to his demands, the imam informed her she should bury her mother in her family’s garden instead and that he had already done enough by saving Azaeva herself from "a foreign religion."
With no prospects of changing the imam's mind, Azaeva said her family accepted an alternative offer by local officials to arrange for her mother's burial in the nearby village of Oruktu. But after her body was interred, the Muslim leadership there, too, objected to Satybaldieva's presence in the cemetery and ordered the body exhumed.
The increasingly desperate family then accepted a proposal by local officials to bury Satybaldieva in the municipal cemetery of the district capital, Ala-Buka. But after her mother's burial, Azaeva said both local Muslim and Christian leaders in the town agreed she must be dug up again and removed. The problem? Satybaldieva was a Baptist and thus outside of many Kyrgyz citizens' traditionally accepted notions of Christianity, which is the Russian Orthodox Church.
Finally, Satybaldieva was buried in a secret location known only to local officials and the family.
Widower Akjol Akaev, standing at the grave site on October 19, was reduced to tears by the treatment his wife received following her death. "Oh, my dearest, may you be in paradise now after this ordeal you have been through," he said between Muslim prayers. "Whoever did these things to you will surely have to answer for their deeds."
Azaev, 78, and his wife had been together nearly 50 years.
Freedom In Name Only
Observers complain that freedom of religion continues to be narrowly defined in the former Soviet space, even in states that officially welcome all faiths.
"In Kyrgyzstan, we have had a whole rash of cases in recent years where imams and village elders have refused to allow non-Muslims to be buried in village cemeteries," says Felix Corley of the Norway-based Forum 18 organization, which monitors religious freedom. "This has affected Protestants, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishna devotees, and there is very little that the families of the deceased can really do about this."
In Kyrgyzstan, as in the rest of Central Asia, there is often pressure for Christian converts to be buried separately, in Christian cemeteries, though these are historically the community cemeteries of ethnic Russians. But just as local Muslim authorities frequently do not welcome those outside local traditions of Islam, the Orthodox Christian Church throughout the former Soviet Union regards newer Christian sects as competition and can be equally unwelcoming.
Corley notes that tensions over religious choice can even obstruct burials in municipal cemeteries, despite the fact that such cemeteries, under the law, are open to all.
Kyrgyzstan ratified international conventions on religious freedom when it became independent from the officially atheist Soviet Union in 1991. But while all Kyrgyz are generally free to practice the religion of their choice, the convention appears to hold little sway when it comes to burials.
"The first-ever mufti of our independent country, Kimsanbai Hajji, issued a fatwa banning the burial of followers of other religions together with Muslims," Dilmurat Orozov, a representative of the Muslim NGO Islam Taalimi in Bishkek, told RFE/RL on October 19. "The current mullahs are following this order."