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Tajikistan Bans Hajj Pilgrimage For Citizens Younger Than 35

The committee said the ban was intended to give older Muslims a greater opportunity to undertake the hajj, as Saudi Arabia limits the number of pilgrims from each country annually.

DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan has banned the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, for citizens younger than 35.

Many in the Central Asian country believe the ban is an attempt to prevent young Tajiks from developing radical ideas and joining extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS).

It comes a month after President Emomali Rahmon called for a long-term development "concept" based on secularism.

The government's Committee for Religious and Cultural Issues announced the hajj restriction on April 13.

The committee said it is intended to give older Muslims a greater opportunity to undertake the hajj, as Saudi Arabia limits the number of pilgrims from each country annually.

Rahmon's government has repeatedly called for the strengthening of secular principles in the mostly Muslim country of 8.5 million.

Tajikistan has banned head scarves for schoolgirls, barred minors from mosques, and forced thousands of students to return home from Islamic schools abroad in recent months amid reports that many Tajiks have joined militant groups fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Also in recent months, dozens of Tajiks have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms for links with banned Islamic groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Jamaat Ansarullah.

The trials were held amid increased pressure on the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia -- the Islamic Renaissance Party, which was banished from parliament in a March 1 election marred by fraud allegations.

Last month, imams at several mosques across Tajikistan have urged Muslims to support the closure of the party, calling for a referendum to dissolve it.

In December, Rahmon, who has been running the country with an iron fist since 1992, publicly accepted that young Tajiks had been joining Islamic militants in the Middle East and described the IS group as a "modern plague" that posed a "threat to global security."

Rahmon added then that hundreds of Tajiks fighting alongside IS militants "bring instability to society at home as well" as they recruit more young Tajiks for extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.

In February, Tajikistan's newly appointed prosecutor-general, Yusuf Rahmonov, said that a special center tasked with investigating cases of recruitment to banned Islamic groups would begin operating soon.

In March, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said Moscow planned to bolster Russia's military bases in Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan due to increased activity of IS "units" in Central Asia.

A recent report from the International Crisis Group estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 people from Central Asia have gone to Syria during the last three years to join Islamist militants.

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