A United Nations expert has called on the Uzbek government to enact reforms that would allow citizens to practice their faiths freely, saying that strengthening diversity and freedom of religion can help combat religious extremism.
The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, made the comments in a statement issued on October 12, after concluding a 11-day official visit to Uzbekistan.
"Religions or beliefs should not be seen as a threat to Uzbekistan, where many ethnic and religious communities live together peacefully," Shaheed said.
He also said the rights to freedom of religion or belief "cannot be sacrificed in preventing or countering violent extremism."
Shaheed said that what he called President Shavkat Mirziyoev’s recent efforts to reform could be a turning point in Uzbekistan's development, if the moves are implemented systematically.
Mirziyoev took the reins of government in one of post-Soviet Central Asia's more repressive systems last year, following the death of longtime autocrat Islam Karimov.
Mirziyoev won a five-year term in a tightly controlled presidential election in December. Since then, he has taken steps to reduce Uzbekistan's isolation.
His government has released some people widely seen as political prisoners, taken steps to improve ties with neighboring Central Asian countries, and established channels aimed at improving communication between citizens and the authorities.
However, the Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, said last month that freedoms of religion or belief, expression, association, and assembly remain "seriously restricted" in Uzbekistan.
"These restrictions on human rights are part of the regime's intentional systemic policy to control every aspect of society," it said. "This is why followers of all religions and beliefs -- with no exceptions -- face freedom of religion or belief violations.”
Shaheed said Uzbekistan faces many human rights challenges and will require sustained commitment to make the right to freedom of religion or belief a reality.
Along with legal reforms, the Uzbek government needs to embrace an "operational" approach to human rights, including institutional and policy reforms, he added.
"Freedom of religion or belief requires widening the space for the freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, as well as strengthening the rule of law and guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary," according to Shaheed.
He also said that freedom of conscience, thought, religion, or belief is “overregulated, if not restricted,” in Uzbekistan.
"Religious communities can only function within the given limits of registration and the authorities tend to stay watchful of all religious activities," the special rapporteur said.
Shaheed insisted that people "should not have to activate auto self-censorship whenever they speak of religion or practice their faiths."
During his mission to Uzbekistan, Shaheed met government officials, local authorities, representatives of ethnic and religious communities, civil society organizations, and the diplomatic community, the statement said.
He is due to present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.