Kyrgyz Law Targets Religious Minorities

Legislation will make life tougher for Christian and Muslim groups operating outside the mainstream.

Kyrgyz Law Targets Religious Minorities

Legislation will make life tougher for Christian and Muslim groups operating outside the mainstream.

Parliament in Kyrgyzstan has approved a controversial new law on religion which some observers say is restrictive to the point of being counter-productive.

The new legislation, passed on October 9, appears to target two types of religious communities about which the Kyrgyz authorities harbour suspicions. First, there are the missionary groups, mainly Protestant Christians, which have proliferated in Kyrgyzstan since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Second, the tighter rules also reflect official concern about radical forms of Islam, such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group which has many adherents in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The law now requires a religious organisation to have 200 members – previously the requirement was just ten. Proselytising is also subject to tighter regulation, as is the distribution of material with religious content. Religious schools can now be closed down if they are deemed to be a danger to public order and security.

Officials have been defending the law since it was first proposed earlier this year. Discussing the reasons why tighter regulation was needed, Kanybek Osmonaliev, head of the State Agency for Religious Affairs, told journalists in April that the old law was too “liberal”.

“The agency is concerned that the ideas of the banned extremist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamic movements are pervading the Muslim community in the south,” said Osmonaliev.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been active in Central Asia since the mid-Nineties, and membership is banned in most of the five countries. The group’s stated aim is to replace secular governments with Islamic rule. Although Hizb-ut-Tahrir insists it is non-violent, officials in the region have accused it of being behind a number of attacks.

The organisation has substantial support in southern Kyrgyzstan, and enjoys a good deal of visibility there – distributing its literature, offering charity and supporting local community grievances.

A member of the group who spoke on condition of anonymity told IWPR, “The adoption of the law will almost certainly be followed by repressive measures against us. We understand that the next step will be to amend the criminal code to impose tougher penalties for breaking the law on religion.”

The Hizb-ut-Tahrir member drew comparisons with the situation in neighbouring Uzbekistan, where the authorities have arrested and jailed thousands of the group’s members as part of a policy of zero tolerance of any form of political, social or religious dissent.

“What’s worrying is that the [Kyrgyz] authorities will label as an extremist any Muslim who thinks differently from them. They want to create a situation like the one in Uzbekistan, but doing so here will lead to a confrontation between Muslims and the authorities.”

Some independent observers have expressed similar fears that excessively repressive laws might spark a counter-reaction.

“The authorities might try to drive the problem into a corner, as happened in Uzbekistan, but in time this could backfire and worsen the conflict in the area of religion,” said Raya Kadyrova, head of the Foundation for International Tolerance in Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, minority Christian groups complain that it is they who are being targeted.

Kyrgyzstan has two “established churches” –Sunni Islam, practiced by ethnic Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority, and Orthodox Christianity, the faith tradition of Russians. These two communities have coexisted without poaching each other’s members, and both look askance at groups of foreign origin which have arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the last decade-and-a-half and begun actively seeking converts.

There are now estimated to be 70 or so foreign missions in Kyrgyzstan.

On October 13, eight evangelical Christian churches appealed to President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the Kyrgyz parliament to amend the law.

“We are concerned that this legislation contains provisions that contradict our constitution as well as the international conventions to which Kyrgyzstan has signed up,” said their petition.

Osmonaliev insisted that the law was not a ploy to protect either of the dominant religions from competition. “It would have been absurd to adopt a law in the interests of one particular confession. Everyone must obey the law, and it covers all the religious organisations operating in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Kadyr Malikov, a specialist on religious affairs at the Institute for Strategic Analysis and Forecasting, part of the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, broadly favours the introduction of tighter rules in the interests of national security.

However, he warns that the law runs the danger of being applied indiscriminately – provisions designed to curb Christian missionaries could also be used to close down Muslim schools. Malikov is also concerned that the definition of what constitutes a danger to the state will be subject to human error.

“Who are these experts? How objective can they be, and how susceptible might they be to bribery?” he asked. “Certain elements of the law might be interpreted in different ways, depending on a whim of the experts.”

During the debate on the law on October 8, the deputy speaker of parliament Cholpon Baekova raised a different concern about the impact of the new law. She fears that instead of coming under greater control, some religious groups might quietly disappear under the radar.

“If we demand that they gather at least 200 members in order to register, many groups will go underground. Yet the purpose of these reforms is to make sure that they operate within the law.”

Now that it has been got through its first reading in parliament, the law has been sent to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which had earlier raised concerns that it was too restrictive. The recommendations made by the OSCE will not, however, be binding on parliament.

Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in southern Kyrgyzstan.

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