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Tajikistan: Bill on Religious Practice Raises Concern

Representatives of Tajikistan’s religious minorities are worried that proposed legislation could be used to restrict their activities.
By Nafisa Pisarejeva
Religious minorities in Tajikistan fear proposed new rules will restrict their practices, despite their constitutional right to freedom of belief.

The Tajik government is currently examining a draft law put forward by the culture ministry’s religious department which sets tough new conditions a religious group must pass before gaining registration.

The proposals state that in order to register, a group must have a minimum number of members - no less than 1,200 in the capital and 400 in the regions. They would also outlaw missionary activities.

Religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim country fear the proposals, which could mark a return to the bad old days of the Soviet Union, when Protestants and other minority groups were persecuted by the authorities for holding unauthorised services.

Some 20 Protestant groups and the Baha’i Society wrote to President Imomali Rahmonov earlier this month to appeal the proposed legislation, which has also reportedly alarmed the Catholic Church.

“The law creates completely impractical conditions for registering organisations of religious minorities, whether they already exist or are newly created. Thus, they make it illegal for believers to practice their religion, which suggests that in future the state will persecute them for their beliefs,” said their statement.

Without registration, a church could be closed down.

Around 85 non-Islamic religious organisations are registered in Tajikistan, predominantly minority Christian groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their proselytising has annoyed some locals.

“They stop you on the street, come to your house and practically don't listen to what you tell them, and take up a lot of your time,” Dushanbe resident Munira Rajabova told IWPR.

“Sometimes a lot of them come to your house in a day - mainly women. They come up to you in the street at every step and give you their literature, sometimes the children even come home with their books.”

According to Iddibek Ziyoev, head of the culture ministry’s religious department, many of the groups that have complained are not even complying with existing regulations, which are laid out in a liberal 1994 law.

He said that recently over 20 tonnes of literature despatched by the Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived in Tajikistan. The cargo is currently awaiting customs clearance.

“According to legislation, they should warn us beforehand about the arrival of any literature, and its quantity. But we did not find out about it until it happened,” he said.

But representatives of the Orthodox community, which is also a major faith in the country, had not signed the letter, said a representative of the Bible League, a missionary organisation which provides bibles for Christian churches worldwide.

“No one will touch the Orthodox Church, to avoid spoiling relations with Russia,” he said.

“We will carry on with our activities and assemble, but on an illegal basis. And the government will take repressive measures.”

Analysts said the proposals contradict the constitution, which guarantees freedom for all faiths, since it imposes unfair restrictions on small religious groups.

“It really does restrict the rights of religious minorities. According to the constitution, everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and belief,” Said Ahmedov, former head of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs, told IWPR.

He thinks the proposals will be vetoed by the president, as have previous attempts to limit worshippers’ rights.

“Tajikistan is following a democratic path, and this law must correspond to the democratic processes taking place in the country,” he said.

Ordinary Tajiks say these small new faiths are expanding quickly because they are much more skilled at getting their message across than Muslims, who form an overwhelming majority in the country.

“Unfortunately, not all Islamic organisations and figures know about Islam well themselves, and so they cannot inform the people about it. And representatives of other religions realise this and exploit it,” said Rajabova.

Complaining when people convert is wrong, said Shokirjon Hakimov, deputy head of the Social Democratic Party. He said people should be allowed to follow whatever religion they want.

“In Tajikistan, as in other countries, believers of other religions convert to Islam, and this is used by religious organisations for propaganda purposes. But when the reverse happens, this is said to be wrong. We have a double standard operating here,” he told IWPR.

“This is an excessive and artificial requirement designed to hinder the appearance of other alternative religious organisations and groups.”

New and smaller faiths often give out food and gifts to people who come to their services, but Tajiks tend to find themselves ostracised if they convert.

One Dushanbe resident joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses three years ago, and is now resented by her family and friends.

“I am now on the verge of a divorce, my husband does not understand me and considers me his enemy, and my children say that I have gone mad. My husband’s relatives have already turned their backs on me, although I have stayed the same. Some of my neighbours call me ‘kafir’ [a non-believer] and look at me condemningly. But all paths lead to God, and this religion advocates human values,” she told IWPR.

The Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, which monitors human rights and democracy across the continent, said it was keeping an eye on the new regulations.

“At present the OSCE centre in Dushanbe is waiting for an analysis of this law,” a spokesman told IWPR.

“We hope that the government of Tajikistan will not interfere or hinder the methods and types of belief and thought of the followers of any religious organisation.”

The culture ministry’s Ziyoev said the regulations had not become law yet and that it was premature to discuss them.

“The law will be studied comprehensively, and then be submitted to parliament for examination. If there are shortcomings in the law, or any contradictions, then it will be sent back for modifications,” he told IWPR.

And, judging by the words of another Tajik woman, who converted to Christianity after hearing sermons in church, the new law will not dissuade followers of the new faiths who have already gone through severe difficulties.

“I liked the atmosphere of friendship I found, and made a decision, without any pressure from anyone. As soon as I decided to become a Christian, scandals began in the family. My relatives denounced me. My husband left me, taking the children with him. I went to enormous lengths to get the children back from him and christen them. I don’t live with my husband any more,” she said.

Nafisa Pisarejeva is an IWPR contributor in Tajikistan.

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