Tajikistan: Campaign to Soften Religion Law

Controversial legislation is now in force, but fight to reduce restrictions goes on.

Tajikistan: Campaign to Soften Religion Law

Controversial legislation is now in force, but fight to reduce restrictions goes on.

Wednesday, 10 March, 2010
The Islamic Rebirth Party, IRP, is mounting a fresh campaign to amend what it sees as the worst aspects of a recently-adopted law on religion in Tajikistan.

The Tajik parliament passed the law on March 26, introducing changes that critics say are designed to strengthen control over the way Islam – the majority religion – and other faiths are practiced.

Opponents say the legislation, which replaces a relatively liberal law dating from 1994, represents an infringement of the constitutional right to practice one’s faith without hindrance.

Supporters of the law in government say this is nonsense. The document is fully in line with the constitution, and is a well-designed set of ground-rules that seeks principally to prevent the growth of radical religious groups, they say.

The IRP, the only faith-based group operating as a legal political group in any of the Central Asian states, is setting up a working group to draft a set of recommended changes to the legislation.

“The working group will consist of independent experts, [Muslim] clerics, and represents of the other faith groups registered in Tajikistan,” said IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri.

The working group is expected to present its recommendations this autumn.

“I fear the proposals won’t be heeded, but we’re still going to lobby for them,” said Kabiri.

Two earlier attempts by the party to challenge the law – when it came up for debate earlier this year, and when it was first drafted in 2007 – were unsuccessful.

The new religion law has also come in for criticism from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations. On June 3, Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the adoption of the restrictive law would place Tajikistan on the commission’s annual blacklist.

However, President Imomali Rahmon, who signed off on the law after parliament passed it, said during an annual address on April 15, that the law would not be changed, and that it was “clear-cut and precise”.

When Culture Minister Mirzoshohruh Asrori, whose department drafted the law, was presenting it to parliament, he said it was designed to counter “the recent emergence of religious radicalism, nihilism and a number of Islamic tendencies that are alien to our people”.

Most Tajiks and the Uzbek minority are Sunni Muslims, with an Ismaili community in the southeast province of Badakhshan, while people of Slavic origin are commonly Russian Orthodox Christians. The authorities are particularly concerned about the rise of radical Islamic groups, and have outlawed the Hizb ut-Tahrir party and the Salafis, who are not so much a group as a Sunni fundamentalist movement.

Among the changes in the law that critics find objectionable are an obligation placed on religious groups to report their funding sources and any foreign contacts; restrictions on the construction of new mosques; and a requirement for parental consent before young people under 18 can receive religious education.

One of the main areas of concern – which the authorities say is unfounded – is a provision that appears to ban the conduct of religious rites in public places such as state institutions.

According to Kabiri, this will effectively confine religious events to mosques, cemetaries and private homes. “It could be interpreted by officials as a ban on prayer anywhere that is not actually stated in the law,” he added.

Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, a member of parliament and at one time Tajikistan’s chief Muslim cleric, says it is essential to allow people to have places to pray, otherwise the law contradicts the constitution as well as international conventions.

“Ninety-five per cent of Tajikistan’ population are Muslims, so it’s only natural that we create the conditions to conduct religious services as is done in other states, including non-Muslim ones,” he said.

A representative of the culture ministry’s religious affairs department rejected such criticisms, telling IWPR that what the law actually prohibited was activity by religious groups within the secular institutions of state.

“The complaints made about this law are entirely unfounded,” said the ministry representative, who asked not to be named. “The law bans the formation of religious associations within state institutions and organisations, and within local government, education and the military. But it does not ban ‘namaz’ [Muslim prayer] in them.”

The culture ministry has now set up a special working group which, as one of its members told IWPR on condition of anonymity, is tasked with “explaining the law and convincing the public that it does not restrict believers’ rights, as the press has claimed”.

Another point in the law that has raised eyebrows is a ban on promoting a particular religion or distributing information about it in private homes.

Culture ministry officials say the idea is to protect individuals from others trying to interfere in their private lives and personal faith.

Turajonzoda thinks this part of the law is redundant.

“Why restrict liberties in areas that are [already] regulated by other laws?” he asked.

Faith groups that typically gather in private homes include the smaller proselytising Christian groups which arrived in Tajikistan in force after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Andrey Davydov, pastor of with the Evangelical Christian church, told IWPR he suspected the provision was directed quite specifically against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Last September, a court in Dushanbe upheld a ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ruling that the group had illegally imported religious literature in addition to earlier offences, and that it was therefore prohibited from operating in Tajikistan.

However, Davydov said the restrictions on religious activity in the home had wider implications. “This provision also restricts rights that are guaranteed by the constitution,” he said.

While the authorities do not appear to be in a mood to relent, some critics of the law say it could have the opposite effect to that intended, driving disgruntled Muslims into the hands of covert extremist groups.

Hoji Umar, an imam khatib or prayer-leader at a mosque in the capital, warned, “All of the authorities’ efforts to combat extremism may come to nothing, because restricting the rights of Muslims may increase the number of adherents of radical groups.”
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