Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: Holy Row Over Mission Groups

The Islamic establishment in Dushanbe is concerned that a growing number of young people are joining non-Muslim faith groups.
By Nargiz Zakirova

Since she joined a Christian Baptist church, Nuria's Dushanbe neighbours have condemned her as an infidel and her three children are no longer welcome to play with their friends. But she doesn't care.

"The people in the church are very kind and helpful - unlike my friends and family, who only care about their own lives," she told IWPR.

Nuria was born and raised as a Muslim. But after her husband died from wounds he suffered during the 1992-97 civil war, she found it increasingly difficult to support her young family.

But then she found the church. It may have led to her being ostracised from the community but the family enjoys a far better quality of life thanks to the humanitarian aid they receive - not to mention a number of attractive-looking religious books that are supposed to be distributed around town.

In recent years, Tajikistan has seen the arrival of several non-traditional religious groups including Seventh Day Adventists, Hare Krishna and Baptists. However, 97 per cent of Tajiks - who like their Iranian cousins speak a form of Persian - remain Muslim.

A 1999 US State Department report estimated that there were 235,000 Christians - mostly ethnic Russians and other Soviet-era immigrant groups belonging to the Russian Orthodox church - in a population of around five million people.

Reverend Sergiy, a minister in the Russian Orthodox church, which has long had a presence in the country, has strong views on the new missionary groups. He criticises them for "preying" on Tajikistan's post-civil war hardships by "dangling much-needed economic incentives before an impoverished population".

Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics and it is estimated that more than two-thirds of its 6.5 million people live below the poverty line. The population has struggled in the aftermath of the war and was recently hit by severe drought followed by torrential rain that threatens the harvest.

Faizullo Zubaidullo, deputy chief of Islamic authority the Ulem Assembly of Tajikistan, is somewhat more circumspect. "Tajikistan aspires to become a secular democracy, so everyone is free to believe and worship whatever they like. However, we are concerned about the instances of Muslims converting to other religions," he said.

But sources at a Dushanbe mosque told IWPR that the ministering Imam-Hatibs are a lot more outspoken during their Friday sermons, with conversion to other religions condemned as a great sin.

In turn, the newcomers complain of discrimination at the hands of the Tajik authorities. "In the provinces, the police often raid the premises where our missionaries congregate. There are many poor people in Tajikistan whom we would like to help, but the authorities will not let us," said one foreign religious group member, who asked not to be named.

Most of the non-Muslim sects are based in the capital, the northern Sogd region and along the Tajik-Uzbek border. None are believed to operate in the easternmost Garm region, dominated by the Islamic Party for the Revival of Tajikistan, IPRT, which formed the core of the opposition during the country's civil war.

A source from the Tajik governmental committee for religion told IWPR that the country is now host to 58 non-Islamic organisations - ten of which operate without proper registration. Before the country gained independence in 1992, there were only five such groups active in the area.

Observers say one of the ways the groups target young people is through the provision of cultural outreach programs, fitness courses and humanitarian assistance. One follower, who asked not to be named, said, "I come here for the aid. That's the only way I can put food on my family's table."

The South Korean Sonmin Grace mission, a Protestant organisation based in America, came to Tajikistan just after independence and is the most active of the groups, with some of its events and projects winning the backing of local authorities.

In Khujand, the administrative centre of the Sogd region, the mission has built hospitals, day clinics and schools and provides health services and assistance to local families.

Its deacon Zinaida Li said that the church has a humanitarian mission and does a lot of charity work. Computer courses, English classes and religious lessons are offered, and those interested in sports can attend tae kwan do sessions.

While the leaders of many religious groups are unwilling to divulge how many followers they have, the Sonmin Grace representative was happy to tell IWPR that around 1,000 Tajiks had joined its ranks - with more than half converting from Islam.

When asked if converts had been attracted to the group by the assistance and various courses on offer, Mrs Li did not give a direct reply, saying instead that they had "realised that forgiveness is in the blood of Jesus Christ".

Analysts and Muslim leaders say the emergence of the non-Islamic organisations threatens national unity and local traditions, while some ordinary Tajiks also appeared worried by the development.

Dushanbe physics teacher Vyacheslav Dasturi said, "Those new religious groups have nothing new to say, but they may be dangerous. Some of them may be here for a mercenary interest."

Worryingly, more extreme sections of society have reacted to these changes with violence. Two bomb blasts at the Sonmin Grace missionary centre in Dushanbe in October 2000 left ten people dead and wounded more than 100.

Three students at the capital's Islamic University - who were alleged to have received training at terrorist bases in Afghanistan - were later convicted of carrying out the attacks.

Other religious groups may also be targets of fundamentalist anger. Rudaki Samadov, a leader of Tajikistan's Zoroastrian society, was murdered in mysterious circumstances last year.

Most people believe that Islam is too deeply rooted in the Tajik mentality for the new groups to get very far. But, for whatever reason, a handful of people in this poverty-stricken nation seem willing to sacrifice their traditions.

Nargiz Zakirova is a journalist with Vecherniy Dushanbe

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