Tajikistan: Mixed Feelings About Jehovah's Witness Ban

Faith group loses court battle over right to operate.

Tajikistan: Mixed Feelings About Jehovah's Witness Ban

Faith group loses court battle over right to operate.

Friday, 17 October, 2008
A court order upholding a ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses highlights divisions in Tajikistan about whether such faith groups should be allowed to recruit converts from more established religious communities.

On September 29, a military court in Dushanbe ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had acted illegally by importing religious literature, that this was the latest in a series of offences, and that the group was therefore prohibited from operating in Tajikistan.

The legal case began with a civil court appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses against a decision by the Tajik culture ministry banned their organisation in October 2007, and also against the confiscation of over 500,000 copies of religious material on the border last year.

Culture ministry officials described statements by the group as “extremist” and criticised its pacifist stance – members refuse to perform military service, which is mandatory in Tajikistan.

The civil court passed the case to a military tribunal last December, apparently because the literature was confiscated by the security services, the religious rights watchdog Forum 18 reported.

Commenting on the latest ruling, Nazira Dodkhudoeva, a representative of the culture ministry department which oversees religious affairs, told Forum 18, “They are not allowed to function in Tajikistan. This is because the organisation violated Tajikistan's laws many times.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived in Tajikistan in 1997 and now number many ethnic Tajiks who have renounced Islam.

The authorities in Tajikistan keep a close eye on the faith groups of foreign origin which burgeoned after the fall of the Soviet Union and now proselytise actively. The issue of Christian groups that seek new members among the Muslim majority population is particularly sensitive.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses did not issue an official statement on the court ruling, but a local member told IWPR that they would not be deterred.

“It is our obligation to serve Jehovah and spread what is reasonable, good and eternal,” he said. “The fact that they ban our organisation will not prevent us preaching all over the world. It will just be harder for us to do it.”

Analysts and commentators interviewed by IWPR spoke of the need to respect freedom of confession, but many also reflected the popular mood of suspicion towards faith groups that convert Muslims.

Abdulvohid Shamolov of Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, for example, said it was fine for a diversity of groups to operate as long as they obeyed the law and avoided extremist ideologies. But he suggested that the Jehovah’s Witnesses crossed too many boundaries for traditionally-minded Tajiks.

Political scientist Parviz Mullojanov spoke of a “consensus of rejection” in society with regard to a group that he argues is controversial in many countries, not just Tajikistan.

Hajji Akbar Turajonzoda, a parliamentarian who was Tajikistan’s chief Muslim cleric in the early Nineties, voiced suspicions shared by many of what are called “non-traditional” faiths, as opposed to Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity.

He suggested that many of these groups attracted converts among the poorest sections of society by offering food and other forms of assistance. At the same time, he said that if people joined such faiths of their own free will, there was nothing wrong with that.

“Really, there is no religion that presents a threat,” he said.

Some argue that banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses is unconstitutional, not to mention bad for Tajikistan’s image abroad.

Shokirjon Hakimov, a lawyer and deputy head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, said a new law on religion allowed any faith group to operate as long as it paid its taxes and did not break the law.

“Having missionaries from the Jehovah’s Witnesses go round the streets handing out literature isn’t illegal,” he said, adding that it was wrong to ban any group merely on the grounds that it was felt to be offensive to mainstream religious communities.

Lola Olimova is IWPR’s editor for Tajikistan. Aslibegim Manzarshoeva is an IWPR-trained journalist.

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