Uzbekistan – Registration a weapon against freedom of religion


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

========================================== =======

Tuesday 4 August 2009

One of the most widespread human rights violations committed by Uzbekistan
– highlighted by the recent UN Universal Periodic Review – is its ban on
and punishments for religious activity without state permission. Forum 18
News Service has found that this is a serious problem for Muslims,
Protestant and Catholic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and people of other
faiths, and that even those who want state registration face systematic
obstruction. The Deputy Head of the state-controlled Muslim Board implied
to Forum 18 that controlling religious communities is a motivation for
this. Discussing small unregistered mosques, he said that "we cannot
control what is going on inside those mosques. Forum 18 has asked officials
why Uzbekistan creates registration difficulties, and why unregistered
religious activity is punished. The state Religious Affairs Committee
refused to discuss this with Forum 18. "I don’t know," was the answer of a
judge who has presided at a trial of Baptists for unregistered religious
activity. An official responsible for registration in the capital Tashkent
replied that "these are our internal issues, and you have no competence to


By Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service <;

Uzbekistan has recently been through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)
mechanism of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, and its response
to recommendations was considered in Geneva on 27 July. Despite this
process, religious believers of a wide variety of faiths – including but
not restricted to Muslims, Protestant and Catholic Christians, Jehovah’s
Witnesses – continue to complain to Forum 18 News Service that the country
continues to routinely commit serious violations of freedom of religion or

One of the most common violations is the use of registration as a weapon
against citizens’ religious freedom. The most recent known instance of this
were fines imposed on two Baptists, combined with threats that they would
face criminal prosecutions unless their church registered within one year
(see F18News 31 July 2009
< e_id=1333>). The two – Vladimir
Khanyukov and Said Tursunov – are members of a Baptist church in Mubarek
which belongs to the Baptist Council of Churches. These churches refuse to
seek state registration – as is their right under international law – as
they fear that registration would enable state interference in their
religious activity.

Uzbek claims on registration under the UN UPR mechanism

In response to a recommendation under the UN mechanism (by the Kingdom of
the Netherlands) that Uzbekistan "fully respect the freedom of religion or
belief", it claimed in part – falsely – that: "As in majority of countries
with rule of law, the religious organizations must obtain legal
registration and have a transparent accounting" (see document
A/HRC/10/83/Add.1 of 13 March 2009).

The Uzbek response to the Dutch recommendation went on to claim that: "As
a matter of fact the violation of those rules leads to amenability." The
"amenability" claimed may be a reference to the continuing unsuccessful
attempts to suppress religious activity without state permission.

Uzbekistan, in defiance of international human rights standards, has made
unregistered religious activity a criminal offence. Yet as Professor
Malcolm Evans of Bristol University has observed, "requiring faith
communities to register is almost impossible to reconcile with
international and OSCE [Organisation for Secuity and Co-operation in
Europe] human-rights standards" (see
< ml>). "Unless it is for the
purposes of tax benefits or to obtain charitable status, there should be no
need for compulsory registration."

Similarly, another recommendation to Uzbekistan (by the United Kingdom)
was that it should "introduce a simpler registration process for religious
organisations than currently exists". In response, the Uzbek delegation
stated that "currently there is an ongoing work on introducing amendments
and supplements in the Law On freedom of conscience and religious
organisations." This is not the first time there have been indications that
Uzbekistan may be planning to change its Religion Law, the last such
significant indication being in late 2007 (see F18News 5 November 2007
< e_id=1043>). The latest Uzbek
response failed to explain how and why any changes to the Religion Law
might end arbitrary denials of registration applications, and simplify the
highly cumbersome procedures for submitting applications (see below).

The Uzbek Delegation also claimed that 2,300 religious organisations "of
16 religions or beliefs" exist, including 2,050 Muslim, 179 Christian
(including Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Full Gospel, Seventh-day Adventist,
Lutheran, Catholic, Armenian-Apostolic Church, Protestant, Jehovah’s
Witness, New Apostolic, Bible Society), eight Jewish societies, six Baha’i
communities, one Hare Krishna community and a Buddhist temple.

It is impossible to verify these figures independently, and the state
Religious Affairs Committee refused on 31 July to discuss the issue with
Forum 18. However, religious believers of a wide variety of faiths have
often complained to Forum 18 that such official statements mask violations
of freedom of religion or belief (see eg. F18News 16 February 2007
< e_id=913>).

Registration of Muslim communities under pressure

Uzbekistan devotes great attention to controlling all religious
communities, with the majority Muslim communities being subject to tight
internal and external controls (see the latest F18News Uzbekistan religious
freedom survey < 1170>).

Many mosques are reportedly either being closed or stripped of their
registration in rural areas, an independent human rights defender – who
wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals – told Forum 18 on
29 July. "The government is against establishing mosques in kishlaks
(villages)," he complained. "Not only it is difficult to register
independent small mosques in rural areas, but also those which have
registration are being stripped of it." The human rights defender gave the
example of a small mosque in Gulistan mahalla (a residential area) in the
southern Kashkadarya Region’s Nishan District, built by the local Muslims
on their own initiative several years ago. This mosque was stripped of its
registration in June. "I personally talked to the local Muslims," the human
rights defender stated. "They were ‘advised’ by the local Justice
Department to re-register the mosque as a tea house."

It is difficult to assess the overall situation of religious communities
in Uzbekistan, as many religious believers are not willing to discuss their
problems for fear of reprisals from the authorities.

Abdulazim Mansurov, Deputy Head of Uzbekistan’s state-controlled Muslim
Board, told Forum 18 that on 31 July that registration of mosques is not a
"problem." "2,050 mosques currently function, which is far more than the 84
mosques that existed during Soviet times." Asked whether he considers this
number to be large enough, as this figure approximates to one mosque for
every 10,000 to 15,000 Muslims, Mansurov stated that "not every Muslim
attends a mosque."

Asked about the mosque in Kashkadarya’s Nishan District, Mansurov said, "I
am not aware what exactly happened with that mosque." He added that
Uzbekistan does "not need small mosques in kishlaks. We cannot control what
is going on inside those mosques. Who knows what kind of dangerous ideas
some extremists can teach people in them? We have registered with the
Justice Ministry all the large mosques that we need, and they can serve all
the Muslims. Muslims from kishlaks can attend bigger, cathedral mosques in
neighbouring areas. We can control what is going on inside the big mosques.
We appoint imams for all the registered mosques."

Mansurov of the Muslim Board confirmed that work was taking place on the
current Religion Law. "Of course laws should be constantly worked on,
because times change and the situation changes" he stated. Asked if anyone
from the Muslim Board was involved in this, he stated that "our lawyers
take part in it." He added that he did not what parts of the law were being
worked on.

Other state-permitted faiths denied registration of their communities

Congregations which do not seek state registration, such as those of the
Baptist Council of Churches, are not permitted to "legally" operate
anywhere in Uzbekistan. However, even congregations of non-Muslim faiths
who are permitted to operate in some parts of the country face great
difficulties in registering their communities in other parts of the

There are seven Catholic parishes in Uzbekistan, but two of them – in the
central town of Navoi and in the town of Angren near Tashkent – have been
unable to gain registration, Bishop Jerzy Maculewicz – who leads the
Catholic Church in Uzbekistan – told Forum 18 on 30 July. Bishop Maculewicz
did not want to discuss details, but said that "the main difficulty is to
find places in those towns to build the church buildings" and where the
communities could be officially registered.

During his visit to the Holy See in October 2008, for his regular "ad
limina" five-yearly meeting with the Pope, Bishop Maculewicz told the
Vatican newspaper ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ of the "many difficulties" in
officially opening these two parishes. St Joseph’s Parish in Navoi lodged
its registration documents with the local authorities in March 2006. The
Parish bought a private flat from a parishioner in 2000 and had worshipped
there, but this became impossible. Since 2006, Catholics wanting to attend
Mass have had to travel 120 kms (75 miles) to Bukhara [Bukhoro] or 150 kms
(95 miles) to Samarkand [Samarqand], the nearest registered Catholic
parishes. The Angren Parish – which bought a small one-storey house from a
parishioner in 2006 – does not have the 100 adult citizen members required
to apply for registration.

Bishop Maculewicz also told the ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ that the
authorities had not given permission to found a branch of Caritas, the
Catholic charity, in the country. However, nine nuns of the Missionaries of
Charity order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta support prisoners and
the poor in Tashkent, and individual parishes conduct small-scale
charitable activity. He added that Catholics had asked to be allowed to
open a home for people leaving hospital who need care during convalescence,
but after a year and a half have still received no response from the
government. Charitable work by religious believers has sometimes come under
suspicion from the authorities (see F18News 0 October 2006
< e_id=852>).

Baptists from the Baptist Union told Forum 18 that, of the 60
congregations in the Union, only about 20 have been able to gain state
registration. "All the rest are in a position of illegality," Baptists told
Forum 18. They complain that since 1998 "not one congregation" has been
able to gain registration. "The authorities always find various pretexts to
refuse registration."

Registration for Russian Orthodox Church "not a problem"

In contrast, the Russian Orthodox Diocese in Tashkent told Forum 18 that
gaining registration for new parishes when required is "not a problem." "We
simply provide all the necessary documents," an aide to the bishop,
Metropolitan Vladimir (Ikim), told Forum 18 from Tashkent on 16 July. The
aide said that some 40 parishes now have registration in Uzbekistan,
including a relatively new parish in Nukus where a church building is now
being constructed.

The aide also pointed to an old church that has been returned in the small
town of Yangi Chinaz in Tashkent Region. "We hope we will soon get
registration." The aide told Forum 18 that, despite this Parish not yet
having registration, priests can travel to it on Sundays and religious
festivals to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

How can communities gain state registration?

To gain state registration, communities must first have 100 adult Uzbek
citizens willing both to be identified as founders and to supply their
personal details to the authorities. Then, religious organisations must
submit two letters of guarantee: one from the district Hokimat, confirming
that the organisation to be registered has a building which corresponds to
public health and fire safety requirements; and one from the mahalla
committee, stating that other mahalla residents do not object to the
organisation. Public health, fire safety and similar requirements are
sometimes used to provide excuses to harass religious organisations (see
eg. F18News 11 January 2006
< e_id=714>).

Mahalla committees are used by the authorities as a key instrument in
their attempts to control Uzbek society (see eg. F18News 1 December 2005
< e_id=698>). Uzbek officials
wrongly claim that the alleged unwillingness of local residents allows the
state to, under international law, stop religious organisations from
operating (see eg. F18News 9 January 2008
< e_id=1068>).

Even when a religious community has followed the state’s demands and
obtained permission to exist from a local authority, registration – and
hence permission to carry out any religious activity – can still be
refused. This has happened in the case of the Eskhol Full Gospel Church in
the capital Tashkent, which has repeatedly been denied state registration.
Officials have claimed that the Church’s "letters of guarantee", or formal
permission to function in a geographic area, from the Hokimat (local
administration) of Tashkent’s Chilanzar district and from the First Katta
Mahalla (residential district) Committee did not correspond to official
requirements (see F18News 8 August 2008
< e_id=1169>).

However many religious communities do not get as far through the
application process as this. When Jehovah’s Witnesses in the town of Kagan,
on the outskirts of Bukhara [Bukhoro], tried to register between 2006 and
2008, they faced harassment, a police raid and the ten community members
were threatened with death and each given fines of five years’ minimum
wages. Bailiffs have made repeated visits to seize property to pay the
fines (see F18News 9 January 2008
< e_id=1068>).

Similarly, the latest registration application of a Jehovah’s Witness
community in Tashkent’s Sergeli District was rejected in February 2009. The
community has repeatedly lodged applications each year for many years, with
no success.

Can communities keep state registration?

Even if a community has managed to become registered, there is no
guarantee that it will be able to keep this status – even if it complies in
full with all the authorities’ formal demands. The Jehovah’s Witness
congregation in the eastern Fergana [Farghona] Valley was closed by the
authorities, even though the congregation repeatedly insisted over the
months in which the authorities moved to close it that it and its members
were fully compliant with Uzbek law (see eg. F18News 5 May 2006
< e_id=774> and 15 February 2007
< e_id=912>).

The one remaining congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country – in
Chichik [Chirchiq] near Tashkent – comes under occasional attack from the
authorities. If this congregation loses its registration, all Jehovah’s
Witness activity in the entire country will automatically be banned under
Uzbek law (see F18News 8 April 2009
< e_id=1282>).

Why does Uzbekistan create problems?

A leader of a Protestant Church in Tashkent, who wished to remain unnamed
for fear of reprisals from authorities, told Forum 18 that "in 2005 our
leaders were being tried by courts for having meetings at a private home."
The Protestant complained that "we told the court that we did not have
minimum of 100 people, but we are a community and want to exercise our
faith. We were given small fines, and were forced to attend an existing
registered church." The Protestant added that the authorities are trying to
catch small religious groups and force them to dissolve. "When a community
grows," the Protestant noted, "there is a need for a new place to worship.
But if the number of believers is under 100 then you cannot legally meet in
a separate place for worship. This way the authorities want to stop
communities from growing."

Forum 18 has asked officials why Uzbekistan creates registration
difficulties or totally denies this possibility, and why unregistered
religious activity results in fines or even imprisonment.

The state Religious Affairs Committee refused to discuss these questions
with Forum 18.

"I don’t know," was the answer of Judge Rajabov, who presided at the most
recent known trial for unregisteed religious activity (see F18News 31 July
2009 < 1333>). "Those
communities which are denied registration may complain against the Justice
Departments," he added.

Asked the same questions, Zukhra Muzaffarova, Deputy Head of Tashkent City
Department of the Justice Ministry, told Forum 18 on 29 July that "you
should not draw a parallel between our work and the courts." She warned
Forum 18 to "stay away" from Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. "These are our
internal issues, and you have no competence to interfere" she said brushing
off Forum 18’s question why her Department refused to register Sergeli
District’s Jehovah’s Witnesses Community. "Religious communities should
talk to us not to you about their registration issues," she stated. "Let
them apply, and we will register them in accordance with the law." She
declined to further discuss the issue with Forum 18. (END)

For a personal commentary by a Muslim scholar, advocating religious
freedom for all faiths as the best antidote to Islamic religious extremism
in Uzbekistan, see < 338>.

For more background, see Forum 18’s Uzbekistan religious freedom survey at
< id=1170>.

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Uzbekistan
can be found at
< mp;religion=all&country=33>.

A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at
< id=806>, and of religious
intolerance in Central Asia is at
< id=815>.

A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at
< s/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=uzbeki& gt;.

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