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INTERVIEW
Religious Freedom in Central Asia
Igor Rotar (at the top on the left) is the Central Asia correspondent and Felix Corley the Editor of the
Forum 18 News Service (http://www.forum18.org)

Forum 18 News Service is an instrument for promoting the implementation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and concentrates on serious and obvious breaches of religious freedom, and particularly on situations where the lives and welfare of individual people or groups are being threatened and where the right to gather around one's faith is being hindered.
What is the religious demographic of Central Asian countries and how are these demographics changing?

Religious affiliation in the five Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) tends to follow ethnicity. Almost all the indigenous nationalities are of Muslim background, while local Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and others) are mostly of Orthodox background. There are small numbers of Protestants of all varieties, Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Armenian Apostolic Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, Hare Krishna devotees and others.

In Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, people of Muslim background make up as much as 95 per cent of the population, and in Uzbekistan some 90 per cent. In Kyrgyzstan those of Muslim background make up some 70 per cent, while in more ethnically-mixed Kazakhstan, just over 50 per cent. Only a very small percentage of the population has switched from its "ancestral" faith to another faith. Although there are no statistics on this, it is unlikely to be more than 5 per cent.

Muslims tend to be much more tenacious in retaining their faith than Slavs, perhaps because Islamic sharia law prescribes execution for Muslims who adopt another faith. Traditional Muslim societies in Central Asia react very negatively when any of their members convert to another faith. In ethnic Uzbek villages in Kyrgyzstan, for example, lynch mobs have attempted to attack Muslims who have become Christians, while in Tajikistan one Christian missionary has been murdered and on occasion Christian churches whose pastors have conducted active missionary work among Muslims have been attacked.

However, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Turkmens - nomadic peoples in the past - tend to be nominal Muslims and less tenacious in their faith than Tajiks and Uzbeks. Also highly secularized are the Tatars, as this nation has been subjected to heavy assimilation by the Russians.

What have been the main cultural influences on religious beliefs in Central Asia?

During the Soviet period (from the 1920s to independence in 1991), Russian culture was highly influential. Unlike in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - where Russians were seen as occupiers - most Central Asians viewed Russian culture as progressive compared to local culture. Here it was considered prestigious to send one's children to Russian-language schools and in the main cities, many people spoke Russian and did not even know their native language - indeed, they often took pride in this.

Now, Western culture has taken the place of Russian as the dominant outside influence, especially American culture. Speaking English is regarded as prestigious.
Many local women, even Muslim women, dream of marrying an American or a European. However, many more traditional people are angered by the spread of Western mass culture, especially sexually-explicit movies.

The steep fall in the standard of living in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union has led many Muslims to regard these negative changes as the fruit of Western democracy, although Central Asia's ruling regimes are far from Western models of development. "Western democracy has brought us nothing but poverty, corruption and prostitution," I have often heard radical Muslims declaring.

What is the status of religious freedom in these countries?

Believers in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan suffer severe restrictions, as Forum 18 News Service has documented in its religious freedom surveys of these two countries (TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004 and UZBEKISTAN: Religious freedom survey July 2003). In practice there is almost complete religious freedom in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan is somewhere between these extremes.

What are the main challenges facing Christians in Central Asia today?

Government restrictions on almost all religious activity - including establishing new churches, setting up religious training institutions, publishing religious books and periodicals, public preaching and missionary work - make it hard for religious communities to function in ways that they might take for granted in other parts of the world.

Both the governments and ordinary people strongly resist proselytism. The Turkmen and Uzbek governments have taken the harshest measures, with Uzbekistan's religion law going as far as banning proselytism. Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses face the greatest problems from this, as they are the ones who tend to conduct active missionary work. The Russian Orthodox Church, which works only among ethnic Russians and other Slavs, has no problems with the authorities in the various Central Asian states.

Which countries in this region have formal legislation that restricts religious freedom?

Religion laws in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan specifically outlaw all activities by religious communities that are not registered by the state. In both countries, some religious communities that meet the criteria for registration have been refused it under various pretexts, making it impossible to function legally and maintain an open existence as a religious community. As Forum 18 News Service has frequently reported, this ban causes particular problems for religious minorities - both Christian and non-Christian - which the authorities do not like. Religious communities that do not wish to register - including one network of Baptist churches, for example - suffer immensely.

In Uzbekistan the religion law requires religious communities wishing to register to collect 100 adult citizens to register. This is more than many Christian groups can muster in an individual town or village.

Although the religion laws of neither Kazakhstan nor Tajikistan specify that registration is compulsory, administrative penalties for refusing to register a religious community still survive from the Soviet period in both countries, although many legal specialists believe it is almost impossible to prove this. Some prosecutors in Kazakhstan have tried to punish Baptist pastors and Jehovah's Witness leaders for heading unregistered communities, but such attempts have often been successfully challenged.

In which Central Asian country are Christians persecuted the most and why?

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have the harshest policy towards believers of all faiths, including Christians (though the Russian Orthodox Church is exempted from the most extreme restrictions). Such restrictions are motivated by the intolerance of these highly authoritarian regimes for any dissent. As Forum 18 News Service has reported, Protestants in both countries have seen churches closed down, services raided by police and secret police officers, believers fined and occasionally even imprisoned, and faced frequent threats to halt religious activity. In Turkmenistan the government bulldozed the Adventist church in the capital Ashgabad in November 1999, while Baptist and Pentecostal churches were confiscated.

While Protestants, Catholics, the Armenian Apostolic Church and others are restricted in their activity and at times persecuted, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys state registration and benefits from the unwritten government expectation that if you are of local ethnicity you are a Muslim, if you are Russian you are Orthodox.

How receptive are the people and cultures in Central Asia to Christianity?

Although traditional Muslims react strongly to conversion to other faiths, some have become Christians in recent years. Among the Central Asian peoples, the Turkmens, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are the most open to Christianity, given Islam's shallower historical roots among these peoples, as well as the Tatars, given their assimilation into Russian culture.

Is the Church in Central Asia growing or in decline?

While the number of Russian Orthodox and Lutherans has now stabilised after the mass migration of Slavs and others of European origin out of Central Asia, the number of Protestants and Catholics, although small, continues to rise.

What other religious minorities are persecuted in the region?

Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees suffer particularly, especially in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some have been dismissed from their jobs while others have been fined and beaten.

However, it is not just minorities: the Muslim community is the most tightly-controlled of all. Central Asian governments often close mosques, tightly control those they allow to function, insist on appointing and vetting imams and often require imams to give sermons only that have been approved by the government.

How has religious oppression in Central Asia been addressed by other governments? In your view are these policies correct and how can they be improved or changed to further help oppressed believers?

Many Western governments and international financial organizations - at least in theory - take into account human rights situation before extending cooperation and financial credits. The US government recently cut off aid to Uzbekistan because of its poor human rights record. However, to a greater (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and a lesser extent (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), the Central Asian governments have failed to live up to the human rights and religious freedom commitments to their own citizens that they themselves undertook on joining such bodies as the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They often ignore criticism from abroad over their human rights records.

What are the other main human rights issues facing Central Asian countries today and how can they be addressed?

Although the human rights picture varies from one country to another, none of the five Central Asian countries are free and democratic. Opposition political parties and independent newspapers are banned or restricted, the Internet is often censored, police often maltreat or torture those they have detained, courts - especially when dealing with politically-sensitive cases - are not independent from the executive authorities, and arbitrary arrests continue. Among those imprisoned in Uzbekistan and, on occasion, in Tajikistan, are not only terrorists, but peaceful advocates of an Islamic state or those who favor a government more aligned to Islam.

What are the prayer needs of the Christians in Central Asia? What would they specifically like other Christians to pray for on their behalf?

Local Christians would like their fellow-believers around the world to pray for them to be able to worship freely and without fear of persecution or harassment by the authorities. Doubtless many would also wish their fellow-Christians to pray for conversions and growth among their churches.

What is your advice for Christians and churches that are interested in helping persecuted Christians in Central Asia?

Local Christians value maintaining links with Christians around the world, though they hope foreign Christians will be discreet in their contacts with them so as not to provoke further government suspicion or retaliation. They also hope that foreign Christians will keep informed about what is happening to them (Forum 18 News Service found online at http://www.forum18.org is one way for those interested in religious life in the Central Asian countries to keep informed) and pray for them.

Thank you for your time and insights. They are appreciated.

-PKS (09-Sep-2004)