Tajikistan and Uzbekistan designated as “Countries of Particular Concern” under US International Religious Freedom Act (IRF)

May 3, 2016 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

religious freedomU.S, April 28, 2016: The United States Department of State announced on Wednesday 13 April that Tajikistan has, for the first time, been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of its record on religious freedom. The decision follows a report released on 13 April by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommending which countries should be recognised as CPCs. Uzbekistan has been designated as a CPC for the eleventh consecutive year.

The Central Asian state of Tajikistan has an estimated population of 7.9 million, more than 90% of whom are Muslim. Around 1% of population are Christian. The heavy government restrictions apply to all religious groups, including its Muslim majority. The Tajik government uses examples of Islamic extremism to justify its stance against individuals and groups taking part in certain religious activities.

Laws introduced in 2009 meant all churches had to re-register under demanding and intrusive registration requirements. Unregistered Christian activity was criminalised. Administrative and penal amendments in 2011 and 2012 introduced new penalties, including large fines and prison terms for religion-related offences. Christians are sometimes viewed by the authorities as spying on and trying to destroy the political system.

Believers from Muslim backgrounds face the additional pressure to renounce their faith from families and local communities. This week Barnabas Fund received details from a pastor in Tajikistan who received a threatening phone call. “The stranger called the church with a hidden phone number and introduced himself as Muslim and threatened to blow up our church in a few days”, the pastor wrote. “This was repeated twice.”

Nine countries have been re-designated as Countries of Particular by the United States Department of State, including Tajikistan’s central Asian neighbour, Uzbekistan.

Officially a secular state, Uzbekistan has long been recognised as one of the most repressive regimes in Central Asia with respect to religious freedom, with the number of incidents against Christians increasing in recent years and extremely harsh religion laws severely limiting Christian activities. Churches are required to register with the authorities, but the stringent requirements for registration are impossible for some to meet. Others have their applications for registration rejected for petty reasons such as minor grammatical errors.

Christians from unregistered churches are vulnerable to police raids on their meetings and homes as well as to harassment and surveillance. During raids, threats and physical violence are common; arrest and detention can follow. Attending services, teaching the Bible to adults or children, training Christian leaders and illegally storing, importing or distributing Christian literature can all lead to fines.

A Christian leader in Uzbekistan emailed Barnabas Fund this week, writing, “These days we are facing here lots of court cases and fines, for Christian literature and materials.” He added that 18 believers in the region of Karakalpakstan have been given fines ranging from $600 to $1,500 for possessing Christian literature, whilst in the eastern city of Fergana a further eight believers have cases that are currently being heard in court.

Meanwhile, Pastor Latif, who was arrested last month as part of a police operation searching for Christian literature and resources, has been released. He spent 16 days in prison and is now in hospital receiving medical treatment because of heart and back pain. Following this treatment, Pastor Latiff will have to leave Uzbekistan for a time because of safety concerns.

For many centuries, Islam was the prevalent religion among the people groups of Central Asia. After the October Revolution of 1917, and especially from the 1920s, anti-religious policies and the propagation of atheism restricted religion in public life, although “indigenous faiths” – Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism – were accorded some minor concessions. This was the case until the reforms of perestroika in the mid-1980s and the declarations of independence (in the early 1990s) of newly formed states from the former Soviet Union, at which point each state determined their own approach towards religious freedoms.

Elsewhere in central Asia, Turkmenistan has been re-designated as a Country of Particular Concern. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have not been included on the CPC list. The other countries added are Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

– barnabas

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