A UN report released on 2 March highlights the critical issues facing the country. Religious activities need government approval, missionary activity is banned, detentions on religious grounds are commonplace and religion education is forbidden in schools. The right to religious freedom is "inherent" in every human being and cannot be considered a concession of the state.
Tashkent (AsiaNews) – Religious freedom in Uzbekistan must be respected because it is not a concession of the state nor a threat to its stability, but the "inherent right" of every human being, this according to report released last Friday based on the findings made by Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, during a visit to the former Soviet Republic last October.
The UN official recognises that important steps have been taken and major reforms have been made over the past year by the Uzbek government. This includes President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s willingness to meet his demands and allowing him free movement.
However, the UN special rapporteur also notes limits in one area, namely freedom of religion. Mr Shaheed found in fact that in Uzbekistan religious freedom is subject to strict restrictions due to a rigid interpretation of the concept of secularism, and to the fight against religious extremism – of which there is no clear definition.
According to the report, “secularism, as understood in Uzbekistan, does not appear committed to providing space for religions or beliefs or their manifestation. Countering extremism, religious or not, and promoting intergroup tolerance and inter-ethnic harmony take priority over the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Religions and beliefs are more a show of the country’s “cultural diversity”, but when “believers try to practise their religions or beliefs more seriously, they find themselves with limited space or rights to manoeuvre”, at risk of being “identified with extremism.” Signs of religiosity are treated as indicators of “dissent”.
The report identifies various critical issues. For instance, although the Constitution sanctions freedom of worship, religious activities are allowed only if they are recognised by the Ministry of Justice.
Furthermore, several minority groups, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, are unable to register in various regions, despite several attempts. Their activities are subject to criminal sanctions.
The special rapporteur stresses that “the right to manifest one’s faith in public or in private, alone or in a group, is an inalienable right under international law that should not be contingent upon State approval or administrative registration.”
Mr Shaheed also criticises the ban on proselytising and missionary activities, as they are seen in Uzbekistan as a threat, with "unethical conversion" through material enticement seen as a potential cause of social tensions. However, in doing so, the ban violates the right to religious freedom and freedom of expression.
Likewise, the rapporteur questions the government’s ban on teaching religion in schools, noting, that parents have the right “to provide moral and religious education to their children in accordance with their own convictions”, which is a core element of the freedom of religion or belief as set out in article 18 (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Another important issue are the thousands of “religious prisoners”, estimated at between 5,000 to 15,000, who have been detained without clearly determining if they are responsible of acts of violence or just practising their religion.
In 2017, 18,000 people suspected of extremism were removed from the government blacklist.
Uzbekistan must continue on the path of reforms and take the necessary steps to move from "tolerance" of religions to their real protection under the law.