Tashkent (AsiaNews/Forum18) - With the support of local authorities, some Uzbek imams have denied the families of non-Muslims the right to bury their loved ones in state-owned cemeteries.
Three cases involving Protestants have been reported in recent weeks, raising questions about religious freedom in Uzbekistan, this according to the Forum 18, a news service that documents violations of religious freedom in Central Asia.
The three people involved are all former Muslims who converted to Protestant Christianity. In each case, their families were not allowed to bury them alongside other relatives.
In Central Asian culture, being buried together with family members and with the participation of the local community are important.
Although Forum 18 reported the first case only a few days ago, the latter dates back to 9 April. It concerns Gayrat Buriyev, 68-year-old Christian, originally from a village near the capital Tashkent.
The local imam refused to let his relatives bury him in the state-owned cemetery, repeatedly cursing the deceased's family. When the latter appealed to local government authorities, they were unsuccessful.
The ban stems from the deceased's conversion to Christianity. Cemeteries are state-owned, but converts cannot be buried along with Muslims, the imam said.
"The imam cursed the family for becoming Christians and insulted them with unquotable expressions, branding them unclean and defiled infidels," local sources said, adding that he was "acting based on Islamic Sharia Law".
Complaints by relatives were to no avail. Although they insisted that Uzbekistan is (or ought to be) a secular state and cemeteries are state-owned, the local imam, claimed that the one in question was "a Muslim cemetery" and Christians are not allowed.
Two similar cases were reported in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous region in north-western Uzbekistan.
Local officials forced the families of two Protestant women who died in February to bury them in a Russian Orthodox cemetery, after the local imam banned them from the state-owned cemetery.
The local Muslim leader, who was instrumental in this case as well, said, "Those who accepted other religions may not be buried in the same cemetery with Muslims."
In a country where about 88 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim with 8 per cent Christians, religious freedom is under tight government controls.
Although only the possession of religious literature that is extremist in nature and incites "religious hatred" is deemed illegal, the judiciary often destroys material seized in homes after receiving "opinion" from "experts" for whom any book about religion is extremist.