Even more restrictions in new law on religious freedom
Communities with less than 200 members are banned. Proselytising and public distribution of religious material are banned. Experts stress the new legislation fails to respect human rights. OCSE criticises the law.
Bishkek (AsiaNews/F18) – Despite strong protests by pro-human rights groups Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed into law a bill approved by parliament on 6 November that restricts the activities and registration of religious groups, this despite criticism by the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OCSE).

Under the new law, organisations will need at least 200 members (before ten were sufficient) before they can legally operate. The law does not allow children to join such groups and bans “insistent actions directed at turning believers of one faith to another (proselytism)”, including “the distribution of literature, printed, audio and video materials of a religious character in public places (on streets and roads), [. . .] going round flats, children's institutions, schools and higher educational establishments”.

Already legally established religious groups must re-register; a requirement which will force small communities with less than 200 local members to become illegal and go “underground”.

Tursunbek Akun, Kyrgyzstan's human rights ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that “this law is not in accord with international human rights standards” since it “imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing.”

Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection activist Aziza Abdirasulova agrees; in her view the new law violates the rights of small communities.

There was “no common language between the Muftiate [the state-sponsored Muslim spiritual leadership] and the Russian Orthodox Church—which backed the Law—on one side, and the other communities on the other,” she said.

Jens Eschenbaecher, spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said that the OCSE had already highlighted some of the “problematic features” of the draft bill, and had asked for changes “that the law as signed by the President” does not contain.

Eschenbaecher added that “the ODIHR stands ready to continue to work with the authorities in any further efforts to amend the law and make it fully consistent with Kyrgyzstan's commitments as a participating state of the OSCE.”

On 8 January, in his traditional New Year meeting with diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI urged civil and political authorities to “be actively committed to ending intolerance and acts of harassment directed against Christians,” especially insofar as they relate to new legislation being adopted by Central Asian Republics. The Church, he said, is not asking for “privileges, but [for] the full application of the principle of religious freedom.”

The Holy Father noted that however small Christian communities living in Asia may be, they “wish to contribute in a convincing and effective way to the common good, stability and progress of their countries, as they bear witness to the primacy of God which sets up a healthy order of values and grants a freedom more powerful than acts of injustice.”

“In this perspective,” the Pope noted, “it is important that, in Central Asia, legislation concerning religious communities guarantee the full exercise of this fundamental right, in respect for international norms.”