08/23/2008, 00.00
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In Tashkent meeting at home to pray is a crime

The state appoints imams, chooses what goes into religious education and decides who can and who cannot go to Makkah. Non-Muslim groups are hard pressed to be recognised. Jehovah Witnesses can get two or three years in jail just for getting together.
Tashkent (AsiaNews/F18) – Unauthorised religious practice is considered a crime in Uzbekistan even if it only involves praying at home. The situation is such that police regularly storm religious functions, threaten and rough up faithful with impunity, whilst state media promote religious intolerance, this according to the Forum 18 news agency in a report about the difficult situation of believers in the Central Asian nation, including Muslims.

The state wants to control all religious activities in a country whose population is estimated to be over 28 million, most of whom would identify themselves as Muslim by tradition. Imams are appointed by the authorities and under their control despite the fact that article 61 of the constitution reads: “Religious organisations and associations are separate from the government and equal before the law. The government does not interfere in the activities of religious associations.”

The state controls the number and location of mosques and Muslim religious education leading imams to complain that they cannot teach Islam to children. The secret police goes so far as bug mosques in order to control them.

The number of hajj pilgrims is restricted to around 5,000, about a fifth of the pilgrim quota granted by Saudi Arabia. All pilgrims need approval from the country’s authorities like the secret police and the Hajj Commission, and must travel on the state-run airline, Uzbekistan Airways, whose tickets are about 200 times the minimum monthly wage.

Indeed Uzbekistan's population is extremely poor; the minimum monthly salary set by presidential decree for 1 September 2008 is 25,040 Soms (US$ 19).

Repression—including of religious believers of all faiths—has escalated since the May 2005 Andijan massacre.

Thousands of Muslims have told Forum 18 that praying and Ramadan observance are banned in prison.

Protestant inmates are not allowed to have a Bible.

Only registered religious communities are allowed to print or import religious texts.

Even then the police can seize unauthorised texts, which may include the Bible and the Qur’an.

For other religions the situation is even worse. Any unauthorised activity is a crime, even if it is just a meeting at home to pray. Not only can culprits be fined for sums 50 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage, but they can also end up to jail.

Similarly, proselytising and religious conversion are also punished. For example Forum 18 has reported that police and schoolteachers have told children that if they attend Protestant churches they will be jailed.

Registering with the authorities in order to conduct authorised religious activities is a hard thing to do, especially for new groups that may not be appreciated by local communities.

Even so Protestant groups have complained that between 2000 and 2006 38 existing congregations lost their legal status.

State TV has conducted actual campaigns of intolerance against religious groups, accusing them of drug use and terrorism.

Aimurat Khayburahmanov, a Protestant, was arrested in June 2008 for holding religious meetings in a private home, and will be tried under Articles 229-2 and 244-2 part 1 for “establishing, directing or participating in religious, extremist, separatist, fundamentalist or other banned organisations.” He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Persecution against Jehovah's Witnesses is systematic, partly because they refuse compulsory military service.

One Jehovah’s Witness, Irfon Khamidov, was sentenced in May 2007 to two years in prison for “illegal religious teaching.” Olim Turaev was sent to a labour camp for four years in April 2008 for holding an unauthorised religious meeting and teaching religion without state permission.

In July of this year Abdubannob Ahmedov and Sergei Ivanov were handed down a four-year and a three and a half year sentence respectively for the “illegal organisation of public associations.”

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