10/17/2008, 00.00
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Kyrgyzstan to restrict religious freedom

Restrictive draft bill, which passed first reading in Kyrgyz parliament, will especially affect minorities. A ban is imposed on religions not recognised by the government and on proselytising.
Bishkek (Asianews) – Kyrgyzstan's single-chamber Parliament, the Zhogorku Kenesh, approved without discussion the first reading of a restrictive draft bill on religion. Now it is waiting for a second reading before the bill becomes law, something which could come as early as next Tuesday, 21 October, but that has not yet been announced. What the law entails remains unclear.

The Norway-based human rights organisation Forum18 said that parliament and the State Agency for Religious Affairs have refused to release the latest version of the draft bill.

The parliamentary committee that wrote it announced that it was not different from the text the government released on its website last May.

Protestant groups, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'is countered however that the latest version is even more restrictive than that of May.

Kyrgyzstan has a population of more than five million people, 70 per cent of whom are Muslims. Orthodox Christians are about 5 per cent and the remaining 25 per cent is divided between atheists and other religious denominations.

Minorities are very likely to be the most affected. From what is known so far the draft bill would ban any religion not recognised by the government and would also outlaw proselytising.

Under the new law religious groups would need at least 200 adult members in order to be registered as a local community. It would also allow local authorities to ban activities by groups registered in other districts.

Kyrgyz restrictions parallel those that Kazakhstan is set to implement.

At the end of September the Kazakh parliament adopted a law like the one proposed in Kyrgyzstan. It has come in for criticism by various human rights organisation because they were denied the opportunity to see the bill before it was approved.

Both republics are home to small Catholic communities. A single church stands in Kyrgyzstan, built in 1969 in Soviet times by the German minority and expanded in the 80s.

Since 2006 the apostolic administration is in the hands of a Jesuit, Bishop Nikolaus Messmer, who is responsible for 30 communities across the country, each with about 30 members.

When Benedict XVI received central Asian bishops in ad limina visit in early October he mentioned their importance as a “small flock” in a land of mission.

Talking about restrictive policies now being implemented to fight terrorism and fundamentalism, the Pope warned that the “force of the law can never be transformed into injustice, nor can the free practice of religions be limited”.

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