09/26/2008, 00.00
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Tashkent, tight control over mosques and faithful during Ramadan

The main mosques are under surveillance, large meetings in private homes are forbidden, and the imams are strictly required to have their Friday sermons approved: the government seeks to control every aspect of religious life, out of fear of protests.

Tashkent (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Tight police control over mosques and all religious activity in Uzbekistan for the sacred month of prayer and fasting of Ramadan. Since the beginning of Ramadan (early September), the police have been watching the main mosques in Tashkent and in the other large cities, rigorously enforcing the ban against large meetings in private homes (during Ramadan, it is customary for lots of people to get together in the evening for banquets), and are asking the local committees (a sort of basic administrative body) to inform them about any violations.

The authorities say that extremism must be prevented. But many are commenting that the state is simply worried about the increase in the numbers of the faithful who observe the fast, compared to previous years. In the cities of Andijan, Namangan, and Kokand, all in the Ferghana Valley, restaurants and cafes are mostly empty during daylight hours.

In order to control the spread of the Islamic faith, the authorities are also refusing to register new mosques: there are only 3,000 authorized mosques for about 26 million inhabitants, 90% of whom are Muslim. But the unregistered mosques are thought to be in the thousands. In some cities, like Namangan, the imams have been told to exclude boys and young men from prayers at the mosques.

The lack of mosques and the government curbs on gatherings are leading to social tension. In Vuadil, near the city of Ferghana, a new mosque was completed in 2006, and has been waiting for registration since then. Meanwhile, it is forbidden to meet there.

There is also rigorous application of the requirement for imams to submit the texts of their sermons for Friday (the Islamic holy day) for approval by the Islamic Supreme Council. Those who do not do so are fined.

And the government is using Ramadan for propaganda: state-run TV broadcasts a weekly program entitled "Ramazon Tuxfasi" (the blessings of Ramadan) in which officials and "acceptable" clerics talk about the values and importance of the sacred fast.

Experts comment that the government is increasingly concerned about preventing possible protests, after the ones in Andijan in the Ferghana Valley in 2005, when the army opened fire on a crowd demonstrating peacefully, killing hundreds of people. At the time, Tashkent said it was an attempt to revolt by extremist groups, but eyewitnesses say that it was a mass protest of ordinary people. For this reason, controls are tighter in certain areas, while in others the faithful are allowed to meet freely in each other's homes, and young men attend the mosques.

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