Tashkent (AsiaNews/Forum18) - Books and other material that encourage people to change their faith or, in the state's opinion, "distort" religious canons are now banned under a sweeping new censorship decree, this according to a report by Forum 18, an online news service that focuses on human rights violations in Central Asia.
In effect since late January, the new decree provides the legal basis for "severe state restrictions" on the production, sale, distribution and importation of religious material.
Limits have already been in place under Uzbekistan's harsh 1998 Religion Law, but the new legislation provides for harsher punishments for law-breakers.
Officials with the State Religious Affairs Committee, which is in charge of enforcing the censorship, refused to discuss its provisions, but its effects are immediate. Any returning pilgrims - including those from Makkah - will have their literature seized for checking.
Overall, producing, distributing and importing religious material will be severely monitored. Distribution will be allowed only in fixed commercial points of sale equipped with cash registers. Even importing material for personal use will be monitored and approved by the state.
Books and other material that encouraging individuals to change their faith or "distort" religious canons are specifically outlawed under the far-reaching new censorship.
The decree also modifies existing laws and codes so that it can come into immediate effect.
Deputy Prime Minister Adkham Ikramov, who is also responsible for cultural affairs, will supervise the decree's implementation.
A legal expert told Forum 18 that the decree "has contradictions and ambiguities", and "gives broad powers to the State Religious Affairs Committee to seriously limit the use or distribution of religious literature".
The law also appears to give the State Committee and other state organs the right to interfere directly in the internal affairs of registered religious organisations.
In a country that is 88 per cent Sunni Muslim, and 8 per cent Christian, the authorities have severely restricted freedom of religion.
Although the possession of religious literature is considered illegal under Uzbek law only if its contents are deemed "extremist and incite hatred," the courts have often ordered the destruction of such material, even when seized in private homes, if it is deemed extremist by "experts". However, for the latter, any text with religious content is by definition extremist.