Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion and the right of all citizens to choose and practice their own religion; however, the Government at times infringes on these rights. The Constitution provides for a secular state and the separation of church and stare, and the Government does not support any one religion.
In 1996 the Government created a State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), officially in order to promote religious tolerance, protect freedom of conscience, and oversee laws on religion. The Commission quickly became active and has overseen the registration of over 300 religious institutions of which 210 are Christian denominations. According to a 1997 presidential decree, all religious organizations must be registered by the SCRA, which must recognize the registrant as a religious organization; each congregation must register separately. Subsequently, a religious organization must register with the Ministry of Justice in order to obtain status as a legal entity, which permits it to own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. However, if a religious organization engages in commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes in accordance with the tax code. In practice the Ministry has never registered a religious organization without prior registration by the SCRA. The Ministry's registration process is sometimes cumbersome, taking a month on average, but no religious organization has been denied registration after properly completing all formalities and none are currently being delayed.
The Church of Jesus Christ resubmitted registration papers to the SCRA in September 1998. It had been denied in 1997 because the Church did not have a street address or a building to carry out its activities. At the beginning of September 1998, the Church had received a letter from the procurator's office informing it of criminal charges against it for "long-term noncompliance with the law on registration of religious organizations." The SCRA initiated the charge. After church leader Vasily Kuzin explained to the procurator's office that all the papers for registration had been filed with the SCRA at an earlier date, the procurator requested clarification from the SCRA. The Church was registered with the SCRA in November 1998, and it purchased a building to be used for its office, which is now being renovated.
According to the Commission on Religious Affairs and the main office of the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Naryn Baptists and the Kyrgyz Seventh-Day Adventists both now are registered with the SCRA. The Baptists have been registered since 1997 and the Seventh-Day Adventists were registered in December 1997.
Religious leaders note with concern that the SCRA frequently uses the term "national security" in its statements. The Ministry of Internal Affairs often plays a leading role on various religious questions. Religious leaders also worry that well established traditional religious groups could use references to "preserving interconfessional accord" to prevent smaller churches from registering. Both Christians and Muslims have expressed concern about the State's apparent intention to play a more intrusive role in religion. Ethnic Kyrgyz Christian congregations appear to face special barriers, as do some Muslim congregations with foreign support.
Islam is the single most widely practiced faith. Official sources estimate that up to 80 percent of the inhabitants are Muslims. There are approximately 120 mosques, each with its own madrassa for initial religious training. There are also two institutes for higher Islamic teaching. Approximately 17 percent of the population are Russian Orthodox. There are 40 Russian Orthodox churches and well over 200 churches and houses of prayer for other Christian denominations. For example, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church operates six churches in Bishkek, as well as several elsewhere in the country. Jews, Buddhists, and Catholics account for approximately 3 percent of the population, and their adherents' practice their religions openly in churches, temples, and synagogues. A Roman Catholic church in Bishkek functions unhindered. A small Jewish congregation meets in Bishkek without a rabbi. The group organizes informal cultural studies and humanitarian services, chiefly food assistance for its elderly. There also are examples of syncretistic religious practices. Most notably, there is a Baptist church in the Naryn region whose followers are predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz. While they worship as Christians, they have adapted Muslim modes of prayer into their Christian rituals. There is no official estimate of the number of atheists.
Islam is practiced widely throughout the country, from the cities to the villages. Russian Orthodoxy typically is concentrated in the cities where a larger ethnic Russian population exists. The other faiths also are practiced more commonly in the cities where their smaller communities tend to be concentrated. There is a correlation between ethnicity and religion, with ethnic Kyrgyz tending more towards Islam and ethnic Russians favoring either the Russian Orthodox Church or one of the other Western denominations. Exact statistics are not available, but while the majority of the population claims to follow Islam, a significant number of these adherents appear to be only nominal believers and identify with the faith out of historical or ethnic allegiance. A significant number of the followers of the Russian Orthodox Church also appear be only nominal believers.
A number of missionary groups operate in the country, including groups from the United States, Germany, and Korea, as well as missionaries from Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. They represent a variety of religious organizations including Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unified Church of Christ of Evangelists, and Korean Presbyterians. These organizations operate freely, although they are required to register. The Unification church, which is not registered, has "semi-official" status. Government authorities indicated that they would monitor its activities. There were no reports of interference in its activities during the period covered by this report.
Local government officials disrupted an evangelistic meeting held by Baptists in May 1999 in Kyzyl Kiya in the Osh region, and detained and fined participants. A press account indicates that the participants, including some citizens, were expelled to Uzbekistan. According to the Government, the group consisted entirely of foreigners, and had rejected four separate requests to register as required by law. Government officials indicated that the group was not affiliated with the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, which is registered.
The Government expressly forbids the teaching of religion (or atheism) in public schools. To encourage religious tolerance, the Government works through the SCRA to promote interfaith dialog. The SCRA hosts meetings of religious groups to bring the faiths together in open forums. Additionally, the SCRA assists various faiths to work together on programs for the protection of the poor and the elderly.
The Government recognizes three Muslim holidays (Noorus, Kurban Ait, and Orozo Ait) and one Russian Orthodox holiday (Christmas which is observed on January 6 in accordance with Russian Orthodox calendar) as national holidays. The President and the Government send greetings to the followers of these faiths on their major religious holidays, and these messages are printed in the mass media.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Muslim leaders complain that the SCRA makes decisions about religious events without consulting them. However, the Government is concerned about the threat of political extremism in the guise of conservative Islam. The Government considers radical Islam, whose followers it labels "Wahhabis," a threat to the country's stability. The Government fears that Wahhabis seek to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic theocracy. During the period covered in this report, the Government continued to express public concern about extremists with either radical religious or political agendas. In April and May 1998, three ethnic Uighurs (a Turkic people native to southwestern China) were arrested for possession of illegal weapons and Wahhabi videocassettes; two were acquitted of distributing Wahhabi literature at trial and the third was convicted on charges of carrying a firearm and resisting arrest and sentenced to prison. In December 1997, the Ministry of National Security created special units to control the activities of Wahhabis and other religious sects. The Government's fear of political extremism increased following a series of bomb attacks in neighboring Uzbekistan in February 1999. The attacks were blamed on Wahhabis, and arrests were made throughout Central Asia, including in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Apart from the Uighurs arrested for possession of Wahhabi literature, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Relations between the faiths are generally good. The two major religions, Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church, respect each other's major holidays and exchange holiday greetings.
There is no evidence of widespread societal discrimination or violence against members of different religious groups. However, there is anecdotal evidence of periodic tension between followers of conservative Islam and foreign missionaries in rural areas. There were no reports of these tensions escalating to serious levels; the parties involved appear to have resolved their problems peacefully over time.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
In March 1999, the Ambassador met with the Archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Archbishop stated that he was satisfied with the treatment of the Church by the authorities and had good relations with the leaders of the other traditional churches.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials also have met regularly with the Government, Members of Parliament and the SCRA to discuss the course of religious freedom and the laws that govern this freedom. Concerns over the language in a proposed revision to the law on religion also were raised. As a result, passages which would have closed the country to all but "traditional" religions were eliminated and registration requirements were eased. Additionally, at the request of a U.S. congressman, the Embassy's consular officer met with the SCRA regarding delays in registration of the Church of Jesus Christ. The SCRA explained that the Church's registration materials were incomplete. The SCRA then met with the Church's leader and helped him to complete the forms. The Church was then registered in accordance with the law.
An embassy officer met with the deputy chief of SCRA in June 1999 to express concern about the breakup of the Baptist religious service in Kyzyl Kiya (see Section I).