2007 Report on International Religious Freedom - Tajikistan

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, there were some areas of concern.

The status of respect for religious freedom eroded during the period covered by this report. Government policies reflected a concern about Islamic extremism, a concern shared by much of the general population. The Government actively monitored the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political. There were no closures of officially registered mosques, although the Government closed several unregistered mosques, prayer rooms, and madrassahs, and made the registration process to establish new mosques difficult. A Ministry of Education policy prohibited girls from wearing the hijab at public schools. The Government used the registration process to hinder some organizations' religious activity. Some religious organizations and individuals faced harassment, temporary detention, and interrogation by government authorities. The Government, including President Emomali Rahmon, continued to enunciate a policy of active secularism.

Some mainstream Muslim leaders occasionally expressed, through sermons and press articles, their opinion that minority religious groups undermine national unity.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. The U.S. Embassy has promoted a message of tolerance among and within religious groups through public diplomacy efforts. In addition, Embassy staff, including the Ambassador and visiting U.S. Government officials met regularly with community leaders of different confessions. Embassy staff investigated instances of potential discrimination and advocated strongly for government tolerance of all religious groups. The U.S. Embassy also supported exchange programs for Tajik religious leaders to visit the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 55,300 square miles and a population of 7 million, although it is difficult to determine an accurate figure due to absence of birth registrations in some rural areas. An estimated 97 percent of citizens consider themselves Muslims, although the degree of religious observance varies widely. Overall, active observance of Islam appears to be increasing steadily, especially among previously less observant city residents. The vast majority of Muslim inhabitants (approximately 96 percent of the population) are of the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 1 percent of Muslims are Shi'a, the majority of whom are Ismailis. Most Ismailis reside in the remote eastern Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as certain districts of the southern Khatlon region and in Dushanbe, the capital. In 2006 a new unregistered Islamic group of the Salafi sect began worshipping in Friday mosques in Dushanbe, Sughd, and Khatlon. An estimated 5,000 Salafis practice in Dushanbe without interference from other Muslims or the Government.

There are 85 non-Muslim groups registered with the Department of Religious Affairs (DRA) at the Ministry of Culture. Approximately 200,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Russians and other Soviet-era immigrant groups, reside in the country. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox, but other registered organizations include Baptists (five organizations), Roman Catholics (two), Seventh-day Adventists (one), Jehovah's Witnesses (one), Lutherans (no data available) and Korean Protestants, which include the SunMin Church (two). Other religious minorities include Baha'is (four registered organizations), Zoroastrians (no data available), Hare Krishnas (one), and Jews (one). Each of these groups is very small and nearly all their members live in Dushanbe or other large cities. An estimated 0.01 percent of the population is atheist or does not belong to any religious denomination.

Christian missionaries from Western countries, Korea, India, and elsewhere are present in small numbers. The DRA previously estimated the number of Christian converts since independence at up to 3,000 persons. Groups of Islamic missionaries also visited the country during the period covered by this report.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice; however, the Government monitored the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political or espousing "extremist tendencies," and some local administrative offices misinterpreted the term "secular state" to require a government bias against religion.

The Law of the Republic of Tajikistan "On Religion and Religious Organizations" was established December 1, 1994, and amended in 1997. The law provides the right of individuals to choose and change their religion and practice their religion of choice. The law also protects the right of individuals to proselytize. The law protects religious freedom, but in practice the Government, including the justice system, did not always rigorously enforce the law in a nondiscriminatory fashion.

Although there is no official state religion, the Government recognizes two Islamic holy days, Eid Al Fitr and Idi Qurbon (Eid al-Adha), as state holidays.

According to the Law "On Religion and Religious Organizations," religious communities must be registered by the Department for Religious Affairs. In November 2006 the Government dissolved the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA) and established the Department for Religious Affairs (DRA) within the Ministry of Culture. The former head of the SCRA is now a Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Culture. The official justification for registration is to ensure that religious groups act in accordance with the law; however, some religious groups alleged that the practical purpose is to ensure that they do not become overtly political. To register with the DRA, a national religious group must submit a charter, a list of at least 10 members, and evidence of local government approval of the location of a house of worship, if one exists. Religious groups are not required to have a physical structure in order to register, but they cannot hold regular meetings without one. Individual believers – up to 10 persons – do not have to register with the DRA in order to worship privately.

The DRA and local authorities share responsibility for the registration of neighborhood mosques and must agree on the physical location of a given mosque. The DRA is the primary authority for registration of non-Muslim groups; however, such groups must also register their place of worship with local officials. According to the DRA, local authorities may object to the registration of a place of worship only if the proposed structure does not meet sanitation or building codes, or if it is located on public land or immediately adjacent to government buildings, schools, or other places of worship. If the local government objects to a proposal, the religious community requesting permission must suggest an alternative. In the absence of registration, local authorities can force a place of worship to close, and fine its members.

There were no cases of the DRA permanently denying registration to religious groups during the period covered by this report. There were no reports of groups declining to apply for registration out of a belief that it would not be granted; however, the DRA rejected some applications on technical grounds, stalling registration. There were isolated cases of local government refusal to register religious groups in their areas, such as in the city of Tursonzade, where the DRA demanded local registration for a branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses in addition to their national registration.

The country has 2,842 registered mosques for daily prayers. This represents a decline from 2,885 registered mosques in 2006; however, the DRA claimed that it did not officially close any mosques during the reporting period. So-called "Friday mosques" (larger facilities built for weekly Friday prayers) must be registered with the DRA. There are 262 such mosques registered, not including Ismaili places of worship. Only one such mosque is authorized per 15,000 residents in a given geographic area. Many observers contend that this is discriminatory because no such rule exists for other religious groups.

There are 19 madrassahs at the college level, and one Islamic university. The Government permits private religious schools, but they must be registered. The Government closed some madrassahs operating without a license.

The law does not prohibit parents teaching religious beliefs to their own children in the privacy of their homes, but restrictions exist that prohibit homeschooling children outside of the family.

During the period covered by this report, President Rahmon continued to strongly defend "secularism," a politicized term that carries the strong connotation of being "anti-extremist" rather than "nonreligious." In national speeches the President cautioned against outsiders unfairly linking Islam to terrorism. While the vast majority of citizens consider themselves Muslim, there is a significant fear of Islamic extremism, both in the Government and among the population at large.

A 1999 Constitutional amendment permits religiously-based political parties, although a 1998 law specifying that parties may not receive support from religious institutions remained in effect. During the reporting period, two representatives from a religiously oriented party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), were members in the lower house of the national Parliament, which has a total of 63 members. There also were 13 deputies from the IRPT in district Parliaments around the country. The IRPT is the only legal Islamic political party in Central Asia.

An executive decree generally prohibits government publishing houses from publishing anything in Arabic script; however, some have done so in special cases if they presented the material for review prior to printing. They generally do not publish religious literature in general, but have done so on occasion, including producing copies of the Qur'an. There is no legal restriction on the distribution or possession of the Qur'an, the Bible, or other religious works; however, in practice the Government restricted distribution of Christian literature. There were no reported restrictions on the religious-oriented press. The IRPT distributes four publications and an Iranian news agency broadcasts a weekly radio program.

The new draft religion law introduced by the SCRA in January 2006 was distributed domestically for review but had not been sent to Parliament by the end of the reporting period. The law entitled "On Freedom of Conscience, on Religious Associations and Other [Religious] Organizations," would replace the current law on religion and add restrictions, such as increasing to 400 the number of petition signatures required to form a religious association; prohibiting religious education in private houses; prohibiting proselytizing; prohibiting religious associations from participating in political activities; and prohibiting political parties from having a religion-based ideology (which would effectively forbid the IRPT). On June 28 2007 representatives of 22 minority religious groups, including Baha'is, Catholics, Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Lutherans, Pentecostals and other Protestant denominations, signed an open letter to the President and Parliament expressing concern that the draft law would effectively outlaw minority religious groups in the country.

The Government issued a textbook to high schools in 2005 on the history of Islam, and a course on the history of religions is taught in public schools at the 10th grade level. Observers interpreted such government-imposed instruction as a way of controlling religious indoctrination. President Rahmon also declared that the Islamic University would be funded by the state, and the curriculum would include science and math.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government bans the extremist Islamist political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir and its members are subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion.

Although the DRA did not refuse any religious group registration during the reporting period, it declined to accept some applications, citing missing documentation or other technicalities. Some religious groups, unable to register, claimed the excuses were false and a way to deny registration. Local authorities in some cases used the registration requirement to prevent activities by some groups. The Government did not explicitly prohibit or discourage specific religious groups. Some religious leaders alleged that there was a de facto moratorium on new registrations pending adoption of the new draft religion law.

Although the DRA reported it did not close any registered mosques or prayer rooms during this reporting period and was no longer pursuing a registration campaign, the media reported that authorities closed down several unregistered prayer groups, mosques, and madrassahs.

The local government of Tursonzade continued to use administrative barriers to prevent the registration of a place of worship for the Jehovah's Witnesses, in spite of their national registration and DRA efforts on their behalf.

The DRA controlled participation in the Hajj and imposed further restrictions on pilgrims ("hajjis") during the period covered by this report. The Government continued to require air travel for the Hajj and controlled local tour operators, citing hygiene and safety concerns as reasons for limiting other means of travel. Hajjis are required to register with the DRA and deposit $2,500 (8,625 Tajik Somoni) prior to departure. In 2007, the DRA apparently lifted the previous quota limit of 3,500 citizen hajjis; as a result, 4,622 citizens participated in the Hajj in 2007, compared with 3,450 in 2006 and 4,072 in 2005, out of the overall quota of 6,000 hajjis that the Saudis allocated.

The Government continued to carry out "attestations" of imams, through which it tested all imams on their knowledge of Islamic teachings and religious principles. Imams could be dismissed if they did not pass the test. The Government organized a seminar for Imam-Khatibs of Friday mosques in Dushanbe to teach them about the various sects of Islam.

A 2004 Council of Ulamo fatwa prohibiting women from praying in mosques remained in effect. The fatwa was generally observed; however, some women did pray in small mosques without consequence. The Council of Ulamo, an ostensibly nongovernmental body that monitors and standardizes Islamic teaching, justified the fatwa by explaining that according to the country's historical tradition, women do not pray in mosques. Some considered the fatwa a political move inspired by the Government under the guise of religious law to reduce the access women have to IRPT messages and their ability to pass religious teachings to their children. Some local officials forbade members of the IRPT to speak in local mosques; however, this restriction reflected political rather than religious differences.

In early 2007 the Minister of Education declared that in accordance with a new dress code for all public educational institutions, girls would not be permitted to wear the hijab, a Muslim head covering. The new policy reinforced the Minister's 2005 statement banning the hijab, but the Government maintained that this was neither official law nor policy. In practice, during this reporting period, many female students and teachers were expelled from school for wearing the hijab; there was no official government reaction to the ongoing expulsions.

There were no further reports of local government officials prohibiting Muslim women from having their photographs taken for an internal identification document while wearing the hijab. The DRA claimed that this occurred rarely and that it interceded with the identification agencies in each case to make an exception.

During this reporting period, law enforcement officials continued to remove children found attending mosques during the day. This action was taken after government officials declared that children should be studying in schools, not worshipping in mosques. Some citizens protested and in at least one incident stopped the militia from rounding up the children by blocking the police van. However, according to media reports, police were usually successful in rounding up the children.

Missionaries of registered religious groups are not restricted by law, and they continued to proselytize openly. Missionaries were not particularly welcome in some local communities, and some religious groups experienced harassment in response to their evangelical activities. During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of visa restrictions for Muslim missionaries.

On July 13, 2006, Murodullo Davlatov, the former Chairman of the SCRA and now the Deputy Minister of Culture responsible for the DRA, stated publicly that the committee would scrutinize Jehovah's Witnesses actions. He said that Jehovah's Witnesses must receive permission from the committee prior to importing religious literature and provide samples of the literature to the committee. Beginning in April 2007 government authorities prohibited the release of religious literature imported by Jehovah's Witnesses, despite the group obtaining permission and proper documentation. In a written statement presented to the Jehovah's Witnesses on June 15, 2007, the DRA stated that the literature has a negative impact on the country and recommended that authorities not release the literature.

The "ban" on printing in Arabic script was thought to be an attempt to prevent the publication of extremist literature, such as those of the extremist Islamic political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Authorities in Isfara continued to restrict private Arabic language schools (including those giving private Islamic instruction) based on past reports that one such school was hosting a suspected terrorist. Restrictions on home-based Islamic education remained in place. While these restrictions were primarily due to political concerns, they affected religious instruction.

Unconfirmed reports suggested that the Government attempted to restrict the influence of two popular Islamic scholars by stopping Muslims from outside the scholar's districts from coming to their mosques to worship, barring them from becoming members of the IRPT. and confiscating audio and video cassettes of their sermons from public shops in 2006. The Government continues to examine audio and video cassettes for extremist and anti-government material.

The Government does not have a comprehensive strategy regarding refugees. At the end of the reporting period, a Christian refugee couple from Iran, an Iranian woman and an Afghan man, remained in Tajikistan while appealing a denial of resettlement. The country did not grant this couple full refugee status according to international standards. International organizations and local NGOs reported that harassment of refugees on religious grounds was no longer as prevalent as it once was. Instead, religious refugees face the same problems as political refugees, such as: resolutions that limit areas where refugees can settle to those outside of major cities; prohibitions on the registration of refugees who passed through a third country on their way to Tajikistan; and inability to register their status in country for periods longer than six months.

The Dushanbe city government filed charges against the Grace Sun Min Church and ordered a court hearing. The date for the hearing has not been set. The city government alleges that a piece of property owned by the church does not meet architectural standards. In 2001, the city government took the church to court in an attempt to seize the same building, claiming it belonged to the city. The church proved its ownership of the building and retained it.

On April 2 2007, Dushanbe city government officials shut down a religious celebration of Jehovah's Witnesses that more than 1,000 people attended. The officials prohibited the group from organizing in large numbers without permission from the local government.

The land dispute over Dushanbe's only synagogue remained unresolved, and the partially-destroyed building still functioned as a synagogue. Municipal officials partially tore down the synagogue, along with several mosques and administrative buildings, in February 2006, because it was in the middle of a planned park area. The city and Jewish community leaders were unable to reach a suitable compromise to relocate the synagogue or pursue an alternative solution. The city government offered land for a new synagogue but stated it could not provide compensation for the building, citing "separation of church and state."

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government reported that 61 persons were detained and convicted as HT members in 2006. HT members can receive a sentence of up to 12 years in prison. Some speculated that the Government used the HT label to arrest its opposition, including members of the intelligentsia and teachers.

During the period covered by this report, the Government temporarily detained and questioned members of various Christian denominations on several occasions. Government officials accused some Tajiks of betraying Islam after converting to Christianity. During the interrogations, government officials verbally harassed and threatened the Christians. On two separate occasions in April and May 2007, government officials allegedly beat a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses they brought in for questioning.

On November 4, 2006, local authorities in Kairokkum from the Ministry of Interior, the prosecutor's office, and the State Committee on National Security temporarily detained and interrogated two Jehovah's Witnesses members for discussing the Bible with local citizens. The authorities verbally abused the members and threatened to rape and kill the members if they continued to preach in Kairokkum. After five hours of questioning the members were released. Authorities from the State Committee on National Security officially told the Jehovah's Witnesses organization that the members were detained because they lacked identification documents and permission from local authorities to preach in Kairokkum.

On December 6, 2006, the Khujand City Court convicted IRPT member Mukhtorjon Shodiev and sentenced him to nine months in prison for inciting violence and calling for an overthrow of the Government. Shodiev and the IRPT argued that the charges were false and politically motivated.

On July 26, 2006, the Tursonzade City Court convicted and issued a fine to a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses for conducting religious education without a permit. The Witness maintained that she was having a private Bible discussion with another adult in her home. The case rose to the Supreme Court, which upheld the city court's decision on September 13, 2006 and ordered the Witness to pay a fine of $29 (100 Tajik Somonis).

There were no further developments in the May 4, 2006, death of IRPT member Sadullo Marupov, who fell from the third story of a police station in Isfara, a town in the northern Sughd region known for its strong Islamic roots. Officials stated that Marupov committed suicide; however, IRPT members refuted the official statement and claimed that police killed Marupov, and had tortured him during an earlier detention. Officials alleged Marupov was a member of Bay'at, a group the Government has labeled extremist, although some observers have questioned whether Bay'at even exists. The Government arrested three guards in connection with the case and subsequently released them with an administrative fine.

In contrast to previous years, there were no reports of arrests of high-profile Muslims.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

Gradually throughout the reporting period, officials suspended 2001 prohibitions on the use of loudspeakers by mosques issued by the mayor's office in Dushanbe. The prohibitions apparently were not based on any central directive. Dushanbe city authorities permitted mosques to use loudspeakers, provided the sound was directed towards the interior of the mosque. Mosques in the Sughd and Khatlon regions openly used loudspeakers directed away from the mosque for the daily call to prayer without facing prosecution.

During the reporting period, women were increasingly permitted to be photographed for official identification while wearing the hijab, particularly to participate on the Hajj. Some women were also able to attend mosque without being detained or prosecuted.

The Government also relaxed the "ban" on printing in Arabic script by government publishing houses. The Government permitted the printing of materials presented to the director of the publishing house, if submitted for review prior to printing, and deemed to be non-threatening.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

Conflict between different religious groups was rare, in part because there are so few non-Muslims; however, some Muslim leaders occasionally expressed the opinion that minority religious groups undermined national unity and complained that laws and regulations give preference to religious minorities. While most citizens consider themselves Muslim and most of the inhabitants are not anti-Islamic, there is a pervasive fear of Islamic extremism, felt both by the Government and the general population. Some citizens, often including the Government, interpret a secular state to mean a laical state that should be void of religious practices. Some minority groups reported incidents possibly related to religious discrimination.

On August 18 and September 14, 2006, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Dushanbe, setting parts of the building on fire. On September 14 the Russian Orthodox Church in Dushanbe also suffered a Molotov cocktail attack. The Ministry of Interior investigated the incidents, but the Government did not prosecute anyone during the reporting period. The perpetrators' motivation was unclear.

The Rabbi of the Dushanbe synagogue reported a break-in at his home in August 2006.Unknown individuals broke into a local church on March 11, 2007. The respective religious groups suspected that the break-ins were related to the groups' religious beliefs, but the motive remained unknown. The Ministry of Interior investigated the case, but no suspects were arrested during the reporting period.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom problems with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

The Embassy monitored ongoing religious freedom problems and issues that could potentially become abuses of religious freedom, including matters relating to religious legislation, registration problems, court cases that might have been motivated by religious intolerance, and the destruction of the synagogue. The Embassy advocated on behalf of a faith-based nongovernmental organization when the Government ordered its international staff members to depart the country. As a result of the Embassy's strong advocacy, the Government permitted international staff to remain in country.

Embassy officers regularly met with leaders from across all religious groups, the Government, and international organizations to discuss religious freedom concerns and to underscore the U.S. Government's commitment to religious freedom. The Embassy supported programs designed to create a better understanding of how democracies address the issues of secularism and religious freedom.

In December 2006, ten religious leaders participated in a George Mason University program, funded by the U.S. Government, and designed to enhance interaction and cooperation between indigenous religious groups and educational institutions and to encourage a more tolerant society. Project activities included a series of workshops on religious diversity in the country by American experts; a study tour for local educators in the greater Washington, D.C., area; the development of a resource center on diversity and tolerance in Dushanbe; and the creation of a curriculum on the role of religion in society for implementation in Tajik higher educational institutions.

In October 2006 nine religious leaders traveled to the United States to participate in a Community Connections exchange program under the theme of "Religion in a Secular Society." The aim of this program was to introduce secularism in the American context to religious leaders and government officials who have a supervisory role over religious affairs. Participants learned how religion and the state interact and about mechanisms that serve to protect religious rights in the United States. The program also emphasized the role that religious philanthropic organizations and other faith-based organizations play in the mainstream of American civil society.

The Ambassador hosted an Iftar dinner in October 2006 to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and Embassy officers regularly spoke with students and held roundtables on human rights and religious freedom issues, including discussions about the Ministry of Education's policy against the hijab in public schools and universities.

The U.S. Government funded a project which provided legal and civic education to students at the Islamic National University with the aim of promoting religious tolerance.

Released on September 14, 2007


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