Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed a controversial new religious law on January 12 that bans proselytism, private religious education, and the import or dissemination of religious literature. The law, which has encountered strong opposition from human rights activists, comes into effect the same week civil rights watchdog Freedom House criticized Kyrgyzstan for increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
The bill, "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," also proscribes children from membership in a religious community and mandates that religious groups must have a membership of at least 200 adult citizens who permanently reside in Kyrgyzstan before the groups can be registered. The previous law required only 10 members for registration.
In an interview with Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, Human Rights Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun condemned the law for failing to meet international rights standards and for imposing "a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing."
Three-quarters of Kyrgyzstan's five million people consider themselves Muslim. Another 20 percent are Russian Orthodox Christians, while the remaining five percent are Protestants and members of other religious minority groups.
Proponents -- including the heads of both the Russian Orthodox and official Islamic communities -- say the new law is designed to prevent the spread of radical groups, such as the banned pan-Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Other supporters admit fears that Protestant Christian groups are converting Muslims away from their "true" faith.
The deputy director of Kyrgyzstan's State Agency on Religious Affairs hailed the new rules. "This is a demand and requirement of today's reality. It is necessary to bring order to the chaotic processes we see in the religious sphere and society," said Kanatbek Murzahalilov.
In an October interview with EurasiaNet, Kanatbek praised the then-draft law, saying that proselytism "damaged society" and violated others' human rights.
But critics worry the law is an affront to those very human rights, including international charters the Kyrgyz government has signed. Kyrgyzstan's constitution guarantees religious freedom.
Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, says the directive is a step backwards.
"This law clearly violates Kyrgyzstan's commitments to religious freedom," Corley commented to EurasiaNet. "It remains to be seen how draconian the implementation will be, but many religious communities have expressed their fears to Forum 18."
Citing examples in neighboring Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, Corley sees this as part of a wider trend: "Laws on religion across Central Asia have repeatedly been amended over the past decade, each time becoming harsher and more restrictive. . . . Let us not forget that repression of religious communities is already the norm in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and increasingly in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and now Kyrgyzstan."
Sergei Lysov, a pastor and head of Kyrgyzstan's chapter of Bible League, a non-profit Christian group, sees the bill as yet another challenge to religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan and worries it will curtail his organization's activities. "We prayed this law would not be passed," Lysov said. But "I think it will only strengthen religious communities. For a true believer, it is important to have tests, because it only makes him stronger."
Other minority groups told EurasiaNet they will go underground and complained their voices were not heard during the drafting process.
A week before the president signed the new law a group of American representatives wrote an open letter to Bakiyev, urging him to work with lawmakers to remove articles that threaten freedom of religion.
The leaders of the US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, praised Kyrgyzstan's previous development of democratic institutions, but warned Bakiyev that the law would "damage your country's reputation."
"We strongly urge you not to sign this law, which would mark a serious regression in your country's observance of OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] norms," the group wrote.
OSCE representatives in Bishkek did not outright condemn the bill, but expressed cautious optimism it could still be modified. Noting "discrepancies with international standards," Lilian Darii, deputy head of the OSCE Center in Bishkek, said the OSCE had made recommendations on the draft law last fall, at the government's request, but noted that much of the advice was ignored. "We hope there is still room for review," he added.
Kyrgyzstan's Muftiate officially supports the legislation.
Despite repeated attempts, EurasiaNet was unable to reach the administration of the Russian Orthodox community in Bishkek for comment. Last fall, church representatives told EurasiaNet that they broadly supported the law.
Since the hopeful Tulip Revolution in 2005, Kyrgyzstan has slid steadily backwards in human rights and corruption assessments. This week, the Washington, DC-based civil rights monitoring group Freedom House said that individual liberties in Kyrgyzstan had decreased in 2008 because of "new legislative constraints on the media and freedom of assembly, as well as moves by the authorities to enfeeble the political opposition and silence civil society."
The government has not yet responded publicly to the criticism.