For most Muslims the pilgrimage to Mecca is a sacred duty to be completed at least once in a lifetime. But Turkmenistan’s Muslim-majority population should surely receive divine dispensation. Under restrictions imposed by the authoritarian government, an eager pilgrim can wait over 10 years to receive permission to perform the haj.
Every country has a quota, a limit to how many Muslims it can send on haj each year. Turkmenistan is facilitating travel for only one-seventh of its quota this year, despite the long waiting lists, Oslo-based religious-freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported on August 25:
Muslims in Balkan Region of western Turkmenistan have to wait on average between eight and eleven years to reach the top of the waiting list to join the state-organized haj pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, an official of the regional Religious Affairs office told Forum 18 News Service from Balkanabad on 21 August. Turkmenistan's government is allowing just under a seventh of the haj quota allocated by the Saudi authorities to travel this October to Mecca. "Turkmenistan is one of the governments not doing all it can to help pilgrims," a Saudi consular official told Forum 18 from Ashgabat.
Authorities in northern Kazakhstan are disbanding a community of Muslims, believed to be the last independent Muslim congregation in the country.
Officials from a court-appointed Liquidation Commission arrived at the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl on February 4, Oslo-based religious freedoms watchdog Forum 18 reports.
The mosque “is to be handed over to another [unspecified] religious organization,” Forum 18 quoted Marat Zhamaliyev, the deputy head of North Kazakhstan Region’s Finance Department, as saying.
The closure comes after the community that worships at the mosque failed to gain the official registration required under a controversial law on religion passed in 2011, which critics have called over-restrictive. The legislation controversially prohibits prayer in state buildings (including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities), sets strict registration requirements for religious groups, and allows authorities to vet religious literature.
Forum 18 believes the 162-year-old mosque “may possibly be the last remaining publicly accessible mosque independent of the state-backed Muslim Board,” which is responsible for licensing mosques and regulating their activity.
The watchdog says that a community still exists at the mosque, regularly holds prayers there, “and intends to continue to exist.”
“We're not liquidating the mosque, we're liquidating the community,” Zhamaliyev said in response.
“No one is banning people from praying,” he added. “People can go to pray in the new community.”
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”
As many as 10,000 people languish in Uzbek prisons for their faith. Once there, they are subjected to another injustice, a religious-freedom watchdog reported this week: They are often denied access to clergy and religious literature.
Oslo-based Forum 18 has collected new evidence that Uzbekistan's brutal penal system prevents prisoners of conscience, and those locked up on dubious extremism charges, from worshipping in prison.
Relatives of Muslim prisoners of conscience told Forum 18 that Muslims "cannot openly pray, or read any Muslim literature – even the Koran."
Forum 18 says that prisoners, both Muslims and Christians, are regularly denied visits by clergy. Even the state-controlled Spiritual Board of Muslims and the state-friendly Russian Orthodox Church have limited access to prisons, while clergy from other denominations have virtually no access, the watchdog said.
An official from one recognized religious group, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that authorities did not allow his clergy to visit or conduct religious ceremonies in prisons. Though the Board of Muslims claimed to Freedom 18 that it has no problem accessing prisoners, it declined to specify when it had last visited any prisoners.
According to recent estimates by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Islam Karimov’s government has imprisoned "as many as 10,000 individuals" for their non-violent Islamic religious affiliations.
Broadening their campaign to crackdown on unofficial religious activities, police in Uzbekistan have carried out surprise raids on unregistered Protestant churches and private homes in recent months, according to the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18.
Homes of Protestant Christians from various Churches across Uzbekistan were raided in February and March, Forum 18 News Service has learned. In at least two cases, courts subsequently handed down huge fines. After a late March raid and fine on a Protestant couple in the capital Tashkent, a Protestant who knows them complained that the raiding authorities produced no warrants, no trial was held and that the fines given were "unbelievably high". "The authorities know where believers live and know that they have Christian literature in their homes," the Protestant – who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals – told Forum 18. "By raiding their homes the authorities harass believers and are trying to wear them down by the fines."
Religious believers' homes are also known to have been raided in Samarkand in central Uzbekistan and in Nukus, capital of the north-western autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan. Courts in both cities fined the believers and confiscated their Christian literature and other materials.
All religious literature of any kind in Uzbekistan is under tight state censorship.
In one of the raids, in Tashkent on March 18, a local police officer and seven "officials in plain-clothes" raided an apartment where an ethnic Uzbek Protestant couple was living temporarily.
A Bible bonfire is unlikely to boost Kazakhstan’s religious freedom credentials. After all, the country likes to tout itself as a bastion of religious tolerance. Yet as Astana enters new territory in its zealous attempts to control religion, it looks like officials are about to strike the match.
A court in northern Kazakhstan has ordered Christian literature including Bibles to be destroyed, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports. One official has said the Holy Scriptures are likely to be burned.
The order to destroy religious books may be a first for Kazakhstan, Forum 18 said. A legal order last April to destroy religious works, including a Bible, was annulled.
The latest order concerns 121 Bibles and other religious books and leaflets belonging to Vyacheslav Cherkasov, a Baptist from the town of Shchuchinsk. He was slapped with a fine of around $575 after being arrested for distributing religious literature for free.
In his defense, Cherkasov cited his constitutional rights, but the court ruled that only two bookshops in Shchuchinsk are licensed to distribute religious literature. Last year local authorities throughout Kazakhstan issued decrees authorizing only named, licensed bookshops to sell religious literature, Forum 18 said.
Cherkasov is appealing, but if he fails the Bibles are likely to be “burnt,” Justice Ministry official Kulzhiyan Nurbayeva told Forum 18.
“[T]his is terrible, terrible,” the watchdog quoted prominent human rights campaigner Yevgeniy Zhovtis as saying.
Muslim communities practicing outside the strict boundaries permitted in Kazakhstan are coming under increased pressure, an international watchdog says, as zealous officials present bizarre interpretations of a controversial new religion law.
One mosque in northern Kazakhstan said it had been told to conduct sermons only in the Kazakh language, Oslo-based Forum 18 reports, although the law contains no such provision.
The mosque facing the stringent linguistic demands is the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl (known as Petropavlovsk in Russian), which has just lost one appeal against a liquidation ruling. The Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir congregation is among many religious communities facing closure under a re-registration process that ended last October.
A 2011 religion law required all religious communities in Kazakhstan to re-register under stringent criteria within a year or face closure. The results were stark: approximately one-third of religious organizations did not receive re-registration, leaving 3,088 operating against the previous total of 4,551.
Petropavl’s 19th-century Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque, whose congregation includes members of the city’s Tatar minority, is among those appealing. It now faces an unusual demand from officials monitoring its sermons, currently held in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and Tatar. (Prayers are held in Arabic.)
“The authorities insist we have sermons only in Kazakh,” Forum 18 quoted an anonymous community member as saying. “But we hold sermons in the language of the people who attend the mosque so that they can understand what is said.”
Kazakhstan is closing down places of worship as a controversial law on religion takes effect.
The state is enforcing closures of religious communities through the courts, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports: Sometimes “liquidation decisions are arbitrary and flawed, often taken amid questionable legal procedures.”
The shutdowns come after a deadline passed this October for all religious groups to reregister, established by a law governing religious affairs adopted in 2011. Forum 18 said religious communities had complained that the reregistration process was “complex,” “burdensome,” “arbitrary,” “unnecessary,” and “expensive.”
The watchdog has recorded the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities.” One group, south Kazakhstan’s Light of the World Pentecostal Church, was abolished for giving “false information” in its application because one of its founders died while it was applying to reregister. Representatives of one independent mosque told Forum 18 it had been closed for “failing to give extensive information about its beliefs” during a court hearing of which it was unaware. Members of a Protestant church wishing to remain anonymous put the closure of their group down to its membership being “predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs.” (Most ethnic Kazakhs are Muslims.) Officials at the government Religious Affairs Agency declined to comment to Forum 18.
When the reregistration deadline passed in October, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the Religious Affairs Agency, said the number of recognized religious communities had been slashed from 4,551 to 3,088, and the number of faiths recognized by the state reduced by about 60 percent, from 46 to 17.
Kazakhstan's credentials as a haven for religious freedom and tolerance are in the spotlight again, this time following a raid on a Protestant church where authorities reportedly found communion drinks spiked with an unidentified hallucinogen earlier this month. The bizarre find comes just a few weeks before religious groups in the country are to undergo mandatory re-registration.
Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that police raided Astana’s Grace Church on October 3. Back in July 2011, a local woman accused the church of harming the health of her daughter, congregation member Lazzat Almenova, and filed a complaint with the police. It’s unclear why authorities waited until now to make the swoop.
According to an October 10 report by Tengrinews, the raiding officers had found traces of hallucinogenic substances in a “red drink” served during services at the Grace Church. The psychoactive ingredients are said to induce a state of euphoria and relaxation.
The cops collected samples of the drink for analysis and took blood from 11 members of the congregation to test for any illicit substances. One parishioner said the volunteer donors included a mystery couple who had only been attending services for a month – seeming to suggest they’d been planted there to discredit the church.
“Extremist” literature also turned up during the search, with copies of a book called “Worthy Answers,” written by two Kazakh Protestant converts, Galymzhan Tanatgan and Zhomart Temir, confiscated along with computers, DVDs and some gold.