International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government restricts the activities of radical Islamic groups that it considers to be threats to national stability. The Constitution provides for a secular state and the separation of church and state, and the Government does not support any one religion.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government continued steps to monitor and restrict Islamist groups that it considers to be a threat to the country.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 76,600 square miles, and its population is approximately 5 million. The latest official statistical data from the 1999 census reflected the following ethnic breakdown of the population: 64.9 percent were Kyrgyz, 13.8 percent were Uzbeks, 12.5 percent were Russians, 1.1 percent were Dungans (ethnic Chinese Muslims), 1 percent were Uighurs; 0.9 percent were Tatars, and 0.4 percent were Germans.

Islam is the most widely practiced faith. Official sources estimate that up to 80 percent of the inhabitants are Muslims. The majority of Muslims are Sunni and there are only a few Shi'a (approximately 1,000). According to the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), as of June 2002 there were an estimated 1,338 mosques in the country, of which 931 are registered. There also are two institutes for higher Islamic teaching. A Soviet-era estimate found that approximately 17 percent of the population were Russian Orthodox; there are no official post-independence figures. The country has 43 Russian Orthodox churches, and 1 Russian Orthodox monastery. 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. In addition, there are: 151 registered Protestant houses of worship, 13 registered Baha'i houses of worship, 2 Buddhist temples, 1 Catholic church, and 1 Jewish synagogue. The Roman Catholic Church in Bishkek functions freely, and a small Jewish congregation meets in Bishkek. The Jewish congregation 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 incorporated Muslim modes of prayer into their Christian rituals. There is no official estimate of the number of atheists in the population.

Islam is practiced widely throughout the country in both the urban and rural areas. Russian Orthodoxy typically is concentrated in the cities in which 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; ethnic Kyrgyz primarily are Muslims, while ethnic Russians usually belong to either the Russian Orthodox Church or one of the Western-origin 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 to be only nominal believers.

A number of missionary groups operate in the country. The SCRA has registered missionaries from the Republic of Korea, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. They represent a variety of religious groups including Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unified Church of Christ of Evangelists, and Korean Presbyterians.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right; however, the Government restricted this right in practice, in particular for Islamic groups it considered to be a threat to the country. The Constitution provides for a secular state and for the separation of church and state, and the Government does not support any one religion.

The SCRA promotes religious tolerance, protects freedom of conscience, and oversees laws on religion. A 1997 Presidential Decree governs the registration of religious organizations, and according to the decree, all religious organizations that must register with the SCRA, which in turn must recognize the registrant as a religious organization. Each congregation must register separately. A religious organization then must complete the registration process with the Ministry of Justice in order to obtain status as a legal entity, which is necessary to own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. If a religious organization engages in commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes in accordance with the tax code. In practice the Ministry never has registered a religious organization without prior registration by the SCRA. The registration process often is cumbersome, taking 1 month on average. The SCRA claims that it has refused registration to only one organization, the Russian Overseas Church. The refusal came after a court held that the Church was not a religious organization.

According to the SCRA, there are more than 300 registered religious groups, of which 208 are Christian. In the past, several religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, have reported difficulty registering with the SCRA. Almost all eventually registered, although sometimes after a lengthy delay. As many as 55 small Christian churches that were having difficulty in 2001 were able to complete registration by the end of the period covered by this report.

The country's Roman Catholic Church, approximately 80 percent of whose members are citizens, remains an unregistered foreign religious organization in the country despite the efforts of the Roman Catholic mission to register with the SCRA. The Roman Catholic Church in Bishkek first attained legal status under Soviet law in 1969; however, the SCRA notified the church that it would have to reregister as a foreign religion in the country after the issuance of Presidential Decree 319 in 1996. The Holy See established the Catholic Mission in the country in 1997, and a representative from the Vatican visited the country in 2001 to meet with SCRA members on behalf of registration. In February 2002 the SCRA approved the Catholic Mission's application for registration; however, the Ministry of Justice had failed to take any action to register the Mission by the end of the period covered by this report. The Unification Church, which is registered as a social, rather than a religious, organization, has "semi-official" status. According to the SCRA, the Unification Church has not applied for registration as a religious organization. However, an affiliated organization is registered as a nongovernmental organization (NGO).

Missionary groups of a variety of faiths operate freely, although they are required to register with the Government.

The Government expressly forbids the teaching of religion (or atheism) in public schools. In April 2001, the Government instructed the SCRA to draw up programs for training clergy and to prepare methodologies for the teaching of religion in public schools. These instructions came in response to concerns about the spread of "Wahhabism" and "unconventional religious sects." The SCRA turned to a number of religious organizations for their ideas on introducing religious education in schools. The reaction of the organizations generally was negative. The groups preferred to retain responsibility for the religious education of their adherents. While the SCRA continued to work on the development of a religious education program, no action had been taken to implement it by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government recognizes three Muslim holidays (Noorus, Kurban Ait, and Orozo Ait) and one Russian Orthodox holiday (Christmas, which is observed on January 7 in accordance with the Russian Orthodox calendar) as national holidays. The President and the Government send greetings to the followers of the Muslim and Orthodox faiths on their major religious holidays, and the greetings are printed in the mass media.

The Government works through the SCRA to promote interfaith dialog and encourage religious tolerance. The SCRA hosts meetings of religious groups to bring the faiths together in open forums. The SCRA assists various faiths in working together on programs for the protection of the poor and the elderly. In February 2002, the SCRA and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cohosted a regional conference on religious tolerance in the southern city of Jalal-Abad.

Since March 2001, the Government has worked with representatives of various religious faiths and NGO's on a draft law on religion. The draft law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations" ostensibly is a response to concerns about terrorism and other illegal activities committed by groups disguising themselves as religious organizations. The initial draft included compulsory registration of religious bodies, a prohibition against unregistered religious activity, the lack of an alternative to military service, and tight control over religious activity deemed "destructive." The Parliament worked with the OSCE to revise the draft law in an effort to ensure that it respected the Government's OSCE obligations and would allow free practice of religion by all faiths, because OSCE comments on an earlier draft found that several of the law's points were inconsistent with OSCE commitments. At the end of the period covered by this report, the draft law was being revised to tighten regulations on missionary activities, and the current redraft of the law remained incomplete at the end of the period covered by this report. Representatives of the religious communities remain cautious and there is concern that some Muslim believers could be labeled extremists under this law. In April 2002, the Central Asian Eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement strongly opposing the draft law, warning that its passage would result in a flood of foreign missionaries.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government is concerned about the threat of political Islam, whose followers (Islamists) it labels "Wahhabis." The Government perceives Islamists to be a threat to national stability, particularly in the southern part of the country, and fears that Islamists seek to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic theocracy. Armed incursions of Islamic militants in 1999 and 2000 by members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization, increased the Government's concern regarding political Islam and the actions of its followers, particularly militant Islamic groups. Presidential Decree Number 319 states that a religious organization may be denied registration or its registration may be suspended if the organization's activities do not comply with the law or is dangerous to state security, social stability, inter-ethnic and interconfessional relations, or the health and morals of citizens. Such suspensions or refusals of a religious organization's registration are subject to judicial appeal. There were no reports of such suspensions during the period covered by this report. In May 2001, the Procurator General proposed amending the Criminal Code to include tougher sentences for those convicted of "religious extremism." During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to express public concern about groups that it viewed as extremist with either radical religious or political agendas.

The Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, mainly active in the southern part of the country, is not registered with the Government and is considered to be an illegal organization.

In early April 2001, the local press quoted then-Prime Minister Bakiyev's call for increased monitoring of mosques and schools in order to prevent such institutions from becoming a source of Islamic extremist activity. However, there were no reports of increased monitoring during the period covered by this report.

In January 2002, the Government issued a decree imposing strict control on printing activities, ostensibly to control the spread of Islamic extremist leaflets. The Decree also required the SCRA to issue a report listing all registered religious organizations and to create an inventory of houses of worship. The President rescinded the decree in May 2002 after protests by local and international media, human rights NGO's, and other organizations.

Religious leaders note with concern that the SCRA frequently uses the term national security in its statements. Law enforcement authorities, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the National Security Service (SNB), often play a role in investigating religious organizations and resolving inter-religious disputes

A Christian group in a village outside of Bishkek reported that in September 2001, village elders said that "Christianity is not allowed in the Kyrgyz Republic," called for the expulsion of Christian converts from the village, and dismissed one Church member from the village educational council. In the southern village of Suzak, village elders called for the expulsion of four former Muslims who had converted to evangelical Christianity.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The arrest and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing literature of Hizb ut-Tahrir increased during 2001 and early 2002. Most arrests occurred in the south and involved ethnic Uzbeks. Those arrested typically were charged with violation of Article 299 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits the distribution of literature inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred. Figures for arrests of alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir activities vary depending on the source. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which monitors Hizb ut-Tahrir in the south, during 2001 police detained 49 persons in Osh Oblast and 86 persons in Jalal-Abad Oblast for membership in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization and for distribution of its literature. Of those arrested in Osh Oblast, the Government brought criminal charges against 30 persons. The ICG estimated that the number of prosecutions in Jalal-Abad Oblast was approximately the same. The SNB reported that there were 117 arrests of Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Jalal-Abad Oblast in 2001.

In 2000 Amnesty International reported the arrest and illegal deportation to China of Jelil Turadi, an ethnic Uighur Chinese national. Unofficial sources reported that Turadi was arrested allegedly for possessing "Wahhabist" literature and was handed over to Chinese security agents in Bishkek. Turadi's fate remains unknown.

There were no other reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

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.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. Members of 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 evidence of periodic tension in rural areas between conservative Muslims and foreign missionaries and individuals from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups who convert to other faiths. In April 2002, Muslim villagers in eastern Issyk-Kul Oblast refused to allow the burial in the local cemetery of a former Muslim who had converted to Christianity. Similar incidents also were reported in Chui and Naryn Oblasts. In subsequent press releases, both Muslim and Russian Orthodox spiritual leaders responded with criticism of the proselytizing activities of nontraditional Christian groups, while the Chairman of the SCRA called for tolerance on all sides.

In March 2002, members of the country's Jewish Cultural Society reported that they had heard calls for violence against Jews issued in Russian and Kyrgyz from a loudspeaker at a mosque in central Bishkek. According to the Israeli Embassy in Almaty, the Government is investigating.

In January 2001, there was a standoff in the village of Kurkol between local villagers and ethnic Uzbek Jehovah's Witnesses. The standoff occurred when the villagers demanded that the four Uzbeks either reconvert to Islam or leave the village. The incident was resolved peacefully by the Ministry of Interior and the Security Service. There were no reports of incidents between local villagers and ethnic Uzbek Jehovah's Witnesses during the period covered by this report.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Embassy continued to monitor the progress of the draft law on religion and maintained contact with government officials with regard to religious affairs.