International Religious Freedom Report 2003
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Government policies reflect a pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalism, a fear shared by much of the general population. The Government monitors the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political. Members of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Emancipation), an extremist Islamic organization, were subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion. Beginning in 2002, northern regional authorities closed several mosques and removed 15 imams from their posts. The Government, including President Imomali Rahmonov, continued to enunciate a policy of active secularism, which it tends to define in antireligious rather than nonreligious terms.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, some religious minority groups experienced local harassment during the period covered by this report. Some mainstream Muslim leaders occasionally expressed concern that minority religious groups undermine national unity.

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 55,300 square miles, and its population is approximately 6.7 million. An estimated 95 percent of citizens consider themselves Muslims, although the degree of religious observance varies widely. Only an estimated 10 to 15 percent regularly follow Muslim practices (such as daily prayer and dietary restrictions) or attend services at mosques. The number of Muslims who fast during the holy month of Ramadan is high; up to 99 percent of Muslims in the countryside and more than 66 percent in the cities fasted during the latest month of Ramadan. Approximately 7 percent of all Muslims are Shi'a, 40 percent of whom are Ismailis. Most of them reside in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan region as well as certain districts of the southern Khatlon region and in Dushanbe. Most of the rest of the Muslim inhabitants (approximately 90 percent) are Sunni.

There are approximately 230,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Russians and other Soviet-era immigrant groups. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox, but there also are
registered organizations of Baptists (five), Roman Catholics (two), Seventh-day Adventists (one), Korean Protestants (two--another church registered earlier this year), Jehovah's Witnesses (one), and Lutherans (no data on registration). Other religious minorities are very small and include Baha'is (four registered organizations), Zoroastrians (no data on registered organizations), Hare Krishna (one registered organization), and Jews (one registered organization). Each of these groups probably totals less than 1 percent of the population. The overwhelming majority of these groups live in the capital or other large cities.

Christian missionaries from Western countries, Korea, India, and other countries are present, but their numbers are quite small. The number of Christian converts since independence is estimated to be approximately 2,000 persons. Some small groups of Islamic missionaries from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states 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 respects this right in practice; however, there are some restrictions, and the Government monitors the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political. Members of the organization Hizb ut-Tahrir were subject to arrest and imprisonment for subversion.

According to the Law on Religion and Religious Organizations, religious communities must be registered by the State Committee on Religious Affairs (SCRA), which is under the Council of Ministers and monitors the activities of Muslim groups, the Russian Orthodox Church, and other religious establishments. While the official reason given to justify registration is to ensure that religious groups act in accordance with the law, the practical purpose is to ensure that they do not become overtly political. To register with the SCRA, 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 cannot hold regular meetings without one. Individual believers--up to 10 persons--do not have to register with the SCRA in order to worship privately.

Responsibility for registration of neighborhood mosques is divided between the SCRA and local authorities, who must agree on the physical location of a given mosque. The SCRA is the primary authority for registration of non-Muslim groups; however, local communities of these religious groups must also register with local authorities. According to the SCRA, local authorities may only object to the registration of a place of worship if the proposed structure is not in accordance with sanitation or building codes, located on public land, or immediately adjacent to government buildings, schools, or other places of worship. If the local government objects to a proposal, it is required to suggest an alternative. In the absence of registration, local authorities can force the closure of a place of worship and members can be administratively fined. There were no cases of SCRA refusal to register religious groups during the period covered by this report, nor were there reports of groups that did not apply for registration out of a belief that it would not be granted. However, there were some cases of local government refusal to register religious groups in their areas, as well as closures of unregistered mosques.

The Council of Islamic Scholars, technically a nongovernmental body, governs Islamic theology and education in the country and approves appointments of imams; however, the Council's charter and membership are subject to SCRA approval. Some prominent religious figures have reportedly voiced disapproval with the quality of religious education implemented by the Council.

More than 3,500 mosques were estimated to be open for daily prayers; 2,755 of these mosques were registered as of June. So-called "Friday mosques" (large facilities built for Friday prayers) must be registered with the SCRA. There were 247 mosques registered, not including Ismaili places of worship because complete data were unavailable. 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 faiths.

Regularly throughout the period covered by this report, President Rahmonov strongly defended "secularism," which in the country's political context is a highly politicized term that carries the strong connotation--likely understood both by the President and his audience--of being "antireligious" rather than "nonreligious." The President also occasionally criticized Islam as a political threat. In a July 2002 speech in the northern Isfara district, President Rahmonov announced that there were too many mosques in the country. While the vast majority of citizens consider themselves Muslims and are not anti-Islamic, there is a significant fear of Islamic fundamentalism among both progovernment forces and much of the population at large.

A 1999 constitutional amendment stated that the State is secular and that citizens may be members of political parties formed on a religious basis, although a 1998 law specifying that parties may not receive support from religious institutions remained in effect. Two representatives from a religiously oriented party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), were members in the Lower House of the National Parliament during the period covered by this report. There also were several deputies from the Islamic Renaissance Party in regional and district parliaments around the country.

Although there is no official state religion, the Government has declared two Islamic holidays, Id Al-Fitr and Idi Qurbon, as state holidays.

There are small private publishers that publish Islamic materials without serious problems. There is no restriction on the distribution or possession of the Koran, the Bible, or other religious works. The IRPT continued to publish its official newspaper, Najot (founded in 1999). The party also publishes Naison, a magazine for women, and Safinai Umed, a journal targeting youth. All of these publications are printed at a private press as state-run publishing houses refuse to print IRPT materials, apparently for political reasons. The Union of Islamic Scientists of Tajikistan publishes the weekly journal Tamaddun. Privately owned mass-circulation newspapers regularly published articles explaining Islamic beliefs and practices.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government did not explicitly ban, prohibit, or discourage specific religions; however, local authorities in some cases used the registration requirement in attempts to prevent the activity of some groups. The Government has banned the activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has developed a significant following among the ethnic Uzbek population in the north. This movement operates underground and allegedly calls for a nonviolent overthrow of established authority and the reestablishment of government along the lines of the six "rightly guided Caliphs" of early Islamic history.

Beginning in August 2002, the Government required all mosques to reregister with local authorities and the SCRA. Approximately 750 mosques were closed for failing to comply with this requirement, although many remained open as "teahouses" or other public facilities where observant Muslims go to talk and pray. In August and September 2002, authorities in the northern Sughd region closed a number of unregistered mosques in the districts of Isfara and Jabbarasulov. Most of these mosques registered with the Government and were officially reopened; eight remained "closed," although parishioners continued to pray there. In November 2002, government officials closed one of these mosques and a madrassa in the Isfara area after the imam and his family apparently fled the village. During Ramadan, city authorities in Dushanbe informed several "teahouses" that they would need to register as mosques; officials did not restrict activities at these teahouses while the registration applications were pending.

In July and August 2002, government officials in Sughd oblast carried out an "attestation" of all imams in the region, through which all imams were tested on their knowledge of Islamic teachings and religious principles. Although the test was designed by the Council of Islamic Scholars, technically a nongovernmental body, it was approved by the SCRA, which enforced the results of the test. As a result, 15 imams were removed from their posts; 3 of the imams were members of the IRPT and were removed for that reason. Local observers alleged that the Government used the testing process as a means to silence certain politically outspoken religious figures. In Sughd oblast, mosques that registered allegedly signed an agreement declaring, "I will use our organization only for religious ends, I will not be a member of a party, and will not assist them."

In July 2002 local officials refused to register a Baha'i congregation in the northern Sughd region, but the congregation was registered after the SCRA intervened. There were no further reports of police or security officials' harassment of Baha'i community members.

There were no reports of problems such as those experienced by a Christian church in the city of Qurghanteppa (also, Kurgan-Tyube). It had problems registering with local authorities until the intervention of the SCRA and the church's registration in January 2002.

Aside from the registration and testing requirements, government officials sometimes restricted other religious activities by Muslims as well. Officials continued to enforce prohibitions against the use of loudspeakers for the 5-times-daily call to prayer in Dushanbe and certain areas of the Khatlon and Sughd regions. These prohibitions were issued by the mayors' offices in each area in 2001, but were apparently not based on any central directive. There also were reports that some local officials have forbidden members of the Islamic Renaissance Party to speak in mosques in their region. However, this restriction is more a reflection of political rather than religious differences.

There were reports that authorities subjected members of Islamic institutions and opposition to increasing pressure during the period of this report. In May the Government arrested Shamsiddin Shamsiddinov, the IRPT's Deputy Chairman for Cultural Affairs, and charged him with murder and other "grave crimes," according to press statements by the national Military Prosecutor's office. The IRPT stated that it believed the arrest was politically motivated, although it did not allege that this was part of any government campaign against religion. At the end of the reporting period, the Government continued to hold Shamsiddinov in pretrial detention.

In May local authorities in Tursunzade, a city just outside of the capital Dushanbe, broke up a Jehovah's Witnesses gathering in one parishioner's apartment for violation of the religion law's provisions on registration and private religious education. The judge in the case fined the owner of the apartment $17 (50 somoni) and issued an order banning any gathering of more than 2 Jehovah's Witnesses in the city unless they registered the apartment as a place of worship with the Tursunzade city government and the SCRA. At the end of the reporting period, the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear the Jehovah's Witnesses' appeal. In November 2002, a Baptist was tried in a northern region and fined $8 (25 somoni) after his neighbors complained that he was holding evangelical services in the courtyard of his home. He filed an appeal, which was still pending at the end of the reporting period.

Missionaries of registered religious groups legally were not restricted and proselytized openly. Missionaries are not particularly welcomed, and some religious groups experienced harassment in response to evangelical activities. The Government's fear of Islamic extremists prompted it to restrict visas for Muslim missionaries. There was evidence of an unofficial ban on foreign missionaries who were perceived as extreme Islamic fundamentalists.

An executive decree generally prohibits Government publishing houses from publishing anything in Arabic script, but they have done so in special cases. They generally do not publish religious literature, but have done so on occasion, including copies of the Koran.

The Government imposed new restrictions on pilgrims undertaking the Hajj during the period covered by this report, mandating that pilgrims travel by air. The Government stated that it made the decision because no Tajik tour operators could meet Saudi government safety and hygiene regulations for buses carrying pilgrims and in order to ensure that the possibility of armed conflict in Iraq would not put pilgrims at risk. There were no quotas on the total number or regional origin of pilgrims. A total of 3,000 Tajiks made the pilgrimage (out of a Saudi-imposed limit of 5,900), which was a drop of 2,200 compared with the previous Hajj. The increased cost of travel by air appeared to be the primary reason for the decrease in the number of pilgrims.

Authorities in Isfara continued to impose restrictions on private Arabic language schools (to include restrictions on private Islamic instruction) stemming from past reports that one such school was hosting a suspected terrorist. In addition, restrictions on home-based Islamic instruction remained in place. While these restrictions were reportedly due to political concerns, they affected religious instruction.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The Government continued to detain and try on charges of subversion numerous members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the northern, primarily ethnic Uzbek, Sughd region. These measures primarily were a reaction to the group's political agenda of replacing the Government with an Islamic caliphate. Although Hizb ut-Tahrir asserts that it intends to accomplish this by nonviolence, officials are concerned by its alleged links to terrorist organizations, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In October 2002, a Ministry of Security official announced that 142 members of the banned party had been sentenced to varying jail terms between January and October of that year; in June a Ministry of Interior report indicated that 23 Hizb ut-Tahrir members had been arrested in the first six months of the year. Most of these persons were sentenced to between one and four years' imprisonment, but some received sentences of up to 18 years' imprisonment. There were reports of serious irregularities in trials and abuse in detention of Hizb ut-Tahrir members, although such reports were also common in other legal proceedings. In 2000, one Hizb ut-Tahrir member reportedly died in police custody.

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. Conflict between different religious groups virtually is unknown, in part because there are so few non-Muslims. However, some Muslim leaders occasionally expressed concern that minority religious groups undermine national unity and complained that current laws and regulations give preference to religious minorities. While the vast majority of citizens consider themselves Muslims and most of the inhabitants are not anti-Islamic, there is a pervasive fear of Islamic fundamentalism among both progovernment forces and much of the population at large.

In May fires occurred in at least two mosques and the homes of two imams in the Isfara district in the northern region. Responsibility for these acts was unclear, although local authorities reportedly instructed one of the imams to tell any inquiring journalists that the fire in his house was due to an electrical short circuit. The Sughd regional fire department said in a press statement that an arson investigation was ongoing at the end of the reporting period.

The small Baha'i community generally did not experience prejudice; however, two Baha'i residents of Dushanbe were shot and killed on October 23 and December 3l, 2001. A police investigation determined that both men were killed because of their religion. In fall 2002, the Government arrested approximately 40 persons in connection with these killings; in November 2002, the Government formally charged 3 of these individuals with the murders, 1 of whom also was charged with the 1999 murder of a leader of Dushanbe's Baha'i community. Police alleged that the suspects killed all three men because of their religion and that they were aligned with Iran. At the end of the reporting period, a trial was still underway.

There were no reports of further discrimination such as that experienced by Hare Krishna groups in 2001.

There were no further developments connected to the October 2000 bombing of a Protestant church in Dushanbe and the subsequent trial and execution of two suspects in the case.

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.

Through public diplomacy, the U.S. Embassy has supported programs designed to create a better understanding of how democracies address the issue of secularism and religious freedom.