International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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. 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 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 National Statistics Committee reflected the following ethnic breakdown of the population: 66.3 percent were Kyrgyz, 14 percent were Uzbeks, 11.2 percent were Russians, 1.1 percent were Dungans (ethnic Chinese Muslims), 1 percent were Uighurs; and 6.4 percent were other ethnicities.

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 there were an estimated 1,600 mosques in the country, of which 1,042 are registered. There also are six 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 18 churches throughout the country. Jews, Buddhists, and Catholics account for approximately 3 percent of the population, and their adherents practice their religions openly in one synagogue, one temple, and three churches. In addition, there are 216 registered Protestant houses of worship and 12 registered Baha'i houses of worship. The small Jewish congregation in Bishkek 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 Protestant 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 an estimated 20 denominations including Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unified Church of Christ of Evangelists, and Korean Presbyterians. According to the SCRA, approximately 1,000 missionaries work in the country, of whom approximately 800 are Christian. In the last 5 years more than 700 foreign missionaries were registered. However, according to official statistics, since independence, authorities ordered approximately 20 missionaries who disseminated dogma inconsistent with the traditional customs of Kyrgyz Muslims to leave the country. Information on the religion of these missionaries was not available by the end of the period covered by this report.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected 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. Article 8 of the Constitution forbids the formation of political parties on religious and ethnic grounds, as well as activities of religious organizations that jeopardize the state, constitutional system, or national security. Article 82 of the Constitution provides the Constitutional Court with the authority to determine the constitutionality of religious organizations.

The SCRA promotes religious tolerance, protects freedom of conscience, and oversees laws on religion. A 1997 Presidential Decree requires the registration of all religious organizations with the SCRA, which in turn must recognize the registrant as a religious organization. Organizations applying for registration must submit an application form, an organizational charter, minutes of an institutional meeting, and a list of individuals founding the organization. Members must include at least 10 adult citizens. 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, but sometimes several years. The SCRA claims that it has refused registration to only one organization, the Russian Overseas Church, after a court held that it was not a religious organization. However, the SCRA has returned some applications numerous times for correction and re-submission. According to SCRA regulations, registration is rejected if a religious organization does not comply with laws or is a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. Applicants whose registration is rejected may re-apply and appeal to the courts. Unregistered religious organizations are prohibited from conducting activities.

According to the SCRA, there are more than 1,300 registered religious entities, including mosques, churches, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations of a religious nature. Of these registered entities, 237 are Christian. In the past, several religious organizations, including the Catholic Church, have reported difficulty registering with the SCRA. Almost all were 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 during 2002. A total of 133 religious organizations were registered during the period covered by the report.

The country's Roman Catholic Church, approximately 80 percent of whose members are citizens, was considered an unregistered foreign religious organization in the country until its registration in 2002. 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, and registration was finalized in October 2002. 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 NGO.

The Church of Jesus Christ, the country's largest Protestant church with approximately 30 affiliates and approximately 9,500 members, of whom 30 percent are ethnic Kyrgyz, reported ongoing delays in registering several of its regional branches with the SCRA. In May the church's branch in Osh was closed by authorities for operating without registration, despite repeated submissions and rejections of applications.

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 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 what the Government considers 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, as they preferred to retain responsibility for the religious education of their adherents. The SCRA is developing a program to teach about various religions, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and several academic institutions. However, the program was not implemented by the end of the report due to lack of funding. During the period covered by this report, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Kyrgyz Republic, or Muftiate, in cooperation with the SCRA, conducted programs to educate followers of Islam about negative aspects of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Volunteers visited villages in the south of the country to teach traditional Islamic values.

In April Muslim leaders and Government officials agreed to grant the Islamic Institute the status of a university, which will give it authority over other Islamic institutes in the country and allow it to develop a more standardized curriculum.

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.

Since 2001, the Government has worked with representatives of various religious faiths and NGOs on a draft law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," which is ostensibly 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. In 2002, the draft law was being revised to tighten regulations on missionary activities. Representatives of the religious communities remain cautious and there is concern that some Muslim believers could be labeled extremists under this law. The latest draft proposes that religious organizations register only with the Ministry of Justice and reflects new constitutional changes following the February 2 referendum. At the end of the period covered by this report, the draft law had not been submitted for debate in Parliament.

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 are 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. In May there were reports that local officials closed eight mosques in Suzak district, near Jalalabad.

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. In September 2002, senior law enforcement officials testified in Parliament that the primary danger to the state came from religious extremists.

Hizb ut-Tahrir, primarily active in the southern part of the country, is not registered with the Government, which considers it an extremist organization and therefore its activities to be illegal. In October 2002, the Chairman of the SCRA estimated that there were approximately 2,000 followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the country. The Muftiate issued a fatwa (legal decree) denouncing the activity of Hizb ut-Tahrir in December 2002.

In December 2002, the Muftiate announced the formation of an expert commission to review and standardize Islamic educational literature printed and distributed in the country, the construction of mosques, and activity of Islamic groups.

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.

The Church of Jesus Christ reported experiencing a number of bureaucratic and legal problems during the period covered by the report. These included difficulties in obtaining title to the land on which the church is located, delays in registration and obtaining permission to hold Easter services at Bishkek's main sports stadium, and official demands for payment of back taxes.

During the period covered by the report, there were no reports of further incidents of village elders calling for the expulsion of Christian converts as occurred in earlier years.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The arrest and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing literature of Hizb ut-Tahrir continued to increase during the period covered by the report, although overall figures for 2002 were lower than for 2001. Most arrests occurred in the south and involved ethnic Uzbeks. In 2002, authorities reported that Hizb ut-Tahrir members were apprehended in the north of the country for the first time. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which monitors Hizb ut-Tahrir, the number of criminal cases against Hizb ut-Tahrir members dropped to 41 in 2002 after spiking at 86 in 2001. The MVD reported that during 2002, 49 Hizb ut-Tahrir-related cases were investigated by authorities, 50 persons were detained for Hizb ut-Tahrir membership and distribution of its literature, and criminal proceedings were initiated against 41 individuals. During the first six months of the year, 80 Hizb ut-Tahrir related cases were investigated, 71 persons were detained, and criminal proceedings were initiated against 49 individuals. 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. In July 2002, two Islamic activists in the southern city of Osh were sentenced to 5 years in prison for distributing and possessing Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. In June two brothers in Jalalabad Oblast were sentenced to three-year prison terms for their alleged activities as Hizb ut-Tahrir members.

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. Both Muslim and Russian Orthodox spiritual leaders criticized the proselytizing activities of nontraditional Christian groups. SCRA officials also expressed concern about an influx of nontraditional religious groups and the possibility of resulting social tensions.

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. The Government investigated the incident and mosque leaders apologized to members of the Jewish Cultural Society. There were no reports of further incidents of this kind during the period covered by the 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. In April and June, Embassy representatives discussed with government officials the problems experienced by the Church of Jesus Christ. At numerous times during the period covered by the report, Embassy representatives met with leaders of religious communities in the country, including minority groups, and with NGOs monitoring religious freedom. In December 2002, the Ambassador hosted an annual Iftaar dinner for Muslim leaders and government officials.

Throughout the period covered by the report, the Public Affairs section actively distributed publications about Muslim life in the United States. In May it funded a group from Osh TV to travel to the U.S. to film a documentary about Muslim life in America. A group of Muslim leaders traveled to the U.S. on an International Visitors' Program on religious tolerance in June. During his visit, the Head Mufti and his Deputy met with U.S. Government officials.