International Religious Freedom Report 2004
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 stability and security.

The Constitution provides for a secular state and the separation of church/mosque and state. The Government does not support any 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. In April the Prime Minister signed a decree and plan of action aimed at "combating religious extremism" for the period of 2004 to 2005. The decree outlines efforts of various government agencies directed at detection and prevention of terrorism and religious extremism, including the creation of a database of foreign religious extremist organizations, strengthening of the passport regime, conducting an information campaign, and preventing inter- and intra-faith conflicts.

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

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as a part of its overall policy to promote 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. 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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)that monitor religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 77,181 square miles and its population is approximately 5.1 million. The latest official data from the National Statistics Committee reflected the following ethnic breakdown of the population: Kyrgyz--66.3 percent, Uzbeks--14 percent, Russians--11.2 percent, Dungans (ethnic Chinese Muslims)--1.1 percent, Uighurs (ethnically Turkic Muslims)--1 percent; and other ethnicities--6.4 percent.

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 in the country (approximately 1,000). According to the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), as of May there were an estimated 1,611 mosques, of which 1,592 are registered. There also are seven institutes for higher Islamic teaching. According to recent official estimates, approximately 11 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, although some experts believe it could be as low as 8 percent. The country has 44 Russian Orthodox churches, 1 Russian Orthodox monastery for women, and 1 parochial school. The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates 19 churches throughout the country. Jews, Buddhists, and Roman 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 249 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.

Islam is practiced widely throughout the country in both 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. While the majority of the population claims to follow Islam, a significant number of Muslims appear to be only nominal believers and identify with the faith out of historical or ethnic allegiance. A significant number of Russian Orthodox adherents also appear to be only nominal believers.

A number of missionary groups operate. The SCRA has registered missionaries from the Republic of Korea, the United States, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. They represent an estimated 20 religions including Islam, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Unified Church of Christ of Evangelists, and Korean Presbyterians. According to the SCRA, starting from 1996, approximately 1,060 missionaries have been registered by the SCRA, of whom approximately 809 were Christian. During the period covered by this report, 166 missionaries conducted activities, of whom 120 are Christian and 46 are Muslim; however, according to official statistics, since independence, authorities ordered approximately 20 missionaries, who disseminated dogma inconsistent with the traditional customs of local Muslims, to leave the country. All of those missionaries expelled represented various "totalitariansects."or groups the SCRA considers to go against the standard principles of traditional world religions.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution and the law provide for freedom of religion; however, the Government restricted this right in practice, in particular for Muslim 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 particular religion. Article 8 of the Constitution prohibits 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 Government recognizes three Muslim holidays (Noorus, Kurman 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 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. Unregistered religious organizations are prohibited from conducting activities such as renting space and holding religious services, although many do hold regular services without government interference.Organizations applying for registration must have at least 10 members who are adult Kyrgyz citizens and submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of an institutional meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately. A religious organization then must complete the registration process with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) 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 practice the MOJ never has registered a religious organization without prior registration by the SCRA. The registration process with the SCRA is often cumbersome, taking one month on average, but has in the past sometimes taken up to several years. The SCRA has also in the past returned some applications numerous times for corrections and re-submission. According to SCRA regulations, registration is rejected if a religious organization does not comply with the law 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. There are signs that the SCRA is improving the situation and over the past year has registered several new entities that had trouble registering previously.The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) reported that five of its affiliates that attempted to register in 2003 were registered by the SCRA, including a number whose applications had been pending for some time.

The Government recently launched a new website documenting the religious organizations currently operating in the country. According to the SCRA, there are over 2,000 registered religious entities, including mosques, churches, foundations, nongovernmental organizations of a religious nature, and religious educational institutions. Of these registered entities, 309 are Christian. The SCRA reported that its staff traveled around the country to help unregistered religious entities prepare applications for registration; according to the SCRA, 629 new religious entities were registered during the period covered by this report, the majority of which were previously unregistered Muslim mosques and houses of worship. Many of the newly registered entities did not register in the past because they did not feel the need or did not want to fill out the paperwork.

Previously, several religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), reported difficulty registering with the SCRA. Almost all were eventually registered, sometimes after a lengthy delay.

The RCC has been registered since 2002.The RCC in Bishkek first attained legal status under Soviet law in 1969; however, the SCRA notified the church that it would have to re-register as a foreign religion after the issuance of Presidential Decree 319 in 1996, which states that a religious organization may be denied registration or its registration may be suspended if its activities do not comply with the law or are dangerous to state security, social stability, interethnic 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. The Holy See established the Catholic Mission in the country in 1997, and a representative from the Vatican visited in 2001 to discuss registration of the Church with the SCRA. In February 2002, the SCRA approved the Catholic Mission's application for registration, and registration was finalized in October 2002.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the country's largest Protestant church with approximately 18 affiliates and approximately 10,200 members, of whom 30 percent are ethnic Kyrgyz, reported ongoing delays in registering several of its regional branches with the SCRA. At the end of period covered in this report, the main church in Bishkek along with 6 of the 18 affiliates were currently registered while another 5 affiliates had applied for registration and were awaiting approval. The remaining seven affiliates were preparing applications for registration but had not submitted them.

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 teaching about religions 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. 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 curriculum to teach about religions, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and several academic institutions; however, the program has not yet been implemented due to lack of funding.

During the period covered by this report, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of the Kyrgyz Republic, or Muftiat, in cooperation with SCRA, conducted programs to educate Muslims about negative aspects of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HUT), a militant Islamic group. Volunteers visited villages in the south to teach traditional Islamic values.

Beginning in 2004, the Islamic University began a program to oversee all Islamic schools in the country, including madrassas. In July 2003, the Islamic Institute acquired the status of a university, which gave it authority over other Islamic institutes in the country and allowed it to develop a more standardized curriculum. Muslim leaders and government officials agreed to the change in 2002.

The Government works through the SCRA to promote interfaith dialogue 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 disguised as religious organizations. The initial draft included compulsory registration of religious bodies, a prohibition against unregistered religious activity, and tight control over religious activity deemed "destructive." The Parliament worked with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to revise the draft law in an effort to ensure that it respected the Government's OSCE obligations and would allow the free practice of religion. In 2002 the Central Asian Eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement strongly opposing the draft law, citing concerns that its passage would result in a flood of foreign missionaries.At the end of the period covered by this report, Parliament was still preparing the draft law.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government continued to express public concern about groups that it viewed as extremist with either radical religious or political agendas.The Government was particularly 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 south, and fears that Islamists seek to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic theocracy. Armed incursions 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 militant Islamic groups. A religious organization may be denied registration or its registration may be suspended if its activities do not comply with the law or are dangerous to state security, social stability, interethnic 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 addition, the Government has expressed concern over the growing number of Christian groups operating in the country.

In 2001, the Procurator General proposed amending the Criminal Code to include tougher sentences for those convicted of "religious extremism," and in 2002 senior law enforcement officials testified in Parliament that the primary danger to the State came from religious extremists. Religious leaders and human rights activists continued to 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 interreligious disputes.

HUT is not registered with the Government, which considers it an extremist organization and therefore its activities to be illegal. There are between 2,000 and 4,000 HUT active members, mainly in the south; however, there are signs that the group is also gaining new recruits in the north.The Muftiat issued a fatwa (legal decree) denouncing the activity of HUT in 2002. In November 2003, the Supreme Court sustained the verdict by the Lenin District Court of Bishkek, which banned four religious organizations that it deemed to be extremist and for having alleged ties to international terrorist organizations: Hizb-ut-Tahrir, "Islamic Party of Turkestan," "Organization for Freeing Eastern Turkestan," and "Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party."

In 2002 the Muftiat 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. During the period covered in this report, this expert commission was formed, issued decrees on taking control of construction of mosques, and adopted several decisions denouncing activities of HUT and other Islamic groups.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) reported that a number of ongoing bureaucratic and legal problems remained unresolved. Although the church had some positive results on obtaining registration of its affiliates, it continued to experience difficulties in obtaining from the SCRA and the Mayor's office the title to the land on which the main church in Bishkek is located.

In August 2003, the Ministry of Finance denied the Church of Jesus Christ's appeal of the demand of the tax inspectorate of Bishkek's Oktyabr Oblast for payment of $110,000 (4.8 million soms) on member donations to the church. Authorities allegedly threatened to confiscate the church'sbuilding as payment. The church's pastor contended that the tax bill was an attempt to punish and shut down the church because one-third of its 9,500 members are ethnic Kyrgyz, who are traditionally Muslim. In December 2003, the Church reported that during a meeting between its representatives, Tax Police officials, and officials from the Tax Commission, the latter agreed with the church that donations were not taxable and sent the case back to the Tax Inspectorate. In May the Tax Inspectorate closed the case, thereby officially ending the investigation.

In October 2003, the SCRA suspended the activities of the Unification Church, which was registered as a social, rather than a religious organization, and had semi-official status,at the request of the Procurator General's office. According to the SCRA, the latter requested suspension of the activity of the Unification Church because it did not, as the law requires, indicate in its registration papers to which world religion it adhered.

In May 2003, Asan Erkinbayev, the head of the local administration, closed 7 of the 9 mosques in the Karadarya district of Jalal-Abad region, claiming that they were on state-owned land and that their imams were preaching contradictory views. All of the closed mosques were converted into commercial or public buildings. One of the mosques has since officially registered with the SCRA but remains closed. Despite complaints from government officials in Bishkek, Erkinbayev has refused to reopen any of the mosques.

There are reports that the Government monitors some religious groups, including Protestant denominations and Muslim groups. On May 14, Kyrgyz and Uzbek security officers were discovered secretly filming a mosque congregation near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border.

On April 5, a government decree and plan of action was signed instructing the SNB to propose measures to "restrict and prevent the activities of missionaries who propagate religious fundamentalism and extremism and reactionary and Shiite ideas." Few members of the SCRA or the Bishkek office of the OSCE have seen the resolution, and the SCRA denied involvement in drawing it up. Among the proposed groups to be restricted were members of the Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim proselytizing movement, which originated in India and is considered un-Islamic by many traditional Muslims. In May SCRA officials assured the Ahmadis that their inclusion on the list of extremist groups was a mistake and that the Government would not target the group. There were no subsequent reports of harassment.

The arrest and prosecution of persons accused of possessing and distributing literature of HUT continued to increase. Although most arrests continued to occur in the south and involved ethnic Uzbeks, some ethnic Kyrgyz were also arrested over the past year in both the south and the north for distribution or possession of the banned literature.In the first 4 months of 2004, 38 persons were arrested or detained for distribution or possession of literature "inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred." Twenty of them were subsequently formally charged. During 2003, 89 persons were detained for distribution of HUT literature. 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.

On June 28, Prime Minister Tanaev announced that the Government would create a special board to review religious literature and warned that HUT has been gaining membership in the north. Tanaev also warned that the group had begun to portray itself to human rights groups as persecuted by the Government. During the period covered by this report, the Prime Minister had not signed the order and no action had been taken to create the special board.

In March a small number of conservative Muslims in Karasuu in the southern Osh region protested the presence of a male obstetrician in a local maternity hospital, citing that Shari'a law prohibits a man to see a woman naked, except when the woman's life is in danger. A small number of men refused to take their wives to the hospital while in childbirth to avoid the male obstetrician, and several men have requested divorces after learning that a man delivered their children. Local and SCRA officials have acknowledged the rights of the male obstetrician and claim that there were also female obstetricians in the hospital; however, theyhave also expressed their sensitivity towards the religious beliefs of the local population. At the end of the period covered by this report, the Government had not resolved the case.

Female students who attend public schools continued to be forbidden from wearing religious headscarves (hijab) while in school. The SCRA has stated that students, who for religious reasons choose to wear clothing that would indicate adherence to a particular religion, may choose to attend religious schools.In spring 2003, teachers in several schools in the Osh region prohibited pupils from wearing the hijab in school. At the Lomonosov school in Karasuu district of the Osh Oblast, school authorities held meetings with students, where police threatened the girls with arrest if they continued to wear the hijab. After some of the parents sought assistance from the school principal, they were told that their children should leave school if they continued to wear the hijab. At two schools in the cities of Jalal-Abad and Suzak, in Jalal-Abad Oblast, two girls were told not to wear the hijab to school; however, when the girls disobeyed the order, no action was taken to stop themand the schools have since refrained from reminding the students of the rule.

There were no reports of continued harassment of Muslim children by teachers in schools. In April 2003, some teachers in the Jalal-Abad region at the Khamza school told children not to perform daily prayers, even at home. A teacher at the school harassed the children who admitted that they prayed at home by singling them out and hitting them on the head. Teachers at the Babur school in the Bazarkorgon district also told students not to pray.

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

In January, police in the city of Jalal-Abad detained for five hours six men suspected of possessing or distributing HUT literature. Upon release from jail, the six men alleged that they had been beaten while in police custody. One of the men displayed bruises on his biceps, while another had bruises on his legs. Procuracy officials said that an investigation had been opened into the conduct of the police involved and that the six men detained were also under investigation for violating Article 299 of the criminal code.The case was still being investigated at the end of the reporting period.

There were no other reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

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.

Abuses By Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

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 was no evidence of widespread societal discrimination or violence against members of different religious groups; however, there was evidence of periodic tension in rural areas between conservative Muslims and foreign missionaries and individuals from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups who converted to other faiths. Both Muslim and Russian Orthodox spiritual leaders criticized the proselytizing activities of nontraditional Christian groups.

During the period covered by this report, there were no acts of violence, harassment, or vandalism reported against Jewish people, community institutions, schools, synagogues or cemetaries. In March 2002, there were reports that a mosque had broadcast calls for violence against Jewish persons over a loudspeaker in central Bishkek. The Government investigated the incident, and mosque leaders apologized to the local Jewish Cultural Society.

Although banned by the Government, HUT continues to operate and attract new members. There are between 2,000 and 4,000 HUT members active in the country, and government officials reported that the number of members of Kyrgyz ethnicity is increasing in contrast to the early 2000s, when members were predominantly ethnic Uzbeks.

HUT is considered a terrorist organization in Uzbekistan; however, while Kyrgyz authorities insist the group is dangerous, government officials have declined to take such drastic measures as the Government of Uzbekistan has done in protecting its borders and arresting members. The Government is especially concerned that strict Uzbek measures to crack down on the group have helped to foment extremism in the region.

There were reports of occasional hostility towards Christians, specifically Protestants and other "nontraditional" groups during the period covered by this report. According to the SCRA, Muslims made up 84 percent of the total population in 2001, and that figure has declined to 79.3 percent. Some government officials blamed this decrease in the number of Muslims on the effects of Christian proselytizing and warned that such heavy rates of conversion risked starting an ethnic conflict. There were reports that individuals in some towns appealed to local leaders or circulated petitions calling for Protestant Christians to be expelled. In addition a number of Kyrgyz television stations broadcast programs disparaging Protestant churches and the Church of Jesus Christ, calling for the Government to ban such groups. According to sources, interviews with representatives of the SCRA, Russian Orthodox priests, and Muslim leaders were featured on the programs.

According to Forum 18's religious freedom survey, in January, Protestant missionaries working in the south have aroused particular concern among local devout Uzbeks. It reported that Muslims were angered that the authorities monitored and arrested HUT members but did not interfere in the work of Protestant groups. There also were reports of rumors circulating among Muslims that authorities were deliberately following an anti-Islamic policy and were trying to turn Muslims toward Christianity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote 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. On several occasions, Embassy representatives met with government officials and discussed the problems experienced by the Church of Jesus Christ. Embassy representatives met with leaders of religious communities, including minority groups, and with NGOs monitoring religious freedom.

In November 2003, the Ambassador hosted an annual Iftaar dinner for Muslim leaders and government officials. Also in November 2003, the Ambassador gave a speech devoted to Eid al-Fitr, and on February 1, the Ambassador addressed in the Kyrgyz language thousands of Muslims who gathered on the main square of Bishkek for the Eid al-Adha to pray.

In September 2003, the Embassy participated in the reopening ceremony of the 800-year-old Shakh Fazil Mausoleum in Jalal-Abad Oblast, a pilgrimage site for Muslims throughout the Ferghana Valley, which was renovated with funds provided through the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation.

The State Department announced a request for grant proposals to conduct a $150,000 (6,450,000 som) citizen exchange program to develop a religious tolerance program for Muslim youth in the Nookat region of Osh Oblast.

The Embassy also announced a request for grant proposals for local NGOs to conduct after-school religious tolerance program for Muslim youth in the more conservative rural southern regions. These programs will focus on after-school activities and involve parents, religious leaders, teachers, and local officials.

A U.S. government funded institutional partnership commenced between the Social Sciences Research Council and the Islamic University in Bishkek to supplement the religious curriculum with an international one and establish exchange visits between university teachers in the country and in the United States.

During the period covered by the report, the Embassy actively distributed publications about Muslim life in the United States. In May 2003, it funded a group from Osh TV to travel to the U.S. to film a documentary about Muslim life in America. During his visit to the U.S. in June 2003, the Head Mufti and his deputy met with U.S. Government officials. In June, a group of Muslim leaders traveled to the U.S. to participate in an International Visitors' Program on religious tolerance and diversity. The participants were Kyrgyz Muslim leaders from Batken Oblast, which contains a majority of the Muslim population in the country. The group met with State Department officials, U.S. Muslim religious leaders, and leaders of other organizations to discuss the relationship between government and religion in the United States and to learn about the American Muslim community.

In April the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded a special bus tour for religious leaders, which took place in the southern region, known for its predominantly Muslim population. During this program, local Islamic leaders were familiarized with a number of the projects aimed at developing local communities funded by USAID.