Kyrgyz Republic

International Religious Freedom Report 2008

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion. The Constitution provides for the separation of religion and state, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or religious beliefs. The Government did not officially support any religion; however, a 2006 decree recognized Islam and Russian Orthodoxy as "traditional religious groups." The State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARA) is responsible for promoting religious tolerance, protecting freedom of conscience, and overseeing laws on religion. All religious organizations, including schools, must apply for approval of registration from SARA.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice; however, the Government continued to monitor and restrict radical Islamic groups that it considered threats to stability and security and hampered or refused to register some Christian churches. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report.

Although most religious groups operated with little interference from the Government or each other, there were several reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Tensions continued between Muslims and former Muslims who had converted to other religious groups.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 status of the draft law on religion and maintained contact with government officials, leaders of religious groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) regarding religious affairs. The U.S. Government sponsored lectures, discussions, and exchanges to promote awareness of international religious freedom standards, religious tolerance, and the interaction between religious groups and the state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 77,181 square miles, and a population of 5.2 million. Data from a 2007 National Statistics Committee report indicated the following ethnic breakdown: Kyrgyz, 67 percent; Uzbeks, 14.2 percent; Russians, 10.3 percent; Dungans (ethnic Chinese Muslims), 1.1 percent; Uighurs (ethnic Turkic Muslims), 1 percent; and other ethnicities, 6 percent.

Islam is the most widely held faith. Official sources estimated that 80 percent of the population is Muslim. Almost all the Muslims are Sunni; there are approximately one thousand Shi'a. According to SARA, as of May 2007 there were 1,650 mosques, of which 1,623 were registered. There also were seven institutes for higher Islamic teaching. According to recent official estimates, 11 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, although some experts believe the figure could be as low as 8 percent. The country has 44 Russian Orthodox churches, 1 Russian Orthodox monastery for women, and 1 parochial school, as well as 2 Russian Old Believer churches.

Other religious groups account for a smaller percentage of the population. The Protestant Church of Jesus Christ is the largest group, with an estimated 11,000 members, of whom approximately 40 percent are ethnic Kyrgyz. The overall Protestant population includes 48 registered Baptist churches, 21 Lutheran, 49 Pentecostal, 35 Presbyterian, and 43 "Charismatic," as well as 49 Jehovah's Witnesses and 30 Seventh-day Adventist communities. There are three Roman Catholic churches, and the small Jewish community has one synagogue and organizes internal cultural studies and humanitarian services, chiefly food assistance for the elderly and persons with disabilities regardless of faith. One Buddhist temple serves the small Buddhist community. There are 12 registered Baha'i houses of worship. During the reporting period, SARA approved the registration of an additional 2 religious institutions and 19 religious organizations, both Islamic and Christian.

Islam is practiced widely throughout the country in both urban and rural areas. Russian Orthodoxy typically is concentrated in cities with a larger ethnic Russian population. Other religious groups more commonly practice in the cities where their smaller communities tend to be concentrated. There is a correlation between ethnicity and religion; ethnic Kyrgyz are primarily Muslims, while ethnic Russians usually belong to either the Russian Orthodox Church or one of the Protestant denominations. However, some Christian pastors noted a growing number of ethnic Kyrgyz converts to Christianity. While there are no data available on active participation in formal religious services, a significant number of Muslims and Russian Orthodox adherents appear to be nominal believers and do not practice their faith actively. Religious practice in the south is more traditional and devout than in other regions.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, the Government restricted the activities of radical Islamic groups it considered to be threats to security. The 2007 Constitution defines the country as a sovereign, unitary, democratic social state based on the rule of law with separation of religion and state; the previous Constitution had also defined the country as "secular." A 2006 decree recognized Islam and Russian Orthodoxy as "traditional religious groups."

Article 5 of the 1997 Law On Religious Freedom and Religious Organizations (1997 Religion Law) affirms that "the State does not interfere with the activity of religious organizations that adhere to established laws; does not allow for establishing advantages or restrictions of one religion over another; does not finance the activity of religious organizations and activity of propagating atheism."

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 85 of the Constitution gives the Constitutional Court the authority to determine the constitutionality of a religious organization's activities.

The Government recognizes two Muslim holy days, Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha) and Orozo Ait (Eid al-Fitr), and Orthodox Christmas as national holidays. The President and the Government send greetings to Muslims and Orthodox adherents on their major holy days, and the greetings are printed in the mass media.

The Government continued to express concern publicly about groups that it viewed as extremist because of either radical religious or political agendas. The Government was particularly concerned about the threat of political Islam, whose followers (Islamists) it labels "Wahhabists." The Government perceives radical Islamists to be a threat to national stability, particularly in the south (where there were armed incursions in 1999, 2000, and 2006) and fears that they seek to overthrow the Government and establish an Islamic caliphate.

Established in 1993, the Muftiate (or Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan) is the highest Islamic managing body in the country. The Muftiate oversees all Islamic entities, including institutes and madrassahs, mosques, and Islamic organizations. The Mufti is the official head of the Muftiate and is elected by the Council of Ulemas, which consists of 30 Islamic clerics and scholars. A Muftiate-established commission reviews and standardizes Islamic educational literature printed and distributed in the country and reviews new books on Islamic themes prior to publication. The Muftiate has the authority to ban publications that do not meet the established standards, an initiative it started and which the Government supports.

SARA is responsible under the law for promoting religious tolerance, protecting freedom of conscience, and overseeing the application of laws on religion. The President appoints the Director, and the Prime Minister appoints the deputies of the agency. Since 2006 SARA has had its offices to the city of Osh in the south to be closer to the more religious part of the country.

A 1996 presidential decree requires the registration of all religious organizations with SARA. SARA can deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it believes the proposed activities of that group are not religious in character. Unregistered religious organizations are prohibited from actions such as renting space and holding religious services, although many hold regular services without government interference.

Organizations applying for registration must have at least ten members who are adult citizens and must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of an institutional meeting, and a list of founding members to SARA for review. Recommendation for rejection occurs when a religious organization does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. An applicant whose registration is denied may reapply and may appeal to the courts. The registration process with SARA is often cumbersome, taking a month to several years for completion. Each congregation must register separately.

If approved, a religious organization may choose to complete the registration process with the Ministry of Justice 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 Ministry has never registered a religious organization without prior approval by SARA. SARA reported that its staff continued to travel around the country to help unregistered religious entities prepare applications for registration.

Members of registered religious groups may fulfill alternative military service.

Missionaries of various religious groups may operate freely, although they are required to register. Since 1996 SARA has registered more than 1,157 foreign citizens as religious missionaries, 24 of which were registered during the reporting period. All religious entities founded by a foreigner must reregister each year with SARA, although the process is much less cumbersome than the initial registration. Missionaries are only required to register with SARA once.

The 1997 Religion Law forbids the teaching of religion (or atheism) in public schools. Since 2001 the Government instructed the State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA), (as SARA was known until 2006) to draw up programs for training clergy and to prepare methodologies for teaching about religious groups in public schools. These instructions came in response to concerns about the spread of Wahhabism and what the Government considered unconventional religious sects. SARA indicated that it was still developing a curriculum to teach about religious groups, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and several academic institutions. Under the auspices of the Muftiate, volunteers called Davatchi visited villages in the south to teach traditional Islamic values.

The Islamic University oversees all Islamic schools, including madrassahs, to develop a standardized curriculum and curb the spread of extremist religious teaching. This program continued during the reporting period.

A new draft religion law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations," has been under development since 2001, ostensibly in response to concerns about terrorism and other illegal activities committed by groups disguised as religious organizations. The version of the draft law that was under active consideration in the Parliament at the end of the reporting period proposes sweeping changes to regulations governing the registration and operation of religious organizations, which would severely obstruct citizens' rights to freedom of religion. The most significant changes include: an increase from 10 to 200 members required for official registration of a religious organization, the elimination of alternative military service for all but priests and religious laymen, a ban on proselytizing, and the prohibition of the conversion of Kyrgyz citizens to a different faith.

According to a February 2, 2008, government press statement, Prime Minister Chudinov approved an action plan designed to prevent the "proliferation of extremism, fundamentalism, and religious conflicts." The initiative aims to curb the activities of religious extremist groups presumed to be operating in the country.

A 2005 law on "Countering Extremist Activity" seeks to "halt extremist activities by religious organizations or groups." Law enforcement officials acted under this law to detain members of banned organizations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), for distributing leaflets and other materials deemed to be of an extremist nature.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice; however, the Government restricted the activities of radical Islamic groups it considered threats to security. There was no change in the status or respect for religious freedom by the Government during the period covered by this report.

In 2003 the Supreme Court sustained the ban on four political organizations, imposed because of extremism and alleged ties to international terrorist organizations: HT, the Islamic Party of Turkestan, the Organization for Freeing Eastern Turkestan, and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Party. During a press conference on May 2, 2008, the head of SARA estimated underground membership in HT to have reached 15,000.

Several religious groups had difficulties registering. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which initially applied for registration with SARA in 2004, was still not registered at the end of the reporting period. Leaders of the Hare Krishna temple in Bishkek, after attempting unsuccessfully to register several times in the last 2 years, planned to resubmit the application for registration once a legal dispute over ownership of their temple location was resolved. Leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses were still awaiting approval of registration for three places of worship. Religious leaders facing these registration delays attributed them to applications declared by SARA to be erroneous or insufficient. The Baptist Church in Karakulja was refused registration as an individual congregation by SARA in December 2007 but was instead allowed to continue to operate under the official registration of the Osh Baptist Church.

A Baptist pastor reported that a foreign Baptist missionary was denied a religious activities visa when attempting to visit the country. No missionaries were expelled, asked to leave the country, or denied registration during the reporting period.

SARA regularly monitored religious services, taking photographs and asking questions. A SARA official stated that the agency would attend religious organizations regularly, in order to monitor and analyze them.

According to local NGOs, parents in the city of Nooken of Jalalabad Oblast protested a ban on the wearing of hijabs (women's headscarves) and forced the school administration to rescind the regulation. Protests by parents of similar bans in 2007 occurred at the Kyzyljar School of Jalalabad Oblast and in a neighboring village. The dispute continued at the end of the reporting period. Parents who had previously demanded that a 2005 ban be lifted by the Jalalabad city education department ceased to protest the regulation. SARA's stated position was that students who for religious reasons choose to wear clothing that would indicate adherence to a particular religion may attend religious schools instead of public schools.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

There were no further reports on the investigation into the 2006 killing of Mukhammadrafiq Kamalov, imam of the largest mosque in Karasuu, and none were expected. Special forces of the security services shot and killed Kamalov along with two other persons. Security officials believed he was affiliated with the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, allegations that his family denied and the officials later conceded may have been incorrect.

On several occasions during the period covered by this report, police detained members of the Islamic political organization HT for distributing leaflets. In general, defendants were fined or given suspended sentences for these offenses.

Of the 12 men arrested in 2006 for alleged links to a 2004 grenade incident blamed on Islamic extremists, 4 remained in custody. It was unclear whether their detention was linked to their religious beliefs or practice. No further information was available and none expected at the end of the reporting period.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.

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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In August 2007 an interagency commission consisting of officials from the State Agency for Information Resources and Technologies, as well as the Justice, Interior, and Foreign Ministries, decided to allow Kyrgyz women to wear headscarves in passport photos, in response to requests from Mutakali, a Muslim women's NGO. The decision was respected in practice during the reporting period.

The Pentecostal Church of Jesus Christ in Jalalabad continued operating under its original registration and regular church services proceeded unimpeded through the reporting period, as local officials ceased pressuring the church following an agreement brokered between the church and SARA in November 2006.

Section III. Societal Abuses and Discrimination

There was evidence of periodic tension in rural areas between conservative Muslims and foreign Christian missionaries and individuals from traditionally Muslim ethnic groups who had converted to other religious groups. There were several reports that tensions between Muslims and Muslim converts continued. Both Muslim and Russian Orthodox spiritual leaders criticized the proselytizing activities of nontraditional Christian groups.

On May 19, 2008, in the village of Kulanak of the Naryn Oblast, Alymbek Isakov and his family of Christian converts attempted to bury their 14-year-old son in a plot of land near the village cemetery, which local officials designated in 2006 for the burial of Christians. According to numerous media reports, a crowd of Muslim villagers, led by the local imam, disrupted the funeral and prevented family members from burying the son. The villagers offered to allow the burial if the father renounced Christianity. The Isakov family appealed for local officials to intervene and allow the burial to take place. However, as crowds of Muslim villagers gathered around the Isakov family home, Ministry of Internal Affairs officers entered the home, forcibly removed the corpse, and buried it in a Christian cemetery 25 miles from Kulanak.

In several other instances Protestant pastors complained of difficulties interring deceased parishioners who converted from Islam to Christianity. Local Islamic and community leaders opposed the burial of converts in Islamic cemeteries. Officially, cemetery plots are under government control, but usually local Islamic figures oversee them. The Government allocated new plots of land for Protestant cemeteries in an effort to resolve the problem; however, the scarcity of such cemeteries forced Christians to travel great distances to bury their deceased.

The investigation into the 2006 incident of Molotov cocktails being thrown at the Baptist Sarygulov's church facilities in Karakulja was closed with no arrests made.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom 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 status of the draft law on religion and maintained contact with government officials regarding religious affairs. Embassy representatives met with leaders of religious communities, including minority groups, and with NGOs monitoring religious freedom.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored a series of events to promote awareness of religious freedom. USAID's Legal Education program conducted a series of informational trainings sessions for male and female students in the Islamic Institute in Osh, as well as training on basic rights for madrassah instructors in Jalalabad.

Through the U.S. government-funded Community Connections program, 40 religious leaders representing a variety of denominations and government officials who have a supervisory role over religious affairs traveled to the United States. Participants learned how religion and the state interact and which mechanisms serve to protect religious rights in the United States. Participants also learned how the free practice of religion can serve as a positive social force in the lives of modern nations without constituting a security concern for the state.

A U.S. government-funded institutional partnership continued between the Social Sciences Research Council and the Islamic University in Bishkek to supplement the religious curriculum with an international curriculum to include math, English, and a course on comparative world religious groups, and to establish exchange visits between university teachers in the two countries.

During the reporting period, the Embassy conducted several presentations on religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance in the United States for students of theology departments in Bishkek and southern provinces and distributed publications in Russian and Kyrgyz about Muslim life in the United States. In June and July 2007 the head of SARA, an Osh State University theologian, and an Islamic cleric from Osh participated in an International Visitors Program titled, "Inter-Religious Diversity and Dialogue." The International Visitors met with U.S. federal and state officials, religious educators, researchers, clerics of numerous religious groups, and NGO leaders in six cities to discuss and learn about the relationship between government and religion in the United States, as well as the U.S. approach to religious education, interfaith relationships, and faith and social justice programs.

On May 14, 2008, the Embassy provided a small grant to the Center of World Cultures of the Slavic University in Bishkek to support the organization of a Fulbright scholar-initiated conference titled, "Islam: Methodology of Research and Teaching."

In September 2007 a senior policy advisor for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security traveled to Bishkek and Osh through the U.S. Speaker Program to promote a better understanding between the Islamic community and the Government. The speaker met with government officials and policymakers, religious leaders, academics, and students to discuss ways of strengthening homeland security while protecting fundamental rights and liberties, including religious freedom. He emphasized civic engagement, public outreach, and public diplomacy initiatives and encouraged engagement with Muslim and minority communities.