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Interview with Felix Corley, religious rights activist

[Turkmenistan] Turkish funded mosque, Ashgabad. IRIN
Turkmenistan has a poor record in safeguarding religious freedom
While human rights have long proven a source of concern in the five Central Asian nations, the issue of religious freedom has gone largely unreported. Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, is endeavouring to change that. In an interview with IRIN from London, he called on the international community to pay greater attention to this pressing issue. QUESTION: How would you describe the state of religious freedom in Central Asia today? ANSWER: The majority of citizens in Central Asia do not enjoy religious freedom. Especially in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, there are severe limits on the rights to gather freely for worship in religious communities organised as members see fit, to register religious communities with the authorities if members wish to, to spread one's faith, and to publish and receive religious literature of their choice in the language of their choice. As Forum 18 News Service has reported, Turkmenistan in effect has outlawed all faith communities except for Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox parishes. Uzbekistan - which criminalised unregistered religious activity in 1998 - has closed down most of the country's mosques, and severely restricts Protestant, Jehovah's Witness and other minority communities. Prior compulsory censorship of religious literature is in force. Although religious freedom problems are not as serious in Kazakhstan, minority religious communities - especially Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna communities - have had difficulty registering or have been punished for functioning without registration. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have also seen official pressure on such minority religious communities. Q: Since these countries gained independence in 1991, would you say the situation with regard to religious freedom has improved or worsened? A: Definitely worsened. Governments have been working hard in the last five or six years to roll back the religious freedom that grew up in the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as Forum 18 has documented. Although there was not the extent of religious freedom in Central Asia in the early 1990s as existed in the European parts of the CIS [Commonwealth if Independent States], religious communities had freedom to function far more openly than today. But as authoritarian rule was consolidated in the mid-1990s, religious freedom suffered, and restrictive new religious laws were imposed in Turkmenistan in 1996 and in Uzbekistan in 1998. Q: Religious intolerance can take many forms. What are the main examples that can be found in Central Asia? A: The worst religious intolerance comes not from rival faiths, but from the government and its officials at all levels. Muslims are treated with great suspicion as a source of any potential political challenge to the regime, while members of minority faiths are often viewed as "traitors" to their ancestral faith (Islam for native people, Russian Orthodoxy for ethnic Slavs). Officials, particularly in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, often insult and threaten members of minority faiths, Forum 18 has heard, and even sometimes try to coerce them into changing faith. At the same time, there is some genuine popular concern - especially in Kyrgyzstan - about the numbers of people reportedly converting to other faiths. Converts of Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnicity in Kyrgyzstan have shunned members of minority faiths, tried to expel them from villages and refused to allow their dead to be buried in communal graveyards. Q: Given the human rights dimension, why hasn't this issue received more attention? Surely there must be a reason. A: This remains a mystery. All five Central Asian states are members of the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Kazakhstan would like to join the Council of Europe. As members of these organisations, the governments have pledged themselves to abide by human rights commitments that they shamelessly flout. Q: How open is discrimination based on faith in the region? A: During interviews with Forum 18, government officials often make no attempt to hide their actions that restrict the rights of religious minorities. In Turkmenistan, members of minority faiths have even been sacked from their jobs, for example as teachers or doctors, in retaliation for their faith. Q: Are there religious groups more vulnerable than others? What about the Jehovah's Witnesses? A: The Jehovah's Witnesses have suffered for their faith in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan. But in a sense their cases are well known around the world as the Jehovah's Witnesses make known the cases of their followers. Other faiths with fewer connections around the world - such as local Protestant churches, or Hare Krishna devotees, even members of the Baha'i faith - have been less able or willing to make their cases known, often out of well-justified fear that publicising their cases might make the situation worse. The Armenian Apostolic Church is one of the many faiths effectively banned in Turkmenistan, but the church has so far not complained publicly of this, forcing local Armenian believers to attend Russian Orthodox churches, although the Armenian Church is of the Oriental, not the Orthodox tradition. Even Muslims, whose rights are widely violated in Turkmenistan (Shi'ah mosques in particular have been denied registration) and Uzbekistan, have no system for publicising violations. Q: What in your opinion have been the worst incidents you have documented over the past 13 years? A: The saddest cases have been when places of worship have been bulldozed. In November 1999 - not long after two Hare Krishna temples were destroyed in Turkmenistan - the government bulldozed the Adventist church in the capital, Ashgabat. "As I write this letter I mourn, my heart is crying," wrote Alexander Shvarts, the head of the Central Asian Adventist Union, as he reported the news. "One of the most beautiful church buildings in our Union has been demolished." A mosque was torn down soon after. Q: Your group has been particularly critical of Turkmenistan. Can you update us on the situation there? A: Turkmenistan remains the worst violator of religious freedom. During the summer, the authorities have continued their raids on unregistered places of worship. Forum 18 News Service has this week reported on a Baptist church in Balkanabad, all of whose members were fined in the summer, are now seeing further fines - at double the previous rate. Q: What role do you feel the international community can play, if any, in mitigating the problem? A: The first thing is for everyone - individuals, human rights groups, religious communities, governments and international organisations - to have accurate information about religious freedom issues in the region. One way is via news agencies like Forum 18 News Service (our website www.forum18.org allows anyone to subscribe to our news articles on email free of charge). The one thing officials who violate religious freedom hate is for their actions to be made public around the world. We make sure that those violating religious freedom have the opportunity to explain to the rest of the world why they are doing so. We leave it to readers to decide what attitude to take to the violations Forum 18 reports and what action to take, but we hope readers will respond and help promote religious freedom for citizens of the region and elsewhere. Q: How hopeful are you on the issue of religious freedom in Central Asia? A: The fact that religious believers continue to meet for worship, discussion and study despite the risks shows that religious belief remains a powerful force in people's lives. People who are prepared to suffer for their faith are an inspiration to the rest of the world and show that individuals cannot be subjugated to the will of governments.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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