NEW UZBEK LAW ON RELIGION RENDERS UNREGISTERED RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY ILLEGAL

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service
Friday 29 May

Uzbekistan's new law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations shows a marked increase in state control on religious groups and the de facto criminalisation of unregistered religious activity. The thrust of the law is that religious activity is tinged with danger, being associated with fanaticism, coercion, terrorism and civic unrest, and that state control is the only way to preserve order. Religious organisations must have registration in order to function and anyone involved in unregistered religious activity - whether leaders of an unregistered group or state officials who turn a blind eye to it - faces criminal responsibility. Only centralised religious organisations may publish religious material or produce religious objects. All imported religious literature must be censored by the state.

The new law has been prepared in some secrecy. Some communities were told that such a law was being prepared only in April. The law - which takes the form of amendments to the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations of 14 June 1991 - was adopted by parliament, the Oliy Majlis, on 1 May and subsequently signed into law by the Uzbek President ISLAM KARIMOV. The law was published in various Uzbek papers on 15 May, including the Russian-language paper 'Narodnoye slovo', coming into force on the day of publication.

In the associated resolution of the Oliy Majlis also adopted on 1 May, the Ministry of Justice is to undertake reregistration of religious organisations in accordance with the new law within three months.

In the new version of the law most of the articles of the 1991 law are heavily rewritten, with liberal provisions abolished and restrictive provisions tightened or, in many cases, introduced for the first time. The most crucial changes concern registration of religious organisations, religious education and the activity of religious groups without registration.

In order to form a religious organisation, 100 Uzbek citizens who have reached the age of 18 and who live permanently in Uzbekistan are now required (Art. 8), compared with 10 in the 1991 version (Art. 13). In the 1991 version of the law, religious organisations' aims were defined as 'satisfying the religious requirements of citizens for the confession and spreading of the faith', although 'missionary activity' was specifically banned (Art. 7). The new version of the law omits any mention of 'spreading faith' in its definition of the aims of religious organisations, speaking only of 'joint confession of faith, the conducting of divine worship, rites and rituals' (Art. 8). The ban on missionary activity is made more specific in the new version: 'Actions aimed at attracting believers of individual confessions to others (proselytism), as well as any other missionary activity, are forbidden' (Art. 5).

In order to register a 'central organisation of administration' of a religious confession, registered religious organisations belonging to this confession need to be present in at least eight of the 14 regions of Uzbekistan (Art. 8). Only central bodies now have the right to produce religious literature (Art. 19), unlike in the 1991 law which gave this right also to religious organisations (Art. 21).

The new law makes clear that religious activity by unregistered communities is illegal, whether the community has been refused registration or has declined to seek registration (Art. 11). The law does not specify what happens to communities without 100 adult members which are not qualified to apply for registration, although their activity would likewise be illegal.

The new law continues the supervisory role of the Committee for Religious Affairs attached to the Cabinet of Ministers, with its responsibility to coordinate relations between the state and religious organisations and to control observance of the law by religious organisations. Local authorities also share this responsibility to ensure religious organisations abide by the law (Art. 6). As before, individual religious organisations register with the local representation of the Ministry of Justice, though they must now also have approval from the Committee for Religious Affairs (Art. 8).

The new law stresses that state education is secular and that basic state education has to be completed before anyone may begin religious studies at a registered religious college. 'Introduction of religious subjects into the academic curriculum is not permitted' (Art. 7). Only centralised religious bodies with state registration may set up 'schools to train clergy and other religious personnel', which need registration with the Ministry of Justice before they can operate. Teachers in such schools must have religious education and permission from the centralised religious body. 'Private teaching of religious principles is prohibited' (Art. 9). (The ban on private teaching of religion was also present in Art. 6 of the 1991 law.)

The ban on religious political parties in the 1991 law (Art. 7) is widened to a ban on religious political parties and social movements (Art. 5). In addition, the 1998 version of the law is far more specific in outlawing activity that incites hatred, inter-ethnic discord, 'destabilising ideas' or panic among the population, or promotes terrorism, the drug trade, organised crime and 'actions against the state, society and individual' (Art. 5).

Art. 20 of the 1991 law governing religious rites and ceremonies made no mention of religious dress, but the new law includes a provision banning anyone apart from clerics from appearing in 'public places' in 'cult vestments' (Art. 14).

Several articles of the new law stress criminal responsibility for failing to abide by the law's new provisions. Art. 3 stresses that foreign citizens bear the same responsibility as Uzbek citizens for any violations. Art. 4 warns that those stirring up religious hostility or desecrating religious shrines will be liable to prosecution. Art. 5 warns that those conducting proselytism and indeed that anyone conducting 'any illegal religious activity' will be subject to prosecution. Art. 11 warns that religious leaders who evade registration of their organisation's charter will be subject to prosecution, as will be state officials who allow unregistered religious groups to function. Finally, Art. 23 declares: 'Officials, servants of religious organisations and citizens guilty of violating the legislation on freedom of conscience and religious organisations bear responsibility established by legislation of the Republic of Uzbekistan'.

It is too early to assess which groups are likely to suffer the most from the restrictive new provisions. However, it seems that Muslims who do not accept the state-sponsored version of Islam and minority religious communities (such as Protestant Christians and New Religious Movements) are likely to feel the impact of the new law first. In addressing parliament on 1 May to urge deputies to adopt the new law, president Karimov vigorously attacked Wahhabi Muslims, declaring that if parliament was not prepared to adopt strict measures against them he would be prepared to shoot them himself.

As a prelude to the assault on religious groups unacceptable to the authoritarian Uzbek government, the reregistration drive will no doubt see many minority religious communities lose their registration. Although this reregistration drive was launched in early 1997, no communities have so far received fresh registration. Officials told such communities that no communities would be reregistered until after the new law had been adopted.