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USCIRF: Tajikistan threatens religion

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religious expression in the Central Asian country of Tajikistan may soon become even more restricted, according to a warning from a nonpartisan federal panel that keeps tabs on the global status of faith groups.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon is preparing to sign a religion law that will place more constraints on religion, especially Islam. Some of its measures, USCIRF noted, may violate international agreements Tajikistan has entered into.

The legislation, approved in March by Tajikistan’s Parliament, will place into law government policies already practiced against Muslims, USCIRF reported. Muslims make up about 97 percent of the country’s population. The Tajik government promotes secularism, according to the U.S. State Department.

The bill’s provisions include the forced closing of hundreds of mosques and restrictions on the religious training of children, according to the commission. It also limits religious activities to state-sanctioned places of worship, mandates government censorship of religious literature and permits state regulation of religious groups, USCIRF said.

“The picture for religious freedom in Tajikistan is growing dim,” said Felice Gaer, USCIRF’s chairwoman.

“The commission is actively examining the status of Tajikistan to determine whether it qualifies for the ‘Watch List,'” Gaer said in a March 20 written release. “We call on the Obama administration to make our concerns known.”

USCIRF, a nine-member panel appointed by the president and congressional leaders, makes recommendations to the State Department for designation of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for the worst violators of religious freedom. The commission also keeps a “watch list” of governments it believes do not reach the CPC level but require close monitoring regarding their policies.

The State Department’s CPC list consists of Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan. USCIRF has recommended Iraq, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam be added to the CPC list. The commission’s “watch list” is made up of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

If Rakhmon signs the measure into law, it would conflict with the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tajikistan has endorsed, and the religious liberty requirements of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which it is a member of, USCIRF reported.

The legislation will restrict the number of mosques based on local population and force state involvement in the selection of Muslim imams, according to USCIRF. Minority religious groups also face repressive policies in Tajikistan. The government, which registers religious groups, prohibits the activities of two Protestant churches and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, USCIRF reported.

Despite the government’s practices, Tajikistan’s constitution espouses religious freedom.

USCIRF’s responsibility is to advise the White House and Congress. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is a USCIRF commissioner.
Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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