Uzbekistan: Open Society: Historical Development of Religious Minorities in Modern Uzbekistan.

Farrukh Tilyaev. University of Essex, MA in Human Rights and Cultural Diversity.

Uzbekistan, the third most populated country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS),[i]comprises of diverse religious minority groups such as Shi’a Muslims, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is, Jews and others.[ii] The demography of religions in the country gradually changed. For instance, the number of Jewish minority experienced a decrease of almost twenty times.[iii] It is generally argued that it was mostly due to lack of economic and social opportunities, as well as an increase of Islamic extremist attitudes in the region. In recent years, immigration of Orthodox Christians to Russia and other Russian speaking countries has risen as well.

Furthermore, a Korean minority, which was relocated from the Soviet Far East in 1937-8, currently constitutes 147,7 thousand people in the country.[iv] After the collapse of atheistic soviet regime, Korean minorities were largely influenced by the US and South Korean missionaries due to several reasons: a) attractiveness to local Koreans for being represented by ethnic Koreans, b) modernized rituals gaining attention of younger generation (e.g. singing contemporary pop-music in rituals), c) having headquarters in the US and South Korea with sufficient financial support (modern facilities), and others.[v] According to the survey, most of the Korean minority members belong to protestants (17,6%) and orthodox Christians (8,6%), while 57,2% do not practice any religion.[vi]

According to the Committee of the Religious Affairs of Uzbekistan, at present there are 158 Christian organizations, 8 Jewish communities, 6 Baha’i communities, one Buddhist temple, and a society of Krishna as well as interfaith Bible Society of Uzbekistan.[vii] Uzbekistan hosts people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. In this secular country with predominantly Sunni Muslim population[viii], freedom of conscience and religion is guaranteed by law.[ix] After gaining independence in 1991, the new set-up of the independent secular state of Uzbekistan allowed paving a way to establish religious institutions, which were banned during the USSR’s atheistic regime.[x] The last two decades show a degree of change in religious demography of the country due to social, economic and political transformation of the state. While followers of particular religions increased in number, others immigrated to different countries. With this, the role of religion in lives of people and its influence to current politics also changed. The number of Muslims is increasing while other religious minorities are shrinking in size.

The general attitude of the population and the government towards religion is that one can practice his/her religion as long as it does not fall under the category of suspicious or extremist religious groups/sects, and b) follow the established regulations prescribed by law. It is important to note that Uzbekistan is a State Party to most international human rights treaties including International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrined a right to freedom of religion, conscience and belief.[xi] The Constitution of Uzbekistan provides a safeguard for this freedom as well. The law of 1998 “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” and further adopted amendments to Criminal Code on religious matters sparked debates of international scope due to the restrictions and harsh measures they contain. There are provisions a) restricting freedom to manifest religious convictions; b) restricting freedom to disseminate religious ideas; and c) restricting freedom to assemble for religious purposes.[xii]

While the government intends to uphold religious freedom, the present law on religion is largely criticised for violation of international human rights standards to which Uzbekistan is committed[xiii], and for containing harsh penalties for religious acts.[xiv] Take, for example, a recent case dealing with Jehovah’s witnesses, religious group which has an officially registered congregation in the country[xv]: several followers of this belief were arrested due to an act of proselytizing and propagating their belief among people. This act is prohibited by law,[xvi] and the response shows that the necessary measures will apply if regulations are not followed. Partially motivated by historical and cultural incentives, the current law is a response to extremist movements and acts, and to “ensure national security”.[xvii] Having said that, it is important to note that it has also resulted in targeting innocent believers not affiliated to any extremist organizations as the law equally applies to everyone expressing their religious believe.

In conclusion, the recent legislative and practical developments of the situation of religious minorities in Uzbekistan remain an area of concern. On the whole, the sense of tolerance toward religious minorities among believers is present and diverse religions harmoniously co-exist in the country. However, there are regulations put in place which, if not followed, lead to application of strict measures against each member of the religious minority group. At last, it can be presumed that the situation will not drastically change in near future.

[i] According to the United Nations Statistics Division’s report The World Statistics Pocketbook, 2014 edition,  the population of Uzbekistan is 28,5 mln., after Russia (143,1 mln.) and Ukraine (45,5 mln). Available at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/pocketbook/WSPB2014.pdf

[ii] There are also Lutherans, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, Zoroastrians, Hare Krishtians as well as atheists.

[iii] According to American Jewish Yearbook, vol. 101(2001), Jewish population was around 95,000 in 1989, and only fewer than 5,000 has remained. Also at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Uzbekistan.html

[iv] M.D. Ten, Religious identity of ethnic minorities under conditions of political-ethnic environment of Uzbekistan (in an example of Korean diaspora),(2012), [Russian text:ТенМ.Д. РелигиознаяидентичностьэтническогоменьшинствавусловияхполиэтническойсредыУзбекистана (напримерекорейскойдиапоры) // Актуальныевопросыкорееведения: проблемыиперспективы: СборникматериаловIIIмеждународнойнаучно-практическойконференции, июня 2012. – Уссурийск, 2012. – С. 190-194.], at

[v]Ibid.

[vi]Ibid.

[vii] Committee of the Religion Affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan-tolerant country(2014), at http://religions.uz/eng/uzbekistan_tolerant_country.mgr

[viii] According to the Mapping the Global Muslim Population. A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (October 2009), Uzbekistan’s population is 96,3% Muslim. Available at  http://www.pewforum.org/files/2009/10/Muslimpopulation.pdf

[ix]The Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan, Article 31 (8 December 1992); Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”, Republic of Uzbekistan (May 1 1998).

[x] The USSR was the first state to have, as an ideological objective, the elimination of religion and its replacement with universal atheism. See Kowalewski, David. “Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences” (October 1980), Russian Review39 (4): 426–441; Ramet, Sabrina Petra. (Ed). Religious Policy in the Soviet Union (1993), Cambridge University Press. p. 4;Anderson, John, Religion, State and Politics in the Soviet Union and Successor States (1994), Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 3.

[xi] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (1966) art. 18. Also this right is guaranteed in Universal Declaration of Human Rights art. 18 (1948); United Nations Charter art.55(c) (1945); Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1982).

[xii] Grant Garrard Beckwith, Uzbekistan: Islam, Communism, and Religious Liberty–An Appraisal of Uzbekistan’s 1998 Law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (2000). Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.byu.edu/lawreview/vol2000/iss3/15  p 1016.

[xiii]Ibid.

[xiv] For example, Article 145 of the amended Criminal Code states in part: “Religious activity involving obstructing citizens in execution of their civil rights or performing their civil duties, forced taxation of the believers or using measures compromising personal dignity, or forcing to receive religious education or influencing citizens in defining their attitude towards religion, to practice or not to practice religion, to participate or not to participate in religious services, rites, religious ceremonies . . . is subject to fines equal from seventy five to one hundred minimal salaries or imprisonment from three to five years”.

[xv]http://www.jw.org/en/news/legal/by-region/uzbekistan/news-religious-freedom-improvements/ (April 14, 2014).

[xvi] 01/08/2014,  athttp://www.rapsinews.ru/international_news/20140801/271839659.html

[xvii] On February 16, 1999, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 15 people were killed and over 100 injured in a series of six explosions intended to kill President Islam Karimov. Uzbek government sources ascribed the explosions to religious extremists.  See Fiona Dunne, Religious Extremists Were Involved in Tashkent Explosions, INTERFAX NEWS  AGENCY (Feb. 23, 1999) http://soros.org/uzbkstan/omri/0063.html

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