Kyrgyzstan keeps a tight grip on religion

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan - Bolot, a young evangelical preacher in Kyrgyzstan, says he already been arrested twice this year after setting up a new church.

He says he is the victim of a new law on religion, which critics say severely restricts religious freedoms and is forcing some groups underground.

Under the law, new religious groups have to have at least 200 members before they can register with the authorities and operate legally - previously the figure was 10.

Kyrgyzstan is just the latest Central Asian republic to have been accused of curtailing religious rights.

"In our church we don't have official registration because we have only 25 people, and we are banned from trying to convert people. We have lots of problems with the government," Bolot says.

He says the police have been several times to his church, which is based in a house in the capital, Bishkek. Bolot, which is not his real name, says he fears further such visits.

"They asked me to stop the church because it's against the law. Of course, it's not comfortable but we will keep going."

There are now at least 50,000 evangelical Christians in Kyrgyzstan, Bolot says, the majority of them converts from Islam like himself - although the government disputes that figure.

He says the authorities passed the law because they want to prevent Muslims converting to Christianity.

He adds that the government also feels threatened by radical Muslim groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose goal is to bring all Muslim countries together as a single state, ruled by Islamic law.


Muslim extremists, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have been blamed for carrying out attacks last year in southern Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Dimitry - also not his real name - is a lawyer and a member of a Protestant church which unsuccessfully challenged the law. He says it prevents people from involving their children in the church.

"How can I bring my moral values to my children if I cannot involve them in our religious activity?" he asks.

Dmitry said he did not want to be identified because he was speaking on behalf of a group and not because he was afraid of being persecuted by the authorities.

He says the government wants to prevent religious groups meeting in unofficial venues by restricting where religious material can be bought and used.

"Citizens and religious organisations have the right to purchase and use religious literature only in places of divine service and in specialised department stores," he says, citing the law.

Muslim scholar Kadyr Malikov says the law and the government's stance on religion is affecting Muslims as well as Christians, particularly smaller groups.

"This law makes it difficult, first of all for Islamic movements and the Muslim community to open new mosques and madrassas. This creates difficult relations between the secular government and the Muslim community," he says.

Corruption to blame?

Mr Malikov says the government sees any Muslim who steps outside officially recognised Islam as dangerous.

"The people in government can't separate traditional or peaceful Islam from extremists," he says at his office in Bishkek.

Mr Malikov says this view has adversely affected the education of some girls.

"In some schools they prohibit girls who wear the hijab from going to school. In the constitution everybody has the right to education."

Many of Kyrgyzstan's remaining ethnic Russians are Orthodox Christians. The government has decided to broadcast television programmes by their priests and authorised Muslim preachers, as a way of showing what it says are the correct religious paths. It is also introducing religious education in schools.

But Mr Malikov says the authorities need to deal with Kyrgyzstan's economic problems and corruption, in places such as the judiciary, in order to turn people away from radicalisation.

"If people don't find justice in secular laws they turn to Sharia laws, which give big guarantees of justice."

'Drawn to prayer'

Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan was previously known in the region for its relatively liberal laws regarding religion.

The head of the government's commission on religion, Kanibek Osmonaliyev, says that led to an influx of what he calls religious sects, trying to convert and recruit Kyrgyz citizens.

"People asked us to take measures because they were worried their families would be broken up by these groups," he says.

"We haven't reduced religious freedoms, we are just trying to bring some order to these organisations."

He also denies the government has inadvertently created the conditions for radical groups to thrive, by failing to tackle corruption and improve the economy.

He says people may be drawn to religion when faced by difficulties, but not to radical groups.

"People are drawn to prayer, to a Protestant God, an Orthodox God, or Islamic God, but not Hizb ut-Tahrir," he said.

Mr Osmonaliyev adds that Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned and does not enjoy widespread support. He says the government is taking strong measures to prevent further attacks by militants.