Dushanbe, Tajikistan - Authorities in Tajikistan are well known for keeping the clamps tightened on anything that smacks of Islamic radicalism, but Dushanbe also is casting a wary eye on proselytizing, non-Muslim sects. Of late, the small Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Tajikistan has become a target of particular interest for officials.
Governments in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia have long looked askance at proselytizing sects, believing them to be sources of social instability through their efforts to spread what are commonly seen as “alien” religious beliefs.
The latest crackdown in Tajikistan began on July 22, when authorities searched a Dushanbe apartment where a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses was staying. Lacking a warrant or other form of legal justification, police separated adults from children, the eldest of whom was 14, and questioned all in the residence about their faith and activities. Later, the adults and children were transferred to a local police station, where they underwent an additional five hours of questioning, according to Behruz Salikhov, an attorney for the group. Throughout their interrogation, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were denied access to counsel.
One of the detainees, Sherzod Rahimov, alleged that police beat him while in custody and threatened to charge him with several unsolved terrorism cases, his lawyer told EurasiaNet.org. Rahimov claimed authorities, pressuring him to renounce his faith, accused him of “organizing bomb explosions in Dushanbe.”
No charges as yet have been brought against Rahimov, or the other three adults originally detained, although authorities reportedly confiscated Rahimov’s passport.
Since the July 22 incident, other Jehovah’s Witnesses have been summoned repeatedly for questioning by Interior Ministry and the State Security Service officials. According to Salikhov, security agents regularly visit the residences of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Rahimov is a citizen of Uzbekistan, and his Tajik visa, which he was in the process of renewing, expired two days after he was detained. Without his passport, he was unable to complete the renewal process. Rahimov’s mother, a Tajik citizen, fears he will be deported to Uzbekistan, where he will likely face further persecution. Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other minority religious groups are routinely harassed and imprisoned in Uzbekistan, according to human rights activists.
A representative of the Tajik State Committee on Religious Affairs could not be reached for comment about the episode.
An October 2007 Ministry of Culture document cited activities such as proselytizing and home prayer as the reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses lost their official registration as a religious organization in Tajikistan.
"The religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses carried out its activity in violation of the Republic of Tajikistan’s legislation by distributing in public places and at the homes of citizens, i.e. among members and followers of other religions, propagandistic books on their religion, which has become a cause of discontent on the part of the people," said the order, as quoted by Forum 18, an Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog. "Many complaints have been received concerning the illegal activity of the religious organization of Jehovah's Witnesses.”
Back in 2007, members said there were about 600 adherents in the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses had been registered in Tajikistan since 1994.
Authorities have increased restrictions on all forms of religious practice in recent years. A March 2009 law, On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, tightened registration procedures for religious groups. The latest annual US government report on religious freedom in Tajikistan, released in November, portrayed Dushanbe's respect for religious freedom as “poor.”
“The government maintained a list of banned groups it considers ‘extremist.’ The list comprised several religious groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses … despite a lack of any evidence that Jehovah's Witnesses members engaged in extremist activities. Government officials expressed concern that aggressive proselytization by non-Muslim groups may lead to social instability,” said the report.
On August 2, President Imomali Rahmon signed a law that prohibits children under the age of 18 from attending prayer services of any faith. Although apparently targeted at Muslims, it remains unclear how the law will enforced concerning children of other religious groups.