Uzbek Orthodox church leader urges tougher measures against non-traditional religions

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - The leader of Uzbekistan's Orthodox church has urged tougher measures against foreign missionary activity in this Central Asian nation, warning against Western political and cultural expansion.

"Religious teachings are not the kind of import that one can welcome without thinking first ... It is sensible and right that Uzbekistan's legislation bans proselytism," Metropolitan of Tashkent and Central Asia Vladimir said in an interview with the official Pravda Vostoka newspaper published Wednesday.

Nearly 90 percent of Uzbekistan's population is Muslim. Orthodox Christianity is the second largest religion, with its followers making up about 9 per cent of the population of 23 million.

For the past several years Uzbekistan's staunchly secular government has been struggling with the Islamic opposition, particularly armed groups who adhere to Wahhabism, a puritanical branch of Islam that inspired Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But independent human rights groups and foreign governments — including the United States — have strongly criticized the Uzbek authorities for extending the crackdown on the religious opposition to innocent and peaceful Muslims.

Vladimir said some unnamed foreign "political structures" were behind the activities of foreign religious groups active in Uzbekistan such as Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists and others.

He called this a "political rivalry with Islam" aimed at provoking inter-religious conflicts in all of Central Asia.

"Our law enforcement bodies should not wait until the abscess bursts into social conflicts but take preventive measures," he was quoted as saying.

Vladimir said the moral climate in Uzbekistan was "incomparably purer" than in the West. "Western television, Western movies are full of propaganda of vice and disgusting things," he said.

He praised the relations between his church and official Islamic groups in Uzbekistan, saying both religions advocated the same moral values and worked together with the government.

Orthodox Church leaders in Russia and other ex-Soviet republics have also lashed out at foreign missionaries since the 1991 Soviet collapse, as they struggle to regain Orthodox followings after decades of state-sponsored atheism. Many governments in the region have also restricted registration rules for so-called non-traditional religions.