By Worthy News Europe Bureau in Budapest with Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos
DUSHANBE/BUDAPEST (Worthy News)– Devoted Christians in several areas of Tajikistan faced uncertainty Tuesday, January 5, over the future of their churches after the former Soviet republic introduced a new religion law that the United States has criticized as highly restrictive.
The Religion Law, which came into forces on New Year's Day, empowers the government to impose stricter control of religious groups in the former Soviet republic that tolerates only the state-approved version of Islam.
Under the legislation groups that choose not to register with authorities or fail to gain re-registration will become illegal. All Christian and other “religious organisations” need to provide the national government with written confirmation of their existence from their local administration.
Christians say however that local officials “have been slow” at issuing confirmation documents or have “deliberately” refused to do so for groups that they did not like.
Less than half of the religious organizations known to authorities have been registered, according to estimates by the Culture Ministry's Head Department for Religious Affairs (HDRA).
HDRA officials have also imposed territorial restrictions on the activity of some non-Muslim groups, including Christian churches, during the re-registration process, according to Christians familiar with the procedures.
The measures cast doubts about the future of groups such as the Council of Churches Baptists which refuses on principle to register with the State. Last month, a Council congregation in Dushanbe was reportedly already banned by a local court.
The new law also imposes censorship on religious literature and restricts performing “rituals” to state-approved venues, making it even more difficult for evangelical missionaries and other Christians to openly evangelize.
In Tajikistan, religion has been a particularly thorny issue since President Imomali Rakhmon defeated an alliance of Islamists and liberals in a 1990s civil war.
Rakhmon has defended his decision to sign the controversial legislation and other measures. Worried about the resurgent Taliban militant group in neighboring Afghanistan, he says his main goal is to maintain political and economic stability in his impoverished homeland.
However countries across former Soviet Central Asia, including Tajikistan, have been criticized in the West for using the threat of religious extremism as an excuse to crack down on political dissent and religious groups outside state-sponsored Islam.
Protestant and Jewish communities are the main non-Muslim groups that have been targeted, according to rights activists. In 2008, Tajikistan even demolished the country's only synagogue to make way for a presidential palace.
In a gesture apparently aimed at sweetening the decision, Khasan Asadullozoda, Rahmon's brother-in-law, donated a new building to the Jewish community, community members said. "We are extremely grateful," said chief rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov at the time. "Now we have a place of worship again."
The Religion Law seems part of Rahmon's efforts to strengthen his power base and “legalise harsh policies already adopted” towards the population, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said.
"The picture for religious freedom in Tajikistan is growing dim," said the Commission, which advises the U.S. government on religious freedom in the world. "The passage of this problematic new law could severely limit religious freedoms in Tajikistan," it added in a recent report.
Like elsewhere in Central Asia, most people in Tajikistan, a mountainous Persian-speaking nation, practice the Sunni branch of Islam, but there is a substantial Shi'ite minority.