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Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states religious associations shall be separate from the state and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. On September 10, a Khujand City court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Shamil Khakimov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to seven-and-a-half years in a high security prison. On October 9, an appeals court upheld his conviction. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. There were reports that officials prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from registering their organization. Registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures. On February 22, international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained for holding a joint service. Forum 18 reported police raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses occurred in the northern cities of Khujand and Konibodom, and that police officers confiscated laptops, mobile phones, and passports. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported authorities detained and questioned adults regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations. Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups. Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs.

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature. Throughout May the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address these issues and to discuss concerns about government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.

In 2016, the country was designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 26, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”


Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.

In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”

The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution maintains the separation of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The law on religion requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to reregister with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) every three years in order to operate legally. According to religious organizations, government security forces continued to surveil religious organizations and ban the importation of religious literature, and it remained difficult to obtain places of worship. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of the end of the year, 10 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service, including several new cases of Witnesses sentenced during the year, to terms from one year to four years. The government continued not to offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that police in Ashgabat and Lebap Province forced men under 40 to shave their beards and mustaches. The government did not register any previously unregistered religious groups during the year. Two previously registered groups successfully reregistered during the year although they stated that registration requirements were onerous. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics and scrutinize or obstruct religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes. In September and November, the Ministry of Justice hosted roundtable meetings for all registered and unregistered religious groups in which members could advocate for their organizations, ask questions, and refer problems to a panel of government ministry representatives. The government promised to identify a point of contact for groups to contact to ask questions and resolve issues, and to create a website that would have information and a portal for posing questions. Many religious groups stated this was a productive meeting and a small sign of progress, but continued to experience an either poor or complete lack of response to inquiries. Outside of the roundtable meeting and direct communication with the ministries, religious groups have no official methods of advocacy.

Religious leaders and others stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Between September 2018 and May 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that unknown individuals distributed leaflets in Russian and Turkmen containing defamatory statements about the Witnesses. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even “excessive” expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported societal prejudices against religious groups that are not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox.

In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy officials, and other U.S. government representatives, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. U.S. officials raised issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the country’s listing as a “Country of Particular Concern,” the ability of religious groups to register and reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador personally requested that the president pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors. Embassy officers met on a regular basis with 11 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom. Topics discussed with these groups included: the status and challenges of the groups’ registration and reregistration, the groups’ ability to secure a permanent place of worship, the requirement to keep a legal address in a location physically separate from the place of worship, the challenges of importing religious literature, harassment of members by both government and nongovernment entities, restrictions on proselytizing, the religious groups’ relations with the government, interfaith cooperation, the ability of clerics to access prisoners and military personnel, and the organizations’ ability to carry out educational and charity activities.

Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. A religious freedom “roadmap” approved by parliament in 2018 to implement all 12 of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements, but the underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious groups. The government announced it released or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes during the year; however, some nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in underground Islamic activity. The government did not provide the number of individuals arrested during the year and how many were in custody at year’s end. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 20 known churches that still wished to register. According to religious groups, there were no police raids of unregistered religious group meetings during the year, compared with 114 in 2018 and 240 in 2017. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to media reports, public controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued, including reports of police forcibly shaving the beards of men in Tashkent. The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs in schools. In reaction to social media outcry following the expulsion of two female university students wearing hijabs, in April the government agreed to allow female students to wear headscarves in the traditional Uzbek ikat style with a knot tied behind their heads. Police detained two bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques, although reportedly other bloggers who criticized the government faced no backlash. According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education continued to instruct educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers. According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government allowed the Church to hold a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley, and Church leaders noted that surveillance of Catholic masses had stopped. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news. The government published a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, it remained difficult for some individuals to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts or bribery, and religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons older than age 45. Other sources, including religious activists, reported no difficulties in going on the Hajj and said there were no age limits. The government maintained a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 16 recognized religious groups. In an October report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated, “After many years of religious freedom violations and outright persecution, the Government of Uzbekistan has recently made significant progress in improving its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The report cited the cessation of police raids, permission granted to a Jehovah’s Witnesses delegation to travel from the United States to Uzbekistan, and permission to conduct a “memorial service of the death of Jesus Christ” in rented premises in Fergana, Karshi, and Urgench.

NGOs and private persons continued to report social pressure – but not government harassment – on individuals, particularly among the members of the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including family pressure to repudiate their new faith. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials continued to urge the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion should follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with senior government officials, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. In July he met with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and again on the margins of the UN General Assembly High-Levels Week in September. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials met frequently with representatives of both registered and unregistered religious groups, including with religious minorities. Embassy officials also routinely met with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included problems associated with the registration of minority religious groups, the issue of religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State renewed Uzbekistan’s place on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

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