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Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

During the year, the government continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech “inciting religious discord,” question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and label “nontraditional” religious groups as “destructive sects” in the media.

On June 25, individuals described by the government as Salafist militants and “followers of radical, nontraditional religious movements” killed eight people and injured 37 individuals in Aktobe in the northwestern region. Four of the attackers were killed in shootouts with the police. On November 28, a court sentenced seven of these people to life in prison, two to 20 and 22 years in prison respectively, and 19 others to two- to four-year terms for “organizing a terror attack on a military unit and a gun shop in June.” One defendant was sentenced to four years of probation.

On July 18, a gunman killed eight law enforcement officials and two civilians and wounded several others near a police station and building of the KNB in Almaty.

Government reporting characterized the June 25 and July 18 incidents as carried out by individuals motivated by radical religious extremism and drew links between the perpetrators and Salafism. The July 18 Almaty shooter stated in court he attacked his victims because “they do not live according to the laws of Allah.”

In both the Aktobe and Almaty incidents local experts said additional factors such as criminal history, poverty, and lack of opportunity may have led to the attackers’ radicalization.

According to the KNB, 14 members of the banned Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement were convicted for violating the criminal code for their participation in a banned religious movement this year, compared to 18 convictions in 2015. Forum 18, however, said 19 members were sentenced this year to prison for terms ranging from nine months to three years, and three members were sentenced to probation.

In December five Sunni Muslims in the Almaty region were imprisoned for up to three years for alleged membership in Tablighi Jamaat. They were arrested by the KNB in July.

On August 1, Baurzhan Beisembay was arrested in Ust Kamenogorsk and charged with participation in Tablighi Jamaat activities. Banned religious literature and videos, as well as reports on his activities, were seized during a search and used as evidence in court. Beisembay reportedly headed the regional cell of Tablighi Jamaat in East Kazakhstan after its previous leader moved to Astana where he was arrested and convicted in 2015. On October 13, the court in Ust Kamenogorsk sentenced Beisembay and seven other followers of Tablighi Jamaat to prison terms ranging from one to two and a half years. Two other defendants were sentenced to one year probation terms.

AROK continued to report law enforcement forces interpreted expressions of religious beliefs during conversations as a form of exalting one religion over others, thus “professing its supremacy.” Authorities then used this as the basis for charges of “incitement of interethnic discord.” In October the appellate panel of the Supreme Court declined Seventh-day Adventist Yklas Kabduakasov’s appeal of a two-year prison term for incitement of religious discord. He was originally sentenced in November 2015 to seven years’ probation, but an appellate court changed the sentence in December 2015 to two years in prison. The prosecutors presented recordings totaling 48 hours, which contained meetings discussing religion between Kabduakasov and four men he thought were students.

In June Rustam Musayev was sentenced to two years in a labor camp under the law against inciting religious discord after talking to others about his Islamic faith during private meetings. According to reports by the NGO Forum 18, the meetings may have been set up by the KNB. An “expert analysis” commissioned by the KNB did not find any instances of inciting “religious discord” in the recorded conversations, but did find instances in one of Musayev’s books, which was subsequently banned. Musayev was also ordered to pay for the “expert analysis,” and in August his bank accounts were frozen when he was put on a Finance Ministry list of individuals “connected with the financing of terrorism or extremism.”

On October 13, religious scholar Kuanysh Bashpayev was arrested by the KNB when he arrived in the country on leave from graduate study in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested and charged with incitement of religious discord for having discussed Islam during a meeting with several young men in a restaurant during a previous visit to the country. One of his interlocutors had recorded his interpretation of the Quran and sharia, and the tape served as grounds for his arrest. According to his lawyer, KNB investigators exerted pressure on him to confess his guilt. At the end of the year, the case had not been brought to trial and Bashpayev was still in prison.

Several members of the Council of Baptist Churches, which continued to refuse on principle to register under the Religion Law, received fines and were jailed in administrative facilities for refusal to pay. In September Zhasulan Alzhanov and Vyacheslav Cherkasov spent two and three days, respectively, in jail for not paying fines levied in 2013 and 2014. Council of Baptist Churches members stated they did not pay fines levied for their religious practices, on principle and as a policy. A Baptist Council representative reported their members faced fines for carrying books and proselytizing. The representative reported that authorities frequently raided and destroyed their Council’s prayer houses.

In July the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community was denied registration again after resubmitting an application in 2015. CRA experts concluded their teaching was not Islamic and demanded that they should change the name of the group by removing the word “Muslim.” The Church of Scientology continued to function and be registered as a public association, rather than as a religious organization.

According to reports, the government continued to recognize as legitimate and legal only those mosques registered with the SAMK, the government-affiliated Sunni Hanafi organization led by the grand mufti, with offices in Almaty and Astana. By joining SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, were permitted to take actions on their property (such as sales, transfers, improvements) only with the approval of the SAMK, and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. Press reports indicated there were a dozen new mosques built across the country with approval from the SAMK.

The SAMK continued to control the activities of all the 2,529 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over the construction of new mosques, the appointment of imams, and the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens. According to SAMK, the Saudi Arabian authorities allocated a quota of 3,000 spots for Kazakhstani Muslims to make the Hajj to Mecca, down from 5,000 last year.

According to Forum 18 and local media, officials raided two summer camps run by the Baptist Union in West Kazakhstan in July, reportedly on suspicion that children were engaged in religious activity without the consent of their parents. The raids followed the arrival of foreigners at the camp who said they came to help repair a church building, but were also involved in reading the Bible to the camp children. Officials took statements and the foreign camp visitors left the country. No legal action was taken against the church members.

Reportedly, on June 28, three Muslim residents of Semey in Eastern Kazakhstan were fined for speaking to people about their faith on their way back from evening prayers in the mosque. They were fined 212,100 tenge ($636) for “carrying out missionary activity without state registration.”

According to Forum 18, on April 17, three members of Council of Baptist Churches congregations were fined by the police without a court hearing for leadership of, or participation in, an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group. According to human rights sources, this was the first known instance police used their summary power to fine without first going to court. One of the three, 89-year-old former Soviet-era Baptist prisoner of conscience Yegor Prokopenko was fined 212,100 tenge ($636) on May 22 for leading a meeting for worship in Zyryanovsk. The other two were Sofya Bunyak of Ekibastuz, Pavlodar Region, and Aleksandr Belan of Sergeyevka, Akmola Region.

Also according to Forum 18, on April 17, two members of the New Life Protestant Church in the Caspian port of Atyrau, Bagitzhan Zholdybayev and Aleksandr Revkov, were fined after discussing their religion while drinking tea at a cafe with five other church members after their Sunday meeting for worship. They were fined 74,235 tenge ($223) each for “violating procedures established in the law for conducting rites, ceremonies, and meetings.”

According to NGO Forum 18, the CRA forced organizers of a religious musical in Astana and Almaty to cancel all performances in May and stated “if a show is religious, it requires permission in accordance with the law.” Reportedly CRA said the show, which was produced by Russian citizens, was religious material that, according to law, could only be imported by a domestically registered religious group after receiving government permission.

Courts continued to fine individuals found guilty of illegal missionary activity. According to AROK, local law enforcement authorities continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions, especially for “nontraditional” religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians.

Dina Sarsebekova, a Jehovah’s Witness in Western Kazakhstan, was charged for inviting two young people to attend the local community’s annual memorial service and for showing them a Jehovah’s Witness video on her computer. On April 25, the Uralsk Specialized Administrative Court in Western Kazakhstan found her guilty of carrying out missionary activities without state registration and imposed an administrative fine of 212, 100 tenge ($636).

On October 14, three members of the Rodnik Evangelic Baptist Church in Ust Kamenogorsk, Eastern Kazakhstan visited a local hospice where they talked to tenants and taught them prayers. Local CRA officials said their meeting was a violation of the procedure for holding religious ceremonies and meetings. The specialized administrative court imposed administrative fines on all three women in the amount of 106,050 tenge ($318) per person.

There were reports of girls being prevented from attending school and young women denied employment because they wore headscarves. On October 24, the SAMK issued a statement in response to disagreements between religious parents and school administrators after local authorities stated headscarves should be banned in schools. The statement called on parents not to force underage girls to wear headscarves or hinder them from getting a secular high school education and stated all Muslims should “abide by and respect the Constitution and the law.” The statement did not ban headscarves but encouraged parents to come to a compromise with school administrations.

The New Life Bible Church reported that on March 25, authorities searched five of their members’ residences and five buildings and confiscated 50 of their computers, as well as money and documents. The authorities said they were investigating fraud. The Church reported the authorities did not adequately make a full inventory of the items confiscated. The authorities subsequently said they found illegal weapons, which the Church denied.

Government officials continued to express concerns about the potential spread of religious extremism. President Nazarbayev described the June 5 Aktobe violent attack as “organized by followers of radical pseudoreligious movements,” who he said were radicalized from abroad. The government later said, however, the attackers may have been inspired by online terrorist propaganda, but were self-radicalized within the country. The president assured the people the state “will always apply the harshest measures to suppress extremists and terrorists.”

As set forth in the 2013-2016 State Program for Countering Religious Extremism and Terrorism, and kept as the main objective of the subsequent 2017-2020 State Program, the fight against religious extremism remained a top priority for the government. Government entities, like the KNB, continued to monitor civil society and religious groups.

On November 17, Minister of Religious Affairs and Civil Society Nurlan Yermekbayev condemned what he termed destructive religious teachings, such as Salafism, and said “secularism is the basis of stability of Kazakhstani society” in his remarks to an annual conference of religious scholars. He stated existing legislation enabled the government to counter extremist groups, but said his ministry may offer amendments to “improve” laws regulating religion, and was drafting a concept paper on how the government will engage civil society to combat extremism and terrorism. He said imams and experts have had success de-radicalizing extremists and said this partnership between civil society and the government was the best approach to combat extremist ideologies, including Salafism. He reiterated the government stood ready to ban Salafism if other means of combating extremism failed.

Individuals reported a tightening of the religious space. An AROK representative said the government was seeking to control religious expression and was especially concerned with controlling proselytizing and what the government saw as Islamic radicalism. A representative of a different NGO said trust between government and civil society was eroding, which was having a “repressive, chilling effect, on all religious groups.” Several “nontraditional” religious groups said they experienced continuing harassment from the government, for example by audits. Yet other activists noted the CRA had taken steps to become more open to feedback from the religious community, and one group reported increased day to day cooperation with CRA.

Before the amendments to “counter extremism and terrorism” became law, the government submitted them in draft for review to the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and civil society groups. These entities said there were serious religious freedom problems in the draft text, but the government did not accept their opinions.

The SAMK continued to provide a Russian-speaking preaching group in response to numerous requests by Russian-speaking Muslims in the northern regions. The Russian-speaking religious leaders included theologians and imams who had religious knowledge and a secular education. SAMK experts participate in examination of the growing number of Russian language religious literature and Internet publications to prevent dissemination of extremist books and publications.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some NGOs reported there were fewer instances of societal discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation, belief, or practice than in the 2008-2010 period, when the government prepared the ground for its new religion law, which the NGOs said was harsh, and took what the NGOs said were aggressive actions to present “nontraditional” religious groups as harmful. Others saw a lull during the early part of the year, followed by resumed societal scrutiny later in the year. Negative media coverage and government raids which targeted “nontraditional” religious groups hindered their acceptance in society, reported some of the groups.

In March following a series of searches of the New Life Church and houses of its leaders in Almaty based on fraud allegations, local media reported on the searches and the charges against its leaders. The church protested against what it called biased coverage and published an open letter to the president seeking his support to put an end to “harassment of believers and clergymen of the ‘New Life’ Church.”

On July 15, the newspaper Liter published an article titled “The Monitoring of a Non-Traditional Church Disclosed Numerous Unpleasant Facts,” describing how the Baptist church in Uralsk attracted children to its activities and how reluctant the church was to let inspectors know what they taught children. The author complained that even if wrongdoings were disclosed, liability under the current legislation was not harsh.

News reports continued to depict “nontraditional” religions as disruptive to society.

NGOs working on religious issues continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress indicated “nontraditional” beliefs.


Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to describe religious extremism as a threat to domestic security and stability. According to several NGO sources, there were several reported deaths of prisoners in custody due to torture or physical abuse of persons arrested on suspicion of “religious extremism” or who participated in underground Islamic activity. NGOs reported authorities continued to pressure the families in such cases to bury the bodies before medical professionals could examine them. The government continued to imprison individuals on charges of religious extremism for advocating replacement of the current secular government laws based on religious principles. In 2015, based on their research of prosecution of religious people by authorities, independent human rights groups estimated a high number of prisoners – between 5,000 and 15,000 – remain in detention on charges related to “religious extremism” or membership in an unregistered religious group, though attempts by independent groups to verify this figure have been unsuccessful. Law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered religious groups and detain their members. According to media sources, authorities closely monitored social gatherings where religious issues were discussed and made several arrests based on participation. Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, often without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles. The government continued to limit access to Islamic publications and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission as well as individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be extremist. Minority religious groups said they continued to experience difficulties registering and conducting religious activities because of harassment by local authorities. State-controlled media accused missionaries and others engaged in proselytizing of posing a danger to society.

Family members reported deaths in custody of prisoners accused of religious extremism. They stated the bodies of prisoners showed signs of torture, beatings, or other abuse. For example, on February 11, the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGIHRDU) reported that Doston Abdurakhmanov died due to what his family said was severe torture at penal colony number 64/48 in Zarafshan City, Navoi Region. On February 12, IGIHRDU reported authorities returned the body to his family and demanded immediate burial the next day in the morning. Abdurakhmanov was serving his prison term pursuant to a conviction for religious extremism and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.

In February Ozodlik Radio (the Uzbek Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) reported that police officers brought the body of Makhmudjon Khasanov, who was in penal colony 64/46 under charges that he was affiliated with the banned religious organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, to his family without official forensic examination records. The police demanded immediate burial. According to Fergana News, the death resulted from torture.

In 2015, independent human rights groups estimated between 5,000 and 15,000 individuals remained in prison on charges related to religious extremism or membership in an illegal religious group. The government did not disclose relevant data or provide independent observers access to prisoners. Human rights groups continued to estimate the government imprisoned approximately 200 individuals annually for participation in unregistered religious groups or engaging in religious “extremism,” but acknowledged difficulties in obtaining accurate numbers. NGO sources reported the government continued its physical abuse of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or who participated in underground Islamic activity.

On December 19, Forum18 reported that on July 5 Tashkent City police officers raided the Sunnatullayev family’s apartment early in the morning. Three police officers entered the apartment, seized a laptop computer, detained Ziyodullo Sunnatulayev, and took him to the police station where he was beaten and tortured to obtain a confession of extremist religious activity. Surat Ikramov of IGIHRDU told Forum18, Sunnatulayev was so severely beaten that it took a week for him “to come to his senses” after he was released from detention. After 15 days of arrest, Sunnatullayev was released after the police “understood he was not a religious person.”

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as extremist and criminalized membership in such groups, which included Akromiya, Tablighi Jamaat, and Hizb ut-Tahrir. The government also banned Nur, founded by Kurdish Mullah Said Nursi and associated with the religious teachings of Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

On February 19, the Djizzakh Regional Criminal Court sentenced ethnic Armenian Christian Aramais Avakyan as well as Furkat Djuraev, Bektemir Umirzokov, Akmal Mamatmurodov, and Dilshod Alimov from seven to 12 years in prison for charges related to terrorism, attempts to overthrow the state, production and distribution of materials containing threats to public security and public order, and the creation of, leadership, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist and other banned organizations. During the court hearing, Avakyan and others reported the use of torture to extract false confessions by Djizzakh regional National Security Service (NSS) and police officers. The men said they were held incommunicado by security services for 40 days and denied access to legal counsel. In response to questions regarding the case, the government denied this account and stated an internal investigation found the torture claims groundless. According to news media accounts, Avakyan and his employees were arrested because the Pakhtakor District governor wanted to expropriate his fish farm and saw a religious conviction as a convenient way to do so.

In August Ozodlik Radio and Forum 18, an international NGO promoting religious freedom, separately reported that on June 1 the Karakul District Criminal Court in the Bukhara Region handed down four-year prison terms to four leaders of a Sufi Naqshbandi Muslim community, who were convicted of establishing and running illegal religious organizations. The four leaders were among 15 Sufis arrested in Karakul District following a police raid on a home where a community was performing the zikir, a devotional practice of reciting sacred phrases. On July 16, the same court fined 11 other members of the same community up to four million som ($1,200) each under the same charges.

On February 17, Ozodlik Radio reported the arrests of Akmal Urinov, Temur Siddikov, Aybek Salikhov, and Davran Kayumov. These individuals were accused of belonging to a prohibited Salifist organization and producing and distributing religious materials. If convicted, the accused could face 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Prison administrators reportedly continued to charge prisoners convicted of religious extremism with organizing extremist cells while in prison or with other offenses which served as grounds for extending their prison terms. Reports from independent media and rights activists continued to state that administrators charged prisoners incarcerated for religious extremism with alleged internal prison violations, making them ineligible to apply for an amnesty for which they otherwise would be eligible.

According to news sources, on November 8, authorities released on parole Tohar Haydarov, an ethnic Uzbek convert to Christianity, after he served six years and 10 months in jail. A court found Haydarov guilty in March 2010 on drug charges, which local Baptists stated were fabricated. According to the NGO Release International, his arrest followed a request by relatives that local police help force him to return to Islam.

In April Forum 18 reported that Latipjon Mamajanov, a Protestant who was arrested and jailed on March 12 in Fergana for 15 days, was released from jail on March 28. According to the report, police raided Mamajanov’s home in Fergana, searching for religious literature. Authorities reportedly imprisoned Mamajanov in the Kuva District Police Detention Center, Fergana Region where up to seven inmates were put in a cell designed for two people, without sanitary and hygienic conditions, and were fed only once a day. Mamajanov and other prisoners, who proclaimed their innocence, were tortured repeatedly, the NGO reported.

According to Forum 18, on July 5, the Tashkent Regional Court confirmed five-year prison sentences for cousins, Jonibek Turdiboyev and Mansurkhon Akhmedov, whom authorities jailed on May 29 for allegedly possessing an Islamic sermon on a music CD. The court jailed a third Muslim for seven years after extradition from Russia for possessing social media sermons. Forum 18 said they were tortured and a human rights activist said their trial was “a farce.”

On February 3, Samarkand police officers arrested three female Jehovah’s Witnesses for hosting a religious study meeting in a private home. On March 15, judge Zafar Kholikulov of Samarkand City Court fined each 50 times the minimum monthly wage, 6,512,000 som ($1,980) for possessing “illegal literature” found after authorities raided their meeting. According to a Jehovah’s Witnesses statement to Forum 18 on April 25, police held the women at a Samarkand Police Station for almost 24 hours before releasing them in the afternoon of February 4. The same source reported that while in detention, two of the women were “physically abused” and another female Jehovah’s Witness was “subjected to sexual harassment.”

On September 30, Forum 18 reported Baptist Pastor Stanislav Kim from Urgench, Khorezm Region, had been fined for a second time within a year for having Christian books at home, which state officials regard as “illegal.” As this was a second instance, Kim was convicted under the criminal code to a two-year corrective labor sentence. Kim’s first offense was in July 2014, when Urgench police raided his home while he was visited by two other members of the Church.

Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detained their members. Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, often without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

The Darakchi newspaper reported on September 15 only one registered Jehovah’s Witness house of worship existed in the country and that was in Chirchik in the Tashkent Region. The report said one of the members, a resident of Tashkent City, Natalya Shamsuddinova, was fined for illegally keeping religious literature at home.

On January 6, the progovernment web site reported a raid on a gathering of followers of a Korean Protestant church in Tashkent Region’s Yangiyol District. According to the report, law enforcement agencies accused three residents of illegal possession and distribution of religious literature of the church. After completing the search, the authorities found and confiscated seven books, a brochure, two notebooks with notes, and 130 CDs and DVDs containing religious content. No further information was available by the end of the year.

On February 7, police in Okdarya District, Samarkand Region, raided the home of Malika Khidirova, a Christian. Officers confiscated one Bible and one copy of the New Testament. According to the NGO Forum18, Khidirova, along with Munis Oblakulov, Sanobar Aripova and Khudoyor Muhamadiyev, were brought to court under charges of possessing religious literature and teaching religious beliefs without specialized religious education or permission from the central organ of a registered religious group. On March 22, Judge Shohmurod Begmatov of Okdarya District Criminal Court fined Oblakulov 60 times the minimum monthly salary (7,814,400 som or $2,400); Khidirova 20 times the minimum monthly salary (2,604,800 som or $790); and Aripova and Muhamadiyev 10 times the minimum monthly salary (1,302,400 som or $400) each. Begmatov also ordered the formal confiscation of the Bible and New Testament.

On January 9, customs officials detained Bakhtiyor Khudaiberdiyev, an ethnic Uzbek with Russian citizenship, at Tashkent Airport for carrying “extremist” religious materials on his mobile phone, Association for Human Rights in Central Asian and International Partnership for Human Rights NGOs reported. No further information was available at the end of the year.

On March 10, Forum 18 reported a male citizen was detained for a day at Uchteppa District Police Station, Tashkent Region, for possession of an Arabic-language Quran, which was confiscated as it did not have a stamp from the state’s Religious Affairs Committee. According to the report, officials could find no other literature in the man’s home, and released him the next day.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and made several arrests based on participation. In one case, the police raided a private home where three Baptists gathered for a birthday celebration and not for private worship. No religious material was found. Police issued a fine for illegal worship outside a registered premise.

On March 13, customs officials stopped Boris Prokopenko, a Baptist from Kazakhstan, at the Gisht-Kuprik border crossing with Kazakhstan for carrying Christian materials on an electronic book reader and memory stick, as well as a leaflet with the word “Christ” in his pocket. Officials held him for two days at Tashkent Regional Customs Department. They released him after opening an administrative case against him. No further information was available at the end of the year.

According to human rights activists and religious adherents, the government reviewed the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate). The government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA and by selecting staff for the Muftiate. The government also informally restricted the volume of public calls to prayer

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible. Family members of prisoners reported, however, prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately. Reported restrictions included not permitting inmates to pray five times a day or refusing to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast. There also continued to be reports authorities punished prisoners for “violating internal prison regulations” if they prayed at scheduled times for Islamic prayers.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or of groups which had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered congregation in Tashkent Region. According to Forum 18, on January 27, 30 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Bukhara region were punished for meeting for worship and possessing religious literature officials said was “illegal.” They received fines totaling more than 1,050 times the minimum monthly wage or 136,752,000 som ($41,600). According to Forum 18, two of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – Andrei and Yelena Yu – were fined 30 times the minimum monthly wage each and given 10-day jail terms.

Minority religious groups continued to experience difficulties registering.

Some churches, particularly evangelical churches with ethnic Uzbek members, stated they stopped applying for registration because they continued to expect local officials would not register them. Other groups, including those with less than 100 members, said they did not submit registration applications that they knew would not meet legal requirements as a means of avoiding the attention of the authorities. Some groups did not attempt to register, they said, because they did not want to provide the authorities with a list of their members’ names. They stated local authorities harassed their members, especially ethnic Uzbek members, through pressure on them and their families to renounce their faith in favor of traditional Islamic beliefs during previous attempts to register. A few groups said they refused to seek registration because they challenged the government’s right to require it.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing alleged failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address, or to obtain the guarantee letters and other necessary permits from all local authorities. Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance their registration would be approved. Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members. In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with Russian sounding last names only.

Churches that previously attempted to register reported they remained unregistered. These included the Bethany Baptist Church in the Mirzo-Ulugbek District of Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church of Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; the Pentecostal church in Andijon; and the Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, and Miral Protestant Church, all in Samarkand. Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren have been unable to register their churches after attempting to do so for 10 years.

Despite continued efforts to engage with the government, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no success in registering new groups.

According to Forum 18, authorities placed restrictions on public religious activities during Ramadan in July. The Tashkent City Administration banned mosques and restaurants from serving an iftar during Ramadan. Religious officials said people should break their fasts at home with their families, whereas one human rights activist said that the government’s objective was to prevent public displays of faith.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.

Anecdotal reports said a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live in close proximity to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and registered imams were not assigned to them.

The Jewish community continued to be unable to register a central office because they did not have synagogues in at least eight provinces of the country’s 14 administrative units, as required by law. Despite the community’s efforts to have additional rabbis recognized, the MOJ provided accreditation for only one rabbi – a Bukharian Sephardic – in the country in 2014, following a seven-year gap and cancellation of the residency permit of the community’s previous rabbi. The Ashkenazi Jewish community lacks rabbinical services. Members of the Jewish community said the rabbi shortage limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community. Jewish people have expressed concern over the future of their congregations once the current generation of adherents either emigrates or passes away.

The government continued to deny permission to train Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

The media reported security services continued surveillance of religious communities by filming participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques. The same surveillance activity was reported by parishioners at Catholic masses in English and Russian. Other congregations, such as the Lutherans and Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities, including attempts by authorities to install closed circuit television for Lutheran services.

The government and local imams continued to discourage public displays of religious adherence considered to be foreign-influenced. Media reported authorities questioned women in Tashkent and the Fergana Valley for wearing the hijab and encouraged them to remove it or wear it in the more traditional Uzbek style of tying the scarf at the back of the neck.

State-controlled and state-influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

Mahalla (neighborhood) committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for a limited number of selected Muslims to participate in the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses. The government limited the number of Hajj pilgrims to 5,200 generally older citizens considered by the government to be “politically reliable,” which was less than 20 percent of the country’s allotted number of pilgrims. Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims. According to reports from sources in the human rights community in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it was exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority. According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was only occasionally found and usually in second hand stores or flea markets.

A number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior (MOI), NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

The international post office in Tashkent reportedly continued to scrutinize all incoming packages and send religious material to the CRA for further examination and approval. If the CRA banned the material, it mailed a letter to the intended recipient and the sender explaining the rejection. The CRA continued to deny the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to media and NGO reports, the authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported they continued to encounter difficulties when entering and leaving the country because authorities seized religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites.

Groups allowed by the government to publish, import, and distribute religious literature included the Bible Society of Uzbekistan (BSU), the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Roman Catholic Churches.

Media and religious groups reported authorities continued to prohibit children and teenagers under the age of 16 from practicing religion. There were several media reports of the government filing charges against Christian and Muslim groups where the government cited the presence of children during religious services as an incriminating factor. Media reports also said local officials continued to pressure imams to prevent children from attending prayers, and teachers and police officers continued to turn young students away from prayer services. According to Forum 18, there were reports of schoolteachers and police stationed at the entrance of mosques in Tashkent who were preventing children under 18 from entering during Ramadan in July. Authorities in Andijan sent a letter to parents in May instructing them to not send their children to mosques during their summer vacation, and said they would enforce the directive legally. An official from the Andijan Regional Education Department said that children can be “misled” in mosques, but did not explain. There were media reports school officials continued to discourage both Muslim and Christian parents from sending their children to mosque or church services, and some school officials reportedly questioned students about their religion and why they attended services.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Bahai community stated children were able to attend church-sponsored activities and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school. Witnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.

Human rights organizations and international media reported continued government harassment in the media of members of Akromiya (Akromiylar), an organization characterized by some scholars and human rights groups as an informal association promoting business according to Islamic principles, but classified as a terrorist organization by the government. Government media continued to publish negative articles about the group and its members. According to authorities, the group had attempted to overthrow the government through armed rebellion in Andijon in 2005.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to NGOs, there continued to be social pressure, particularly among the majority Muslim population, not to change religions. Ethnic Russians, Jews, Catholics, and non-Muslim foreigners said they felt less societal pressure against choosing and changing their religion from members of their own ethnic community or from the Uzbek Muslim community. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity, however, reportedly continued to face harassment and discrimination, particularly from neighborhood officials applying pressure on them, their family members, and employers to convince converts to not involve themselves with what they were told were “alien religious beliefs.” Religious groups perceived as proselytizing religions, including evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christian churches, said they faced greater social scrutiny and their neighbors called the police to report their activities. Other groups, including Catholics, Jews, Russian Orthodox, and members of the Bahai community, report harmonious interfaith and community relations with the members and leadership of the predominate-Muslim faith.

A number of media NGOs continued to publish articles critical of proselytism and critical of members of minority religious groups deemed by media outlets to be “nontraditional.” A popular tabloid magazine criticized missionaries for proselytizing, labeled the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Full Gospel believers “totalitarian sects” and “evil ideologies” and stated it was the “duty” of all citizens to prevent the “deleterious” effects of such groups, especially on youth.

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