U.S. Recognizes Strides in Religious Freedom in Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan has recently made great strides in expanding its religious freedom. The changes the country has made toward religious tolerance has earned praise from the U.S. Department of State. The U.S. 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom, released June 10, has recognized that religious freedom in Uzbekistan has “continued to improve.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lauded the country’s more religiously tolerant stances as “great strides, real progress,” boding well for Uzbekistan’s human rights status as well as its relationship with the United States.
In the past, Uzbekistan has been chastised by the United States, as well as others, for the imprisonment of people categorized as religious extremists. Furthermore, there were complaints over government surveillance of religious activities, effectively interfering with the free practice of religions. And many are still unsatisfied with the broad range of what the Uzbekistani government defines as “religious extremism.” However, the government has shown progress this year in amending arrests made perhaps too hastily.
While the country still has work to do to achieve true religious freedom, the report notes significant changes Uzbekistan has made in the past year. Such changes include no police raids being conducted on unregistered religious groups’ meetings, and the government’s permitting girls to wear religious headscarves to school so long as they were worn in the traditional Uzbek style. The Uzbekistani government has allowed the building of some churches and has halted surveillance of Catholic masses. Coinciding with the end of 2019 Ramadan, President Mirziyoyev released 361 prisoners accused of religious extremism, and 214 prisoners had their sentences shortened. He subsequently issued a presidential directive to government officials to ensure that these prisoners had what they needed (housing and other support) so that they can be adequately reintegrated into society.
The United States recognizes that Uzbekistan has, indeed, made changes in becoming a more religiously tolerant country but is suggesting further changes the Uzbekistani government can make, such as allowing religious communities to convene even without being registered with the government. Also, the United States has recommended that the government consider adopting “a religious freedom roadmap” that would address expanding religious freedom more systemically through legislative reforms.
Religious freedom in Central Asia has been an especially troublesome topic for decades. Historically a predominately Muslim region, the Central Asian nations have had to deal with Islam, along with other religions practiced, that were generally highly controlled, if not outright forbidden during the Soviet period. Once these nations became independent, establishing a stance on religion became a point of contention because the governments were, and remain, concerned about a rise in religious extremism, as well as a loss in traditional culture. This fear of Islamic extremism throughout the region led to numerous arrests as individuals attempted to practice their faith because they had no way to register openly with their governments.
For example, Kyrgyzstan, an officially secular state, has often acted against minority religious groups, professing fear that they were actually covertly radical groups. Kazakhstan, too, has harbored suspicions of certain Sunni Muslim groups. However, Kazakhstani President Tokayev has been working with the United States to revise laws that could expand religious freedom. Tajikistan also shares in its neighbors’ fears of religious radicalization, and President Emomali Rahmon has put measures in place to curb some religious practices that his government maintains interfere with traditional Tajik culture.
While Uzbekistan still has work to do to achieve full religious freedom, it has made significant steps toward fostering a more religiously inclusive society. President Mirziyoyev’s directives set a strong – and promising – example for the neighboring countries in Central Asia to follow.