Uzbekistan’s new Religion Law, which was signed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev (pictured) on 5 July and came into force the following day, retains almost all the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief in the existing 1998 Religion Law.
The new law continues to ban all exercise of freedom of religion and belief without state permission, teaching about religion without state permission and sharing beliefs, and it retains the requirement for prior state censorship of all religious materials, whether printed or electronic.
The new law retains the burdensome registration process for religious communities, and while it reduces the number of adult citizens required to apply for permission for a religious community to exist from one hundred founders to fifty, it adds the requirement that all founders live in one city or district.
Forum 18 News Service commented, “The restrictions are maintained in defiance of Uzbekistan’s legally binding international human rights obligations, as noted in recommendations to the country from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the UN Universal Periodic Review, and the UN Human Rights Committee.”
Abduvohid Yakubov, a human rights defender from Tashkent, identified several “critical problematic issues” in the new law, including restrictions on religious education, registration of religious organisations and religious educational institutions, and the powers given to the state Religious Affairs Committee, “which are against the principle of the separation of the State and religion“. He told Forum 18, “No one can express their religious views publicly without the permission of the state. This is gross violation of human rights.”
Uzbekistan has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council since 13 October 2020, but has failed to implement recommendations on its international human rights obligations.
Baptist fined for sharing Christian literature
On 18 January 2021, a Tashkent court fined a local Baptist, Tatyana Akhmadiyeva, two weeks’ average wages for offering 15 Christian magazines to her neighbours at a Christmas celebration in her home. The Judge also ordered the destruction of the magazines, which police had seized in raids on the neighbours’ homes.
“We would like to have the freedom to distribute our spiritual literature openly without being punished, and to meet for worship without being registered or having to ask permission from the regime“, Protestants who did not want to be named for security reasons told Forum 18 in March 2021.
Muslims, who are also severely restricted in Uzbekistan, told Forum 18: “We should be free to teach the Quran to our children and to others without the permission of the government… Muslims should not be punished for reading literature about Islam, or for searching on the internet for literature about Islam. Punishments for this should be totally removed from the law.”
While several churches have been able to register since 2019, others have not and have even had applications lead to reprisals such as police demands that the Christians renounce their faith.
“Nothing has changed,” one Protestant church that has applied for registration told Forum 18 in June 2021. It meets for worship in a building, but is afraid officials could stop this at any moment.
Another Christian told Forum 18 in June that churches which had registration applications refused in 2020 and 2021 “can meet for worship privately and the authorities have left them alone for now” but that “no one can guarantee that this will not change in future, and the communities will not get into trouble with the authorities as in the past“.
“Churches face a lot of bureaucratic obstacles to overcome when collecting registration documents, as it can take several years before the authorities provide the necessary certificates,” another Protestant told Forum 18 in June. “Even when they apply they still may not receive registration.”
Members of a church that applied for registration in late 2019 were called to their local police station a few months later, in 2020. Wishing to remain anonymous for fear of state reprisals, they told Forum 18, “The police asked us why we became Christians and demanded we renounce our faith. This had never happened before, even when we were in previous years fined.” The Christians think “this happened because we asked for registration“.
Members of another church reported that in 2020 “police came to the building and then fined us for exercising freedom of religion and belief without state permission. So now we do not use the building“.
Members of another church said, “We have identified a building but are afraid to use it since we are not registered. So we meet in homes for prayer and Bible study.” They explained that earlier in 2020 “police came to the building and then fined us for exercising freedom of religion and belief without state permission. So now we do not use the building“.
Read more about Christians in Uzbekistan in Church in Chains’ Uzbekistan Country Profile.