Uzbekistan: Religion Law Under Review


Date:  September 2, 2020

By Elizabeth Kendal

Uzbekistan's repressive Religion Law is currently under review. The law - which has its roots in the Soviet era - was adopted in 1998 during the rule of Islam Karimov. A ruthless autocrat, Karimov ruled over the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic from 1989, before being elected as the first president of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991. Karimov administered Uzbekistan as a Soviet-style police state wherein suffocating repression was enforced by a brutal security apparatus. When Karimov died in September 2016, the Supreme Assembly appointed Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev as Acting President. In December 2016 Mirziyoyev was elected as Uzbekistan's second President. Since then, President Mirziyoyev (63) has been leading Uzbekistan on a path of transformative political and economic reform. His desire to engage and trade with both East and West requires religious liberty to be addressed.

On 19 August 2020 a draft new Religion Law was made available for 'public discussion' on the parliamentary website, which also gave notice that the Law had reached the Oliy Majlis (Legislative Assembly). In June 2020 President Mirziyoyev issued a decree outlining a 'Road Map' for human rights, giving 1 October 2020 as the date for a new Religion Law. But as Forum 18 explains, the decree does not say whether 1 October is the deadline for the draft or for parliamentary approval. Sadly, the draft is deeply disappointing. Virtually all the oppressive measures integral to the 1998 law are retained in the 2020 draft. Despite enshrining the principle of separation of religion and state, the draft law perpetuates the state's repressive interference in religion. All religious activity outside state-approved, registered organisations and without permission from the authorities, remains 'illegal'. Article 11 bans 'any forms of missionary activity and proselytism capable of destroying inter-religious accord and religious tolerance in society'. Religious education and the importation of religious literature remain enmeshed in crippling regulations and vulnerable to repressive, arbitrary prohibitions and confiscations.

Abduvohid Yakubov, an independent rights defender from Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, laments the lack of progress. 'The State must not be afraid of giving full religious freedoms,' he told Forum 18. In saying this, Yakubov has touched on the very thing that makes religious freedom in Uzbekistan so fraught: the state is afraid, very afraid, and not without reason! After Uzbekistan declared independence in 1991, Islam literally flooded into the largely Russified and secular state, filling the spiritual void left by decades of enforced, atheistic communism. Funded mostly by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, mosques sprang up everywhere, Islamist missionaries poured in, and Qurans arrived by the tonne. Before long, Uzbekistan was simmering with revolutionary and jihadist, pro-Caliphate, pro-Sharia fundamentalist Islam. Though millions of ethnic Russians, Germans, Koreans and other non-Uzbeks have since left, God has raised-up an authentically Uzbek Church, comprised mostly of Muslim-background new believers. So yes, the government is afraid. But the government is not alone! Not all Uzbeks are happy about their nation's Islamisation. Despite identifying as Muslims, they enjoy their modern lives and are excited by Uzbekistan's new openness and growing prosperity.

Currently the Religion Law exists to enable the government to retain control and maintain order: i.e. if radicalised Muslims are going to riot at the sight of a church, then the church must go! Instead, the law's purpose should be to protect the fundamental human rights of every human being; in which case religious totalitarianism, intolerance and violence must go! Though Uzbekistan is no longer part of the long-dead Soviet Union, the Soviet spirit remains embedded in Uzbekistan. For many in government and the security sector, violent repression is the default position. Changing this will require a profound transformation in culture by way of visionary leadership and extensive education which holds out the prospect of a new and better way to live.


* intervene in Uzbekistan, to restore the freedom that once existed before the arrival of Islam, when Uzbekistan's Silk Road cities welcomed Christian (Assyrian) missionaries, as well as peoples and trade from East and West; may the Lord God be jealous for this land! (Joel 2:18-29)

* 'send out labourers' into Uzbekistan's dangerous yet fertile fields, for the sake of Uzbekistan's persecuted Church and her 'harassed and helpless' masses; may the Spirit of our merciful and gracious God blow through that land. (Jonah 4:10-11; and Matthew 9:35-38)

* use as his instruments President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov and Senator Sodiq Safoyev as they navigate the delicate and treacherous path to freedom and openness; may the Lord grant them vision, clarity, conviction, authority and plenty of support. May they be a collective 'Cyrus' (Isaiah 45:1-13).

'Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit; let the earth cause them both to sprout; I the Lord have created it' (Isaiah 45:8 ESV).

* protect and preserve his precious persecuted Church in Uzbekistan; may he grant her leaders wisdom, grace and endurance as they lead the Lord's people through testing times; may their eyes be fixed on Jesus always. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

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