Religious Freedom in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and Jehovah’s Witnesses
By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers
HRWF (11.01.2023) – The three post-Soviet Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan do not grant full religious liberty to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Tajikistan, they have been officially banned since 2007, although the United Nations Human Rights Committee concluded in 2022 that the ban is unlawful. Tajikistan and Russia are the only two post-Soviet countries that have actually banned Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, their activities are severely limited. This paper traces the roots of these attitudes back to both the Soviet heritage and the strongly negative Muslim attitude towards conversion from Islam to other faiths. It also notes that some improvements have occurred in recent years, after Jehovah’s Witnesses took cases from the three countries to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, and the United States criticized the lack of religious liberty there. (Volume 7, Issue I, January – February 2023, pp 56-71)
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Since the independence of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the expectations of democratization and opening to the human rights culture have progressively evaporated. Two main elements have contributed to this trend.
The three countries were former Soviet Republics where atheism was for about 70 years the official ideology and where religions were merely tolerated in the last decade of existence of the USSR, especially when they could be instrumentalized for foreign political purposes.
This underlying anti-religious culture still exists in their respective parliaments and governments, as well as among the law enforcement administrations and agents, especially concerning religious groups of foreign origin. Such groups are a source of suspicion as they are perceived as a possible threat to the national identity and traditions. The main instrument of repression is anchored in the denial of state registration which automatically makes impossible the exercise of the right to freedom of association, assembly, expression as well as the right to conscientious objection.
These three countries have an overwhelming majority of Muslims: 90 to 96%. In Muslim culture, it is unacceptable to change one’s religious beliefs even if it is not forbidden by law. Therefore, domestic missionary activities by non-Muslim religions are perceived by the population as a threat to their social belonging and their national identity. That is the reason why converts to Jehovah’s Witnesses mainly have a Russian Orthodox background.
However, despite the rigidities of the culture in Uzbekistan, a ray of hope exists. Presidential amnesties have been used several times to release Jehovah’s Witnesses without losing face. At this stage, only one of them remains in prison in Tajikistan while there were many more in the last three decades in Central Asia. It means those countries are not deaf to the complaints coming from the international community. The ongoing, legal and diplomatic advocacy of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Central Asia needs to be supported because any of their legal gains will be beneficial to all religions in the region.