On March 26, the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomalii Rahmon, signed several legislative acts which had already been passed by both chambers of the Tajik Parliament. Among them was a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Association. The Law stipulates certain restrictions on the registration of small religious communities; it allows for state censorship of religious literature and for a number of other restrictions, such as prohibiting prayer in hospitals and prisons without special permission from the authorities. Tajikistan already banned the activity of certain Protestant missionary organizations (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses), as well as the wearing of hijabs in schools and universities.
Out of the population of Tajikistan, amounting to 7 million, 95% profess Sunni Islam of the Hanafi School, 3% are of the Ismaili School, and 2% are representatives of other confessions, including Christianity. In total, 85 different confessions are registered in Tajikistan. The new law allocates a “special role” to the Hanafi School, while it does not even mention the 250,000 Muslims of the Ismaili school, living mainly in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province. At the same time, the Law imposes a ban on the Salafi religious movement in Tajikistan.
The Law was signed by the President despite a number of concerns raised by experts, public and religious figures and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Experts claim that the law restricts the freedom of religious organization in the country, while the executive authorities justify the law by pointing out the fact that Tajikistan is a secular state according to the Constitution.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has criticized it as highly restrictive: “The law will legalize restrictive policies already applied by the Tajik Government against its majority Muslim population, including the banning of hundreds of mosques and limiting religious education of children. Furthermore, the law will impose state censorship on religious literature, restrict the conduct of religious rites to officially-approved places of worship, and allow the state to control the activities of religious associations”, says the statement of the USCIRF, released on March 20. Akbar Turajonzoda, a member of the Upper House of the Parliament, says: “This Law contradicts the Constitution of Tajikistan and international norms. We use the word “secular” a lot, but we can see that other secular states do not restrict activities of religious organizations.”
Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, the head of the political council of the Islamic Revival Party, also criticized the Law: “it will be fairer to say that the new Law is not about freedom of conscience, but about restrictions on freedom”. Members of the Protestant community also emphasize the severe restrictions on the registration of non-Muslim religious organizations. The members of the Protestant and other small religious communities are mostly concerned with the restriction imposed on religious literature. The new law will allow the authorities to decide on the quantity of religious literature produced and imported, which raises the question of how the appropriateness of quantity is to be determined.
Nevertheless, as the news agency Asia-Plus reported, the Lower House of the Parliament passed the draft of the new Law “without any essential debates”. The authorities claim that the law aims to restrict only the extreme and illegal religious radicalism. Asia-Plus quoted Minister of Culture Mirzoshokhrukh Asrori, one of the co-authors of the draft: “Religious radicalism, nihilism and some Islamic movements are foreign to our people and make the adoption of the new Law necessary”.
On March 30, despite the fact that the Law was already passed by both Chambers of the Parliament and signed by the President, the President’s Executive Office organized a roundtable meeting to discuss the new law on freedom of conscience and religious associations which caused so many concerns. The roundtable, titled “Mass media and the law on freedom of conscience and religious associations”, brought together journalists, representatives of the Ministry of Culture, the Center for Islamic Studies and of different religious organizations. Speeches by the Minister of Culture and other high officials triggered a heated debate among the participants.In sum, there are a number of restrictions on free religious denomination in the new Law on the Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations which contradict international norms. The new law threatens the existence of various small religious communities and it was adopted without broad consultations with representatives of civil society and religious associations. Furthermore, an alternative draft of the law, proposed by the Islamic Revival Party and which is considered more liberal and less restrictive by experts, was not taken into consideration. The roundtable, aiming to discuss the law with representatives of different religious organizations and the media, was organized after the adoption of the law. The law will come into force soon after its official publication.