Recent legislation to tackle religious extremism in Kyrgystan is a pretext for targetting Evangelicals and religious minorities. State propaganda has created popular hostility towards non-Muslims. Tackling this situation requires inclusive rhetoric from local leaders and the curbing of anti-westernism.
With the birth of Kyrgyz independence, ex-Soviet authorities promised to maintain a democratic course. In the years since, however, anti-evangelical propaganda from some Islamic leaders has been consistently prevalent in the Kyrgyz mass media. This has created negative attitudes among ordinary citizens towards so called "sects," the term by which Kyrgyz leaders label Evangelicals and other religious minorities in Kyrgyzstan. Consequently, the government started to restrict freedoms under the banner of a struggle against religious extremism by issuing and revising existing religious laws.
These new restrictive laws often allowed for targetting of peaceful religious activity and communities. The result has been growing criticism of the government under President Kurmanbek Bakiyev since 2005 for backtracking on political freedoms. According to a recent report of the U.S. State Department, Kyrgyzstan has generally respected religious freedom, but there is evidence of government harassment and refusal to register some Christian churches. This statement was made prior to the new restrictive law, which is awaiting the President's signature.
The law has appeared in the context of attacks by Islamic groups on the government in southern Kyrgyzstan, but eventually it turned out to be targeting Evangelicals too. However, despite the fact that "religious communities and human rights defenders have frequently complained about the secrecy surrounding the various proposed texts of the Law, and the absence of meaningful public consultation," as reported by religious freedom advocates Forum 18, no serious political action by the Evangelicals themselves or international organizations has been initiated. Therefore, the law has successfully passed two stages of voting in the Kyrgyz Parliament, in spite of the fact that it openly breaches Kyrgyzstan's international human rights commitments.
Under the influence of continuing propaganda against converts, Muslims in southern Kyrgyzstan attempted several times to attack converts in their churches and their homes. In June 2006, humanrights.kz reported that "officials of the State's Committee on Religious Affairs showed Zhakipov (a Kyrgyz Pastor) a letter signed by 500 Muslims from Jalal-Abad, demanding that the authorities close the church since its members are preaching among Muslims." According to an independent news agency based in the U. S., "Muslim militants warned believers that continued prayer and worship services will result in their homes being torched. Rights watchers have suggested that secret police and authorities are also involved in intimidating Christians and other religious minorities."
The state's interference in the religious life of Kyrgyz citizens has increased during the last five years. For example, the head of a Protestant seminary was expelled from Kyrgyzstan for refusing the demands of the secret police "to show them confidential files on individual students." According to some Central Asian Muslims, changing of faith has to be punished and proselytes are seen as having lost their national identity. In addition, ex-Soviet Kyrgyz officials tend to interpret freedom of choice of religion and proselytism in their own way. The Director of the State's Agency for Religious Affairs considers the changing of faith as "abnormal" and has complained about the "illegal" activity of "various destructive, totalitarian groups, and reactionary sects."
According to my interviewees, in spite of the repression of basic human freedoms, the World Bank, U.N. and the A.D.B. are continuing to feed the Kyrgyz regime with billions of dollars of "financial support to the country." This non-imposed, non-effective financial support is raising anti-western sentiment among the Kyrgyz, whose children will have to pay for the debt. "We didn't ask these organizations for financial support, maybe they are in deal with our corrupted authorities," said a university worker whom I interviewed recently and whose monthly salary was still about $50. One older woman said "If they had not received so much money from the world organizations, they wouldn't have gotten into power and now be persecuting various believers. Indeed, in the very beginning, when they were poor, many people had more freedom of choice and the repressive authorities had no power to restrict them from learning the Truth on their own".
The current attitude towards religious pluralism must be confronted by public figures within Kyrgyzstan. Local Kyrgyz leaders need to substitute the current totalitarian metaphors of nation building -"one language, one nationality, one religion-" for a more inclusive model of "unity in diversity." In a similar effort, the Russian Orthodox Church and Islamic authorities should learn to respect the choices of proselytes and bring an end to the public blackmail of non-Muslims.
Askarbek Mambetaliev is the Director of the International Education Department at Arabaev KSU, Kyrgyzstan. He is currently a visiting scholar at New York University. His most recent research focuses on anti-westernism in Kyrgyzstan.