Tajikistan shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan, where a surge in Islamist activity is feared as the number of U.S. troops drops significantly in just a few weeks from now. This threat can provide a pretext to President Emomali Rahmon to get tougher with religious groups.
The former Soviet nation of Tajikistan is a Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern, as per the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This designation refers to those governments that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom – violations that are “systematic, ongoing, and egregious.”
Conditions for religious groups, including and especially evangelical Christians, might deteriorate even further as the drawdown of U.S. troops falls from 66,000 to 34,000 in Afghanistan in February possibly leading to a major Taliban push to retake power.
After 2014, the American presence in Afghanistan is expected to further come down to about 6,000-10,000 U.S. trainers and counterterrorism forces, assisted by about 5,000 partner forces performing similar missions.
“There are fears that the Taliban and other insurgents will achieve success against Afghan forces once the international force is reduced substantially by late 2014,” acknowledged a Jan. 17 U.S. Congressional report, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy.”
After the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was reduced from 100,000 in June 2011 to about 66,000 by September 2012, consequences were evident. The civilian casualty toll there increased by 23 percent in the first six months of 2013, according to the U.N.
Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for April 5, but with President Hamid Karzai barred from running for a third term as per the nation’s constitution and no successor in sight, one doesn’t know what to expect after a new government is in place. While efforts are on to encourage the Taliban to participate in the elections, the insurgent group has thus far remained determined to obstruct the polls.
Tajikistan, which fears that the anticipated resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan will likely promote Islamic militancy within and around its territories, has already started preparing to fight the threat militarily. Russia, which protects the Tajik-Afghan border, is also reportedly increasing its military support to the Tajik army.
For Islamist extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Tajikistan has been a fertile ground for recruitment thanks to its large ill-educated, unemployed population. Therefore, the reaction of President Rahmon’s government in Dushanbe, which has long been using the threat of Islamic militancy as a pretext to impose severe restrictions on religious groups, is not difficult to predict.
Restrictions have existed in the nation, but they appear to be constantly growing.
Following its independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan witnessed a civil war waged by liberal democratic reformists and Islamists between 1992 and 1997, which resulted in the death of over 100,000 people.
Rahmon, a former Soviet Communist Party official, has been the nation’s president since 1992. Like his counterparts elsewhere in the Central Asian region, he is seen as an authoritarian ruler, and as one who refuses to recognize citizens’ basic human rights in the garb of protecting national security and social stability.
In 2003, Rahmon had a referendum in favour of allowing him to run for two consecutive seven-year terms beginning with the 2006 elections. He won the elections in November 2006, which were neither free nor fare according to the international observers, and began tightening religious restrictions. His government banned the Ehyo Church and the Abundant Life Christian Centre in Dushanbe in 2007.
In 2009, the Rahmon government enacted a highly restrictive religion law, misnamed as “The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.”
Under the law, unregistered religious activity and private religious education are banned, and so is proselytism. Religious instructions can be provided only after state permission, and children must have a written permission from both parents to receive instruction that has been approved by the state.
The legislation also states that religious literature can be imported only after the government has approved its content and quantity. Religious groups importing literature need to pay the government for checking its content. And religious groups cannot invite foreigner without prior approval from the government.
The penalties under the law range between a prison term up to 12 years and heavy fines to the tune of US $1,600.
In July 2012, the government introduced new penalties for receiving religious education abroad, preaching and teaching religious doctrines, establishing connections with foreign religious organizations, or conducting activities not listed in a group’s registration charter, according to the USCIRF.
In 2011, the government enacted the “Parental Responsibility Law,” which prohibits almost all religious activity, including attendance at worship service, by children. The law also restricts parents from choosing certain names for their children.
The country’s criminal code also penalizes extremist, terrorist, or revolutionary activities even if they do not involve violence or incitement to imminent violence. And the code doesn’t define what extremism is, leaving it open for the authorities to use their own discretion.
Of Tajikistan’s population of about 7 million, roughly 6.6 million are Muslim, mostly Sunni from the Hanafi school of Islam. There are about 74,000 Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox, and around 7,000 evangelicals, according to Operation World.
While the government maintains tight control over all religious groups and their activities, it views Christianity, especially the evangelical faith, as a foreign or Western religion that is not compatible with the nation’s culture.
Tajikistan has reasons for concern about the threat of Islamic militancy due to the forthcoming pullout of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. For example, the nation’s authorities detained 118 members of alleged terrorist and extremist groups in 2013, media quoted Deputy Interior Minister Abdurakhmon Buzmakov as saying earlier this month – though we do not know on what basis these arrests were made.
The perception of the threat, however, does not justify restrictions or a crackdown on religious practise by its people. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to which Tajikistan is party, states, “OSCE participating States have committed themselves to non-discrimination on the issue of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, Religion, or Belief for all within their territory, without distinction as to race, gender, language or religion.”
International organizations and human rights groups need to watch and address these serious developments in Tajikistan.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.