This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey, PakistanSri Lanka, and Vietnam.

Aimurat Khayburahmanov, a Christian Uzbekistani, was arrested in 2008 for holding prayer meetings in his home, in violation of Uzbekistan’s oppressive laws forbidding religious gatherings held outside of registered churches and worship sites. He was charged with participation in an “extremist” religious group, and faced up to 15 years imprisonment.

Khayburahmanov was jailed for three months, and later questioned by the authorities. They pressured him to sign a statement saying that he would neither meet with other Christians nor possess Christian literature. This gross violation of Khayburahmanov’s rights is just one example of the persecution that has long been carried out in Uzbekistan.

The former Soviet state of Uzbekistan exists in a region of the globe that elicits much political attention, and yet, Uzbekistan itself is far from the minds of most Americans. The nation’s powerful executive branch ensures that public policy reflects the personal interests of the president, with disastrous consequences to religious liberty. Though Uzbekistan has moved towards reform in recent years, the religious liberty of its citizens is still dangerously restricted.

Religious Groups Under Pressure

An estimated 2 percent of Uzbekistanis are Christians, including Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. As such a small minority, they are extremely vulnerable to pressure from the government. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities face intense social pressure to refrain from evangelism, thus preventing them from expanding their faith communities.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly targeted, as their religious beliefs prohibit them from fulfilling Uzbekistan’s compulsory military service requirement. Several have been arrested and sentenced to prison because of their beliefs in recent decades, although authorities seem to be relaxing their policy for conscientious objectors. Nonetheless, Jehovah’s Witnesses are only allowed to gather in one congregation, in one city. All other assemblies are considered unlawful.

Road to Religious Recognition

Nascent religious groups face an upward fight in pushing for recognition by the government. Though the government and the state are officially secular, and all faiths are equal under the law, individuals are prohibited from gathering for religious reasons if their faith community is not registered. This affects thousands of Uzbekistanis. Shia Muslims, which make up 1 percent of Uzbekistan’s population, are not officially recognized and have no sanctioned mosque to meet in. The same is true for several protestant denominations and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who struggle to find an accessible place to practice their faith.

Christ reminds us in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” This verse holds equally true today, reminding us that Christians thrive in a faith community where they can worship and pray together. The importance of corporate worship is not lost on Muslims and Jews, who strongly desire to express their faiths in in mosques and synagogues, and who also fall victim to Uzbekistan’s restrictive policies.

Restrictions on Muslims

Although Uzbekistanis are predominantly Muslim, with more than three-quarters of the country’s population following Islam, the secular government has nonetheless adopted and enforced policies that are negatively impactful to devout Muslims. Women are forbidden from wearing the hijab publicly, and Muslim men are not allowed to grow their beards long as is their religious custom. Though these laws are not frequently enforced, their presence “on the books” is a source of concern.

One imam who petitioned the new regime to overturn this longstanding rule was fired from his job in 2018, as a direct result of his opposition to the status quo. Eight Muslim bloggers who criticized Uzbekistan’s oppressive policies and called for a less secularized society were imprisoned for their views that same year.

Improving Imperfection?

Uzbekistan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” or as a country on the “Special Watch List” by the U.S. State Department since 2006, but recent developments have moved the country in a positive direction. Following the death of longtime autocrat President Slam Karimov in 2016, the new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has taken steps toward liberalizing the nation’s oppressive policies. A government blacklist that included 17,000 names of “religious extremists” was reduced to about 1,000 names. Though the government raided more than 350 unregistered places of worship in 2017-18, no raids were reported in 2019, indicating a shift away from strict enforcement of the more extreme policies.

In December 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Uzbekistan would be removed from the Special Watch List of countries that threaten religious liberties. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Uzbekistan be added back onto the list.

Though the U.S. State Department lauded the “real progress” made by Uzbekistan in addressing their religious freedom violations, there is much work to be done before the situation there is resolved, and freedom is guaranteed to all believers.

Tyler Watt is an intern with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department. Ben Householder is an intern in State and Local Affairs with FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.