Freedom of Religion or Belief in Central Asia

The Freedom of Religion or Belief in Central Asia Project is part of NHC’s larger Human Rights in Central Asia program, and focuses in particular on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

We cooperate closely with the Oslo Center for Peace and Human RightsForum 18, and the Stefanus Alliance in Norway, as well as with local human rights organsations like Open Viewpointin Kyrgyzstan.

Freedom of Religion or Belief is a basic human right, as are the closely interlinked Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Assembly and Freedom of Association. Freedom of Religion is protected in Article 18 of the ICCPR, and one of the few human rights that are not subject to derogation under any circumstances. Whereas the manifestation of this belief can be limited given certain criteria, any person has the freedom to believe or not to believe, and to change ones belief without interference by authorities.

This fundamental principle is under strong pressure in Central Asia today, as strict legislation creates obstacles for ordinary activities for the believers; derogatory terminology is common in media and public; and many believers are subject to administrative punishments or even criminal prosecution. On a societal level there is a strong perceived link between ethnicity and belief, and wishes to change one’s faith is frowned upon in society and even culminates in violence in certain cases, as for example regarding burial of converts in Kyrgyzstan.

The NHC Freedom of Religion or Belief in Central Asia program focuses on four main pillars:

– Dialogue meetings with decision-makers;

– Conferences/seminars in the region and abroad;

– Observation, monitoring and networking as basis for reports and campaigns;

– Advocacy.

As a result of the program, the report “Broken Promises: Freedom of Religion or Belief Issues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan” was launched in connection with Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in the OSCE in 2010. The launch provided a rare discussion platform for believers, civil society representatives and state actors in Kazakhstan. Dialogue meetings on high level and meetings with believers have continued in Kazakhstan, and in 2012 we also started this work in Kyrgyzstan, along with monitoring in Tajikistan.

In summer 2013, we co-organised a two-week seminar on Freedom of Religion or Belief with our Kyrgyzstani partners Open Viewpoint, where representatives of religious communities, civil society and law-enforcement and regulation authorities attended lectures and discussions. This cooperation also resulted in an updated report on “Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Kyrgyz Republic – an overview”, written by the Open Viewpoint with support from several donors, including the NHC. Read more about the seminar here.

As a result of the dialogue meetings in Kyrgyzstan, a delegation of Kyrgyzstani bureaucrats from the President’s Office and the State Commission on Religious Affairs came to Norway in mid-October 2013 on a study visit supported by NORAD. Over four days they visited several Norwegian institutions focusing on religion, minority questions and security. A follow-up visit is planned to take place with law-makers in Kyrgyzstan in spring 2014.

An updated version of the Freedom of Religion or Belief report for Central Asia will be launched in spring of 2014, towards the end of this three year program which we hope will receive continued support from 2014 onwards from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.