TASHKENT, Uzbekistan Uzbekistan's government has officially granted itself sweeping control over religious materials in the central Asian country, in a move that may outlaw the distribution of Bibles.
According to Norway-based religious freedom watch organization Forum 18, Uzbek authorities had long maintained a de facto stranglehold on religious literature, films, recordings, websites and other materials, even without a law specifically authorizing such actions. With a new censorship decree, which came into force Jan. 27, the government now has a legal basis to control the production, distribution and import of all such materials.
The decree bans the distribution of religious materials anywhere except a fixed commercial point of sale with a cash register and it outlaws their importation without state permission. In addition, the decree criminalizes the storage, production or distribution of religious materials that encourage people to change their beliefs or that, in the state's view, "distort" religious canons.
The law adds a new dimension to the stifling of religious freedom in Uzbekistan, which had already outlawed unregistered religious meetings under the 1998 Religion Law.
An independent legal expert from the capital city of Tashkent, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisals, told Forum 18 the new decree gives the State Religious Affairs Committee the right to conduct "unwarranted meddling in the internal affairs of officially registered religious communities."
According to Forum 18, the decree's ban on distributing religious materials outside of fixed sales points seems to prevent religious communities from giving out literature outside their legal addresses. The Tashkent legal expert told Forum 18 that even where religious materials can legally be distributed, the decree allow authorities to hinder such activity.
"This will allow the tax authorities to fully control distribution or sales of religious materials. They will at first force religious communities or believers to buy cash registers and later will systematically carry out control of their [cash register's] serviceability," as well as "control of procurement of religious materials," the legal expert said.
The decree may even prevent the distribution of Bibles; since the Bible encourages people to leave their current belief system and embrace Christ, it seems to run afoul of the law's prohibition against materials that encourage people to change their religious beliefs.
In addition, Forum 18 reported, the law technically makes it impossible to gain approval for the production of religious material. In order to get material approved, an advance copy must be submitted to the Religious Affairs Committee. However, producing a copy of religious literature without prior approval is illegal under the law.
"It is possible for the publisher or producer to be punished by the authorities for the production of an advance copy, especially if the Committee then bans it," the Tashkent legal expert told Forum 18.
The decree appears to legalize the already-frequent confiscation of religious literature by customs authorities and makes it difficult to bring in religious books for personal use. Only three copies of a specific title are permitted, but they must first undergo "expert analysis" by the state authorities.
According to Forum 18, the law seems to specifically target materials brought back from Muslims returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, saying the government will "carry out control of religious materials during mass events of pilgrimage for the purpose of protecting the interests of Uzbekistan's citizens."
The law says that when religious materials are sent to the State Religious Affairs Committee for approval, the committee conducts a theological study of them with the help of experts, specialists and representatives from religious organizations. The committee then writes an opinion on whether the materials "contain deviation from or distortion of religious canons, which is necessary for permission of the production, import or distribution of those materials."
Punishments for illegal activities regarding religious literature already include fines of up to 150 times the minimum monthly wage, with Forum 18 reporting that new punishments probably will be added to enforce the new Decree.
The decree is merely the latest salvo against religious freedom by the Uzbek government, according to Forum 18. In an August 2013 religious freedom survey on Uzbekistan, Forum 18 reported that all exercise of religious freedom or belief with others is illegal without state permission. Further, the government imposes strict limits on access to religious literature, including Bibles and Qurans to be read in private homes. The government also regularly tortures detainees, imposes bans on the religious activity and education of children, conducts trials lacking due legal process.