Kyrgyzstan Protestants say local imams hamper Christian burials: Rights group

(Photo: Ecumenical News / Peter Kenny)Women chat in front of a mosque in Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abad Region on July 4, 2007.

Kyrgyzstan's government is failing to ensure people may bury their dead with the religious ceremonies and in the cemeteries they would wish, says a Norwegian human rights organization.

Protestants, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have all long complained that the authorities have not resolved this problem, noted Forum 18 on June 6.

This "greatly distresses the families and friends of the dead. But they are frequently afraid to raise this problem, for fear of reprisals aided by State indifference," said the press release.

The Kyrgyz government has generally permitted a broad range of religious practices, but all religious organizations must register with the authorities, a process that is often cumbersome and arbitrary, says the advocacy organization Freedom House.

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Forum 18 said authorities seemed unwilling to comment on the rights of religious group burials for non-Muslims and local imams appear to hold control of deciding who can be buried with Christian ceremonies.

Some 75 percent of Kyrgyzstan's 5.6 million people are believed to be Muslims while 20 percent are Russian Orthodox Christians in the country that was once part of the Soviet Union.

The most recent publicly documentable failures by the authorities to ensure people may exercise their rights concern Protestants says Forum 18 which covers religious freedom especially in areas of the former Soviet Union and in central Asia.

LOCAL IMAMS 'INTERFERE'

The local imams in two Jalal-Abad Region villages, in the south-west of Kyrgyzstan, interfered in the conduct of funerals.

"In one case an imam blocked the burial of a Protestant woman and forced her grieving husband to convert to Islam to get her buried" Forum 18 reported.

The rights organization said authorities appeared content to allow local imams to control who is buried in State-owned cemeteries not owned by religious communities.

Complaining to local authorities about the violations is "useless", Pastor Kapar Yusup uuly, who was stopped from participating in his brother's funeral, told Forum 18.

He insisted that the authorities could resolve some problems by giving land plots in nearby towns for such burials.

In January in the villages of Oktyabr and Zherge-Tal, in Suzak District of the north-western Jalal-Abad Region, local imams interfered in the conduct of funerals.

In Oktabyr the imam barred the burial of a Protestant woman in the village cemetery, and in Zherge-Tal the imam stopped a Protestant pastor from participating in the funeral of his Muslim brother.

Forum 18 noted that in Kyrgyz culture it is extremely important that a brother take a central part in the funeral of a sibling (see below).

Later in 2014, in another region of Kyrgyzstan which relatives do not wish to be named for fear of reprisals, the authorities failed to intervene when a local imam refused for three days to allow the burial of a deceased Protestant woman in a village cemetery.

The imam permitted the burial to go ahead only after the woman's Protestant husband was forced to publicly renounce his Christian faith and declare that he is a Muslim, a family member and local Protestants who attended the funeral told Forum 18.

The family member said that the other reason the imam allowed the burial to go ahead was that he was coming under pressure from villagers to allow the burial.

However, friends and neighbours were afraid to identify the woman as a Christian as a further reason why the imam should not either interfere in the family's burial of their relative, or forcibly convert the grieving husband.

Jumagul Egamberdiyeva, the central government's Jalal-Abad Representative, refused to comment on the cases, said Forum 18.

She would not state what measures will be taken to both punish those who prevented people from exercising their rights, and to ensure people will be able to exercise their rights in future.

Abdulla Kambarov, the Division's chief specialist on social issues told forum 18, "I don't think anyone's rights were violated. Christians should be buried in a Christian cemetery and Muslims in a Muslim cemetery."

However, asked whether cemeteries belong to village civil authorities and not to religious communities, and therefore belong to every citizen from the village, Kambarov replied "Yes."

(Photo: Ecumenical News / Peter Kenny)The entrance to the city of Jalal-Abad in south-western Kyrgyzstan photographed on July 3, 2007.
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