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Uzbek justice minister explains religious freedom

Uzbek Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov explains religious freedom
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Discussion about religious freedom in Uzbekistan at the National Press Club, Washington DC, 25 July, 2018.

Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. The participants, this briefing. It's a great pleasure to be here, and I want to talk a little bit about the religious affairs that Uzbekistan is facing, that the changes in this fear. And indeed, the window of changes that we're witnessing at the moment has touched the religious fear, and the relations between state and the people on these matters. And the changes of course, they're characterized as positive, and liberalization. And as many experts acknowledge, Uzbekistan has always been a favorite place for any kind of religions, and all kinds of various religions.

They coexisted in peace and in harmony, and the social hostilities or disagreements involving religion is almost nonexistent. Actually you can witness different kinds of praying, houses, churches, mosques, or synagogues on one street in Uzbekistan, and there is no problem with that. And having said this, we have to admit the challenges that we faced in the years of independence. This is international terrorism infiltrating various radical and extremist religious ideas, and nobody now can say that the danger at that time was not eminent. And many know that what we went through to preserve peace and stability in Uzbekistan and in central Asia region as a whole.

And the fight against the serious threats inevitably affected the lives of people, and it affected the religious matters as well. Freedom, practices, of course there is always a cost when you talk about the security. And as a result, we faced issues with due process with drop of confidence, or people in state organizations. Unlawful interrogation matters, et cetera. So new leadership has started openly addressing these kinds of issues. Started openly talking to people about these matters. The president himself, it was his initiative to raise these kind of issues about torture in detention centers.

And it wasn't just wars, he started to introduce new measure, including serious steps to make Independent judiciary, we introduced video surveillance systems in detention centers, and then any kind of interrogations now should be video recorded, and several acts we passed to ease the way the [inaudible 00:03:08] operate. And we adopted new laws on public control, on administrative procedure, and fight against corruption. So these already practical steps that are being taken.

Uzbekistan's new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties. The treaties, they love some kind of restriction in religious matters. Religious rights are not absolute. They are not without boundaries, and international treaties accept that when deemed necessary in a democracy society, when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens, then you can have some kind of restrictions. So Uzbekistan's new policy totally acknowledged this kind of international treaty's requirement.

We also opened our gates for international corporation. For the first time, in light of UN special [inaudible 00:04:17] on religious matters. Even high commissioner for human rights was in Uzbekistan. Very well know [inaudible 00:04:26] human rights organizations, they paid a couple of visits to Uzbekistan. Including human rights watch, amnesty international, et cetera. And now if you like, I'd like to share some change that happened recently. Not just the worst, but the practical steps.

First of all, we created new consultative body. Council of faith, council of faith under the religious affairs state committee. Which consists of the leaders of all 16 religious faiths in Uzbekistan. Including Jehovah witnesses. The new act of president provides for housing assistance for workers of the religious sector. It eases the patient system for the works of the religious sector. And second, we substantially reviewed the way we register the religious organizations. We reduced the registration fee by five times, we cut the documents that are submitted to get registered, and we ease the reporting, so they used to report every quarter to the minister of justice.

Minister of justice is regular to body, and then we had this power to fine religious organizations up to 2,000 US dollars for violating legislation. We voluntarily gave up our own functions as a minister of justice. Now in Uzbekistan there are more than 2,256 religious organizations. 16 religious faiths, including 175 Christian organizations, eight Jewish communities, six [inaudible 00:06:23] communities, Jehovah's witnesses, one Christian society, one Buddhist temple, as well as inter religious bible [inaudible 00:06:32] Uzbekistan.

At the moment we're rewriting the basic law on the religious matters in Uzbekistan. The law on freedom of conscience and the religious organizations. So for the 20 years, no substantial change had been made to this law. So for the first time in 20 years, we are rewriting this law at the moment, and the commissioner is working on matters of decriminalizing the offenses on religious related crimes. Also, the rise of individuals and legal entities to produce, import, and distribute religious materials and textbooks are being secured in this legislation.

But I have to say that we are preserving our right to expertise the contents of the imported religious materials, to see whether they're extremist content or not. One more very important issue is, religious clothing. We're upholding the ban to move around in the public places with face covered completely. This is in line with European experience for security reasons, people cannot cover their faces completely. So this is something that we're at the moment looking at, and easing the way that people wear their religious clothing.

And we had this very bizarre blacklist, when people are pulling this blacklist, and then of course this is not something like official register or something like that, but it did affect on negative side the lives of people and their families. So this was kind of community level blacklist, and 16,000 people we freed, got rid of this list. So they're no longer any kinds of this labeling of people on religious ground. In Uzbekistan we're giving a special attention to development of pilgrimage tourism.

Because of the challenge that we faced, that I told you because of the infiltration of radical ideas, we used to close completely the bottles for tourism, regarding the pilgrimage. Now we canceled the visas for 17 countries. We introduce new electronic visa system, and then we're welcoming the pilgrimage tourism from all over the world. Including Buddha, the Islamic societies, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, et cetera. These are some changes, the formal changes that have been recently administered in Uzbekistan.

But the main changes is in the minds of people. Because people now, they think differently. They act differently. They talk to government bodies. They demand their rights. So this is a total new phenomenon in Uzbekistan, and social media has immense effect even on policy issues, because state and people they are talking through social media, and it is getting very popular. And it is actually affecting policy issues in Uzbekistan. There are participants, I wanna raise one question regarding one of the prohibitions in the religious sector.

That is missionary activity, and [inaudible 00:10:04]. These two acts, they are prohibited under Uzbek' law. So many experts when they come to Uzbekistan, they raise these kind of questions. Say, "You should get rid of this prohibition." But this were principle for Uzbekistan. The inter-ethnic tolerance and harmony, the peace and stability of coexistence of many religions. We look at this prohibition as a central role in providing this kind of security. Providing this kind of peace in Uzbekistan. Because, when you have the missionary activities as you inevitably compare the religions. So it can entail some kind of quarrels, and some kind of comparisons between religions, and it will lead to social tension. It will insight hatred between the religion.

So we are keen to keep this kind of prohibition. And actually, before we came here, we conducted a special public poll on this matter, and 75% of the population of Uzbekistan, they upheld prohibition. So at the moment, this prohibition will stay as a will of Uzbek' people. As a guarantee of providing the security. I wanna conclude that these dramatic changes, the word dramatic because they are really dramatic for the one and a half years we passed more than 1,000 piece of legislation in that space. And we created a massive infrastructure to administer these new laws.

Including 1,000 people at the moment are dealing with issues of dialogue with people. 1,000 people. So they all work for the presidents of administration, and oversee the issues of a dialogue with the nation. We hope these changes create a strong and reliable foundation for guaranteeing freedom of religion, secure civil society, and increase trust in people to the authorities. Thank you very much for your attention. If any questions, I'm ready. Thank you.

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