Home » US Religious Freedom Watchdog Recommends Kyrgyzstan for Special Watch List

US Religious Freedom Watchdog Recommends Kyrgyzstan for Special Watch List


On May 1, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report and recommendations, highlighting violations of religious freedom around the world. For the first time, all five Central Asian states are named in the report for violating religious freedoms, underscoring the persistence of the issue in the region.

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal body that monitors the status of freedom of religion abroad in order to make policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress. Each year, USCIRF releases an annual report making these recommendations. Later in the year, the U.S. State Department makes its determination on which countries to list as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which stipulates punitive sanctions – unless, of course, those sanctions are waived. The report also recommends countries to include on a special watch list (SWL), which entails no immediate punishments, but indicates concern. 

In the 2024 report, Kyrgyzstan makes its first ever appearance, with USCIRF recommending Bishkek be added to the special watch list alongside Central Asian neighbors Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The rest of the recommended special watch list includes Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Syria, and Turkey. 

USCIRF once again recommends that Tajikistan and Turkmenistan continue to be designated as CPCs alongside China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The report further urged CPC designations for Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Nigeria, and Vietnam.

When the U.S. State Department last made religious freedom designations, on December 29, 2023, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were labeled as CPCs as recommended in the 2023 report – although both were again granted waivers from punitive sanctions – but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were not include in the special watch list despite USCIRF recommendations that they be added.

It will likely be many months before the State Department makes its designations. Over much of the last decade the designations have tended to be announced in November or December.

Why Is USCIRF Recommending Special Attention on Kyrgyzstan?

As noted above, USCIRF has recommended Kyrgyzstan for the special watch list for the first time. The report notes that this is “based on heightened religious repression by the government of Kyrgyzstan in 2023.” USCIRF writes that in 2023, Kyrgyz authorities “increasingly enforced long-existing restrictive legislation regulating religion.”

The USCIRF report calls out Kyrgyzstan for targeting Muslims “who practice a form of Islam that deviates from the state’s preferred interpretation” as well as non-Muslims, including Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas.

One illustrative case is that of Protestant Christian Aytbek Tynaliyev, who was sentenced in July 2023 to six months in prison for “inciting religious enmity” online. As Forum 18 reported, Tynaliyev was accused of insulting Islam with his critiques of the state’s religious policy but the prosecutor “refused to say how exactly Tynaliyev insulted Islam.” After he was released in September, Tynaliyev was reportedly visited by the same police investigator who had led the May 2023 raid on his home and told “to be careful and not post religious materials or statements on social media.”

Importantly, the USCIRF report stated, “Sources continued to report that members of certain religious groups were reluctant to report religiously based hate crimes for fear of government retaliation or non-response.” This fear may disguise the reality of the problem.

Other issues cited by USCIRF regarding religious freedoms in Kyrgyzstan include a member of parliament proposing a ban on face coverings and long beards in November, and State Committee on National Security Chair Kamchybek Tashiev commenting on those whose religious practices “differ from the traditional Islamic religion practiced by our forefathers,” noting that they “wear different clothes” and “commit acts of religious fanaticism.”

Furthermore, USCIRF noted that the Kyrgyz State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA) introduced a new draft religion law that would “further restrict and securitize peaceful religious practices.” A number of U.N. special rapporteurs in December 2023 wrote to Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov expressing their concern that certain provisions in the draft law “could fail to meet Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under international human rights law.”

Given the track record of recommendations to designations, when it comes to Central Asian states, it seems unlikely at this juncture that Kyrgyzstan will be listed when the U.S. State Department gets around to making its designations. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, it should be noted, were recommended for the special watch list last year and were not listed. That said, the USCIRF report further illuminates a broader trend – witnessed in Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere – in which authorities whose power is populist in nature harken back to a (mostly) imagined past, using the promotion of a specific vision of “tradition” and “culture” in ways that circumscribe people’s contemporary behavior. Ultimately, it’s not about piety; it’s about power. 

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