RELIGION IN KYRGYZSTAN

RELIGION IN KYRGYZSTAN

Religions: Muslim 75 percent, Russian Orthodox 20 percent, other 5 percent. Most Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of law. Shamanism and tribal religions still exert a strong influence in Kyrgyzstan. The Russian population is largely Russian Orthodox. [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Kyrgyz consider themselves Sunni Muslim but do not have strong ties to Islam. They celebrate the Islamic holidays but do not follow daily Islamic practices. Many areas were not converted to Islam until the eighteenth century, and even then it was by the mystical Sufi branch, who integrated local shamanistic practices with their religion. Ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are primarily Muslims. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians tend to be Orthodox Christians. [Source: everyculture.com]

Islam is the main religion in both urban and rural areas. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities. Other religious groups include Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, charismatics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Bahais. There are approximately 11,000 Protestant Christians. Some Russians belong to several Protestant denominations. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

Traditionally, the Kyrgyz have been very tolerant of other religions. Muslim Kyrgyz also engage in shamanist practices. They often pray to the mountains, sun and rivers more often than they bow towards Mecca and finger talisman under their clothes as much as they visit mosques. Most shaman have traditionally been women. They still play an important role in funerals, memorial, and other ceremonies and rituals.

Christians and Jews in Kyrgyzstan

Russian Orthodox make 20 percent, The Russian population is largely Russian Orthodox. Christian groups include ing Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, charismatics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics. There are approximately 11,000 Protestant Christians. Some Russians belong to several Protestant denominations. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

Most of the Russian population professes Russian Orthodoxy. In the post-Soviet era, some Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary activity has taken place, but proselytization has been discouraged officially and unofficially. A “black list” of harmful sects includes the Seventh Day Adventists, Ba’hai Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

There were only 25 Russian Orthodox churches in Kyrgyzstan during the Soviet period. In the 2000s the there were 40 churches and 200 praying houses of different Christian confessions. There is one Christian Higher Educational Establishment and and 16 Christian spiritual educational institutions.

There are now at least 50,000 evangelical Christians in Kyrgyzstan, Christian groups say, the majority of them converts from Islam like himself — although the government disputes that figure. [Source: Martin Vennard, BBC, January 19, 2010]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ Approximately 1,500 Jews lived in the country. The law does not specifically prohibit espousing or printing anti-Semitic views. In 2011 the prosecutor general announced prosecutors would prosecute media outlets that published articles inciting national, racial, religious, or interregional strife under the criminal code. There were no reports of anti-Semitic comments in the mainstream media during the year. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kyrgyzstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State \*\]

Shamanism in Kyrgyzstan

Many Muslim Kyrgyz also engage in shamanist practices. They often pray to the mountains, sun and rivers more often than they bow towards Mecca and finger talisman under their clothes as much as they visit mosques. Most shaman have traditionally been women. They still play an important role in funerals, memorial, and other ceremonies and rituals.

Alongside Islam the Kyrgyz tribes also practiced totemism, the recognition of spiritual kinship with a particular type of animal. Under this belief system, which predated their contact with Islam, Kyrgyz tribes adopted reindeer, camels, snakes, owls, and bears as objects of worship. The sun, moon, and stars also played an important religious role. The strong dependence of the nomads on the forces of nature reinforced such connections and fostered belief in shamanism (the power of tribal healers and magicians with mystical connections to the spirit world) and black magic as well. Traces of such beliefs remain in the religious practice of many of today's Kyrgyz. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the past, the Kyrgyz people relied on shamans as healers. Some theorize that the manaschis (bards that recited historical epics) were originally shamanistic and that the Manas epic is derived from calling on ancestor spirits for help. There are still professional shamans, called bakshe, and usually there are elders who know and practice shamanistic rituals for families and friends. The Islamic mullah is called for marriages, circumcisions, and burials. [Source: everyculture.com]

Holy Places and Spirit Houses

Both graves and natural springs are holy places to the Kyrgyz people. Cemeteries stand out on hilltops, and graves are marked with elaborate buildings made of mud, brick, or wrought iron. Visitors say prayers and mark the graves of holy people or martyrs with small pieces of cloth tied to the surrounding bushes. Natural springs that come from mountainsides are honored in the same fashion. [Source: everyculture.com]

Cemeteries are filled with mazar, homes for spirits of deceased loved ones. Some look like miniature Spanish mission churches. According to one Kyrgyz belief death is the only time that a nomad settles down and a nice permanent home must be built for their spirit. You can also find tombs that look like yurt frames, for those want to remain on the move, and crescents that evoke both a Communist sickle and a Muslim moon.

In the old days, the spirit houses were built mostly of mud brick. It was believed that the dead lived there and watched over their descendants until the structures eroded and they were freed. Now many of the spirit houses are built of real brick, the idea being that since the Kyrgyz now live in permanent homes the want their spirits to live in permanent homes too.

Superstitions in Kyrgyzstan

It is bad luck in Kyrgyzstan to: 1) to meet the woman with empty bucket. (especially in the morning); 2) to shake your hands dry after washing them; 3) If a black cat runs across your path; 4) to lay "lepeshka" (round bread) upside down or on the ground, even if it is in a bag; 5) To ask someone about time and distance to a destination. (they believe it may cause unexpected problems in the road); 6) To come back home for something you have left there. You can return, but look at a mirror and everything will be ok. [Source: fantasticasia.net ~~]

Kyrgyzstan say: 1) to watch a sunrise often, or to get up with the sunrise is good luck; 2)

to watch a bird sitting near your window brings news or letters; 3) Do not kill a spider, it brings guests to your house; 4) do not sit at the corner of a table/desk, you will not get married ever or will get bad wife/husband; 5) Do not clean table with paper, you will never get married ever; 6)

Never hit anybody with a broom, you won't be lucky; 7) do not use a broken mirror; 8) do not whistle in the house, especially at night. It brings evil spirits and you'll be broke. 9) Do not give a knife and a clock as a gift.

Kyrgyzstan also say: 1) If your ears are burning, it means somebody is talking about you; 2) If your nose is itching, someone will invite you for a drink; 3) If your palm is itching, you will get money soon. 4) Do not sweep the house 3 days after your relatives left for a long jorney, otherwise they will never come back. 5) If knife fall down on the floor wait a man coming soon at your house, if spoon or fork wait a woman. 6) Do not get light a cigarette from a candle. 7) When a person returns home (such as after a war, service in the army, or being in hospital), before he/she enters the house, the person should take a cup of water and circle it over his/her mouth. The person should then spit into the cup. You should leave the cup outside. It means you leave all bad things and bad spirits outside, and not in the house.

Kyrgyz say you gain more enemies: 1) If you sweep the house at night; 2) If you wipe a knife with bread; 3) If you leave a broom standing against the wall; and 4) If you step over a lying gun or man. They say it is a sin: 1) To leave your food on the table untouched; 2) To eat food while standing; 3) To treat any food scornfully.

Regarding babies Kyrgyz say: 1) Do not let a baby look at the mirror, she/he will have bad dreams; 2) Do not leave baby's clothes outside at night; 3) Never say good words about a baby, the evil spirits may be attracted by them and may harm the baby.

A talisman, or a charm, was also believed to protect the child from evil spirits. Talismans could be in the form of a tip of a yak’s tail, or one from a newly born colt, which was stitched into the child's clothing. Later on, when Kyrgyz tribes converted to Islam, they started using a scroll with a Sura taken from the Koran, which was given in an amulet in the shape of a triangle – called a tumar. Sometimes the parents would put a bracelet on their child’s leg, or an earring in one ear, assuming that evil spirits fear metallic things. Bracelets made of black beads were put on a child’s wrist. A black bead in an earring was also believed to act as a protecting amulet. Even today these amulets can be seen on children.

Religion and the State in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is a secular and democratic country. The Constitution clearly stated that all citizens can practice the religion in which they were born or chose at their own will or not practice any. Religion has not played an especially large role in the politics of Kyrgyzstan, although more traditional elements of society urged that the Muslim heritage of the country be acknowledged in the preamble to the 1993 constitution. That document mandates a secular state, forbidding the intrusion of any ideology or religion in the conduct of state business. As in other parts of Central Asia, non-Central Asians have been concerned about the potential of a fundamentalist Islamic revolution that would emulate Iran and Afghanistan by bringing Islam directly into the making of state policy, to the detriment of the non-Islamic population. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Because of sensitivity about the economic consequences of a continued outflow of Russians, President Akayev has taken particular pains to reassure the non-Kyrgyz that no Islamic revolution threatens. Akayev has paid public visits to Bishkek's main Russian Orthodox church and directed 1 million rubles from the state treasury toward that faith's church-building fund. He has also appropriated funds and other support for a German cultural center. The state officially recognizes Orthodox Christmas (but not Easter) as a holiday, while also noting two Muslim feast days, Oroz ait (which ends Ramadan) and Kurban ait (June 13, the Day of Remembrance), and Muslim New Year, which falls on the vernal equinox.

The Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Kyrgyz Republic, commonly known as the “muftiate,” was the highest Islamic administrative body in the country and was responsible for overseeing all Islamic entities, including institutes, madrassahs, and mosques. According to the constitution the muftiate is an independent entity, but in practice the government exerted influence over the office, including the mufti selection process. The Islamic University, which is affiliated with the muftiate, continued to oversee the work of all Islamic schools, including madrassahs, with the stated aim of developing a standardized curriculum and curbing the spread of religious teaching deemed extremist. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

Control over the activities of religious organizations and religious educational institutions are exercised in accordance with the Law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations". adopted in 2009, and by State Commission for Religious Affairs. Religious organizations are allowed to act in Kyrgyzstan. The law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations in Kyrgyz Republic” restricts the activity of religious organizations: the minimal number of members needed to register a religious community is 200. Missionary work is also restrained. There are religious educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan, mainly Muslim and Christian. Today there are 10 Muslim and 1 Christian Higher Educational Establishments, also 62 Muslim and 16 Christian spiritual educational institutions. [Source: advantour.com]

Religious Laws in Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyzstan constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion, the right to practice or not practice a religion, and the right to refuse to express one’s religious and other views. The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously-based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion is prohibited. The religion law affirms that all religions and religious groups are equal. However, it prohibits the involvement of minors in organizations, “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another (proselytism),” and “illegal missionary activity.”

The religion law also requires all religious groups, including schools, to register with the State Commission for Religious Affairs (SCRA). The SCRA is responsible for promoting religious tolerance, protecting freedom of conscience, and overseeing laws on religion. The SCRA can deny or postpone the certification of a particular religious group if it deems the proposed activities of that group are not religious in character. Unregistered religious groups are prohibited from actions such as renting space and holding religious services, although many hold regular services without government interference.

Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of an institutional meeting, and a list of founding members to the SCRA for review. The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration of a religious group if it does not comply with the law or is considered a threat to national security, social stability, interethnic and interdenominational harmony, public order, health, or morality. Denied applicants may reapply or may appeal to the courts. The registration process with the SCRA is often cumbersome, taking anywhere from a month to several years to complete. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately.

If approved, a religious group may choose to complete the registration process with the Ministry of Justice. Registration is required in order to obtain status as a legal entity and for the group to own property, open bank accounts, and otherwise engage in contractual activities. If a religious group engages in a commercial activity, it is required to pay taxes. Normally religious groups are exempt from taxes.

Laws Regulating Missionary Work and Islamic Extremism

According to the law, missionary activity may only be conducted by individuals representing registered religious organizations. Once the foreign missionary’s registration is approved by the SCRA, the missionary must apply for a visa with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Visas are valid for up to one year and a missionary is allowed to work three consecutive years in the country. All religious foreign entities, including missionaries, must operate within these restrictions and must register annually. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

The law gives the SCRA authority to ban religious groups as long as it delivers written notice to the group indicating that they are not acting in accordance with the law and if a judge issues a decision, on the basis of the SCRA’s request, to ban the group. Authorities maintained bans on fifteen “religiously-oriented” groups, including Al-Qaida, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkistan, the Kurdish Peoples’ Congress, the Organization for the Release of Eastern Turkistan, Hizb utl-Tahrir (HT), the Union of Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Party of Turkistan, the Unification (Mun San Men) Church, Takfir Jihadist, Jaysh al-Mahdi, Jund al-Khilafah, Ansarullah, Akromiya, and the Church of Scientology.

According to the law, religious groups are prohibited from “involvement in organizational activities aimed at inciting ethnic, racial, or religious hatred.” This law is often applied to groups the government labels as extremist. While the law provides for the right of religious groups to produce, import, export, and distribute religious literature and materials in accordance with established procedures, all religious literature and materials are subject to examination by state “experts.” There is no specific procedure for hiring or evaluating these experts, and they are typically employees of the SCRA or religious scholars with whom the agency contracts. The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature and materials in public locations or in visits to individual households, schools, and other institutions.

The law requires individuals who wish to undertake alternative service as conscientious objectors to make monetary contributions to a special account belonging to the Ministry of Defense (MOD). The penalty for evasion of compulsory military service is 25,000 som ($426) and/or community service. The religion law allows public schools to offer religion courses which discuss the history and character of religions as long as the subject of such teaching is not religious and does not promote any particular religion. In November the president and the National Defense Council issued a Concept on Religion – part of which calls on the Ministry of Education to develop a formalized method of teaching religion and the history of world religions in schools.

Kyrgyzstan’s Tight Grip on Religion

Martin Vennard of the BBC wrote: “Bolot, a young evangelical preacher in Kyrgyzstan, says he has already been arrested twice since setting up a new church. He says he is the victim of a new law on religion, which critics say severely restricts religious freedoms and is forcing some groups underground. Under the law, new religious groups have to have at least 200 members before they can register with the authorities and operate legally - previously the figure was 10. "In our church we don't have official registration because we have only 25 people, and we are banned from trying to convert people. We have lots of problems with the government," Bolot says. [Source: Martin Vennard, BBC, January 19, 2010 */*]

“He says the police have been several times to his church, which is based in a house in the capital, Bishkek. Bolot, which is not his real name, says he fears further such visits. "They asked me to stop the church because it's against the law. Of course, it's not comfortable but we will keep going." How can I bring my moral values to my children if I cannot involve them in our religious activity? He says the authorities passed the law because they want to prevent Muslims converting to Christianity. He adds that the government also feels threatened by radical Muslim groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, whose goal is to bring all Muslim countries together as a single state, ruled by Islamic law. */*

“Muslim extremists, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have been blamed for carrying out attacks last year in southern Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Muslims and Christians are affected by government policy, says Kadyr Malikov He says the government wants to prevent religious groups meeting in unofficial venues by restricting where religious material can be bought and used. "Citizens and religious organisations have the right to purchase and use religious literature only in places of divine service and in specialised department stores," he says, citing the law. */*

“Muslim scholar Kadyr Malikov says the law and the government's stance on religion is affecting Muslims as well as Christians, particularly smaller groups. "This law makes it difficult, first of all for Islamic movements and the Muslim community to open new mosques and madrassas. This creates difficult relations between the secular government and the Muslim community," he says. Mr Malikov says the government sees any Muslim who steps outside officially recognised Islam as dangerous. "The people in government can't separate traditional or peaceful Islam from extremists," he says at his office in Bishkek. */*

“Mr Malikov says this view has adversely affected the education of some girls. "In some schools they prohibit girls who wear the hijab from going to school. In the constitution everybody has the right to education." Many of Kyrgyzstan's remaining ethnic Russians are Orthodox Christians. The government has decided to broadcast television programmes by their priests and authorised Muslim preachers, as a way of showing what it says are the correct religious paths. It is also introducing religious education in schools. */*

“But Mr Malikov says the authorities need to deal with Kyrgyzstan's economic problems and corruption, in places such as the judiciary, in order to turn people away from radicalisation. "If people don't find justice in secular laws they turn to Sharia laws, which give big guarantees of justice." Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan was previously known in the region for its relatively liberal laws regarding religion. The head of the government's commission on religion, Kanibek Osmonaliyev, says that led to an influx of what he calls religious sects, trying to convert and recruit Kyrgyz citizens. "People asked us to take measures because they were worried their families would be broken up by these groups," he says "We haven't reduced religious freedoms, we are just trying to bring some order to these organisations." */*

“He also denies the government has inadvertently created the conditions for radical groups to thrive, by failing to tackle corruption and improve the economy. He says people may be drawn to religion when faced by difficulties, but not to radical groups. "People are drawn to prayer, to a Protestant God, an Orthodox God, or Islamic God, but not Hizb ut-Tahrir," he said. Mr Osmonaliyev adds that Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned and does not enjoy widespread support. He says the government is taking strong measures to prevent further attacks by militants. “ */*

Repression of Religion in Kyrgyzstan

The government continued to enforce significant restrictions on the registration of religious organizations and missionaries, such as the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the Church of Scientology, and groups or individuals it considered threats to security. Human rights activists and attorneys noted an increase in arrests of Muslims for possessing banned religious materials. In September a court ruled sections of the religion law unconstitutional, changing registration requirements for organizations with fewer than 200 members. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

Members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and small Muslim groups, spoke to lawyers and human rights defenders about abuse and discrimination by the police and in the workplace.

The government prohibited religious groups and clergy from interfering in the activities of government institutions. Members of law enforcement and security services actively enforced restrictions on religious freedom while investigating alleged religious extremism. The government also enforced strict registration requirements for religious groups. The government ascribed “extremist agendas” to some groups, including politically active Muslim groups whose members it labeled “Wahhabists.”

On April 30, 2014 the SCRA banned the Church of Scientology for distributing religious materials in unlicensed areas. On March 14, the Pervomaisky District Court of Bishkek ruled to ban the Akromiya religious movement, stating that it was an extremist organization.

There were 2,575 officially registered religious groups and educational establishments. According to the Open Viewpoint Foundation, a central-Asian based nongovernmental organization (NGO), and Freedom House, the SCRA frequently refused to inform religious groups about why it denied their registration or reregistration.

Repression of Christian Groups in Kyrgyzstan

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the country, Bishop Feodosy, left Bishkek in July after numerous inspections from the SCRA during the first half of the year. Eventually, the SCRA refused to extend his term of residence in Kyrgyzstan, saying that he submitted registration documents after the deadline. Feodosy was replaced by a new head and no further problems were reported. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor]

In October 2014 a court in Osh acquitted Oksana Koriankina and her mother, Nadezhda Sergienko, two Jehovah’s Witnesses under house arrest since April 2013 on charges of defrauding three elderly women of their life savings. In his decision, the judge noted that the prosecutor unfairly referred to Jehovah’s Witness as a “sect.” In November the prosecutor appealed the trial court’s decision. The two women were forbidden from leaving the city of Osh until the court heard the prosecutor’s appeal, scheduled for January 2015.

On September 4, the Constitutional Chamber ruled that a section of the religion law, requiring a group have 200 adult citizen members before a registration application could be approved, was unconstitutional. Prior to this ruling, authorities repeatedly denied registration of Jehovah’s Witness groups in Osh, Naryn, Jalal-Abad, and Batken on grounds that the local city councils refused to approve the list of founding members. This requirement for 200 adult citizen members reportedly was also used by the SCRA. The Jehovah’s Witnesses rebuilt their place of worship in Toktogul, which was burned down in May 2012 by unidentified individuals.

The government prosecuted some conscientious objectors who refused military service and who also refused to make monetary contributions to the MOD; however, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were acquitted as a result of the November 2013 Supreme Court ruling that allowed them to perform alternative military service, including civic activities. According to this ruling, cases previously filed against Jehovah’s Witnesses for failure to perform military service would be dismissed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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