Disappearing Places of Worship
Tajik authorities are employing ban-and-bulldoze tactics against all three “Peoples of the Book.” by Forum 18 9 October 2008
Members of Tajikistan’s Jewish community and several Protestant churches are denying Tajik official claims to have followed proper procedures in demolishing religious buildings or suppressing religious organizations.
Tajik officials told the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s annual human-rights conference in Warsaw that an alternative site has been offered to Dushanbe's ancient Jewish community to compensate it for the demolition of their synagogue in June.
The Jews of Dushanbe worshipped at this modest synagogue. Photo by Zvi Lerman.
However, Tajik Chief Rabbi Mikhail Abdurakhmanov expressed surprise at the claims. He told Forum 18 that no alternative site has been offered.
In a statement, the Tajik delegation to the convention, which runs until 10 October, said the synagogue was bulldozed solely in connection with the redevelopment plan for the city of Dushanbe. It stressed that the decision had been taken on the basis of a court order and claimed that an alternative plot of land "has been provided" for rebuilding.
The authorities had long been planning to demolish the synagogue, the only one in Tajikistan. "In 2004 the authorities made a decision to allocate us a new plot of land," Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 on 8 October, "but they never did." An April 2008 court decision clearly spelled out that the community was to be evicted from the synagogue without any compensation in land or funds.
"Maybe the authorities will allocate us a plot of land," Abdurakhmanov said, "but it is of no use at the moment since we do not have any funds to build a building." With nowhere to meet, the community has met not for worship since they were forced out of the building, he added.
CHURCH, MOSQUES DEMOLISHED
Religious organizations – as well as other organizations and private individuals – have little security of property ownership in Tajikistan. A Protestant church near the site of the demolished synagogue, Nani Hayat (Bread of Life), was demolished by the city in August.
Church members told Forum 18 on 7 October that they still have not received the promised compensation. They said an official appraisal by the mayor’s office put the building’s value at about $112,000.
Dushanbe city authorities also demolished several unregistered mosques in September 2007 because they did not have approval from the Justice Ministry and "spoiled the architecture of the city."
Payam Foroughi, a staff member for human-rights issues at the OSCE’s Tajik office, told Forum 18 in August that the organization was concerned about the ongoing property disputes between residents and organizations (religious or otherwise) and local governments in Tajikistan, much of it taking place in recent years in Dushanbe.
"Among the issues of concern has been the lack of transparency in the process of forced evictions, confiscations, and destruction of properties," Foroughi said.
Foroughi complained that Dushanbe's general plan, which appears to be the basis for many such decisions to confiscate and demolish property, "has not been fully revealed to individuals [although it] advocates defending the citizenry. … It is also unfortunate that in nearly all cases where the city government has offered alternative property to residents, the value of such properties has been far less than that of the homes confiscated."
Foroughi said that in the cases of the synagogue and of a Protestant church threatened with loss of its property Grace Sunmin Church, the rule of law and OSCE commitments should be followed. "If the city of Dushanbe truly needs the said compounds for its civic and public plans, it should compensate the said religious groups accordingly," he said. "Sheer confiscation and destruction of property, if done outside of national and international laws and with undue cause, would be contrary to the OSCE commitments of Tajikistan."
DEATH THROES OF A TEMPLE
Jews have lived in the present-day territory of Tajikistan for perhaps two thousand years. The one or two hundred that remain are mostly Ashkenazi Jews resettled during and after World War II. The synagogue in Dushanbe was the last one in Tajikistan. At the time of the synagogue’s demolition, Abdurakhmanov told Forum 18 News Service that all community activity had been forced to a halt.
"We do not have a place to hold our worship," he said on 24 June. "We also have no place to feed the elderly and the poor."
In recent years, the synagogue had also served as a community center, from where many elderly believers were assisted with their daily needs, Foroughi of the OSCE pointed out.
The synagogue was situated near the site where a new presidential palace is being built. The first demolition notice was handed out in 2003. In February 2006 the authorities began demolishing the synagogue. The mikvah (ritual bathhouse), classroom and kosher butchery were demolished before an outcry brought the destruction to a temporary halt.
BANNED, BLOCKED, AND HASSLED
Tajik authorities have been working on a new religion law, which many fear will restrict citizens' right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. The Jehovah's Witnesses and two Protestant organizations – Ehyo Church and the Abundant Life Christian Center – were all banned in late 2007.
Denials by the Tajik official delegation to the OSCE human rights conference that the three congregations had been banned have been contradicted by those communities.
Ehyo church members told Forum 18 on 8 October that they have been prevented from openly functioning since the beginning of 2008, even though the authorities have refused to put this in writing.
The situation with Abundant Life Christian Center, however, is very different. Shaukat Dusmatov of the organization told Forum 18 that the founders had already decided May to halt their activity altogether.
"We were asked to change so many points in our charter that it made it impossible for us to function as we intended to," he complained.
A Dushanbe court confirmed the Culture Ministry's ban on the Jehovah's Witnesses on 29 September.
"They are not allowed to function in Tajikistan, period," Nazira Dodkhudoeva of the Culture Ministry's religious affairs department told Forum 18 on 8 October. "This is because the organization violated Tajikistan's laws many times."