‘Your Dead Will Not Be Buried’
Some believers are being denied even the most basic rites. From Forum 18. by Mushfig Bayram 18 March 2009
The National Security Service (NSS) secret police and the head of the local mahalla
(town district) have obstructed the burial of an elderly Muslim, Zhumabai Smetullaev, who had died in the town of Khodjeli, close to Nukus in the Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic of northwestern Uzbekistan. A source who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from the authorities said that this was to punish the man's widow, Aksulu Smetullaeva, and their son, Polat, for their Protestant Christian affiliation. The two are the only Christians in their family. Mahalla
officials admitted that Smetullaev's burial had been obstructed but denied that the initiative came from them. One official who asked not to be identified said the decision had come from the NSS secret police, but Forum 18 was unable to reach any official at the town NSS.
Sources said that pressure on the family and people in the mahalla
from the Khodjeli authorities continues, even though Smetullaev has now been buried. "Today [16 March] Aksulu's neighbors were summoned to the NSS and warned that if anyone helps the family organize the traditional 40th and 100th day ceremonies after the burial they will be liable under the Criminal Code," a source said. Aksakals,
respected community elders, who helped with the burial have also been summoned to the NSS. Officials go from home to home warning people that whoever accepts Christianity will be punished. They were reported as telling people, "Your dead will not be buried." The local residents are in shock, sources said.
In Central Asian culture, participation by perhaps 50 or more local residents is an important element in burials and subsequent commemoration of the dead. Families who cannot attract such community participation are seen as social outcasts.
A source said that when 67-year-old Smetullaev died of a heart attack on 11 March, the family wished to bury him in the town cemetery. "The authorities tried to prevent the burial at first by not allowing any imam to conduct the funeral procession," the source said.
When some aksakals
from the district of the town where the family lives decided to go ahead with Smetullaev's burial, the authorities did not interfere. However, they allowed his burial only "just outside the cemetery" on 13 March. "The authorities treated the deceased Smetullaev not as human." The authorities "want to showcase" in Khodjeli that whoever accepts Christianity
will be punished, the source complained.
ORDERS FROM NOWHERE
In the wake of Smetullaev's death, four local officials came to the family home on 11 March. They identified themselves as the town's head imam, the deputy head imam, the head of the mahalla
committee and an NSS secret police officer. They told the family that it was forbidden for them to hold the traditional funeral ceremony, Forum 18 was told. The officials warned people in the area that if any imam conducts the funeral "then he will have to deal with the NSS," said the source. Also, the officials forbade allocating a plot in the town cemetery for the burial and fixed surveillance at the cemetery so no one could dig a grave.
committees are a key part of Uzbekistan's structures of control and oppression
. The NSS secret police very closely monitor all religious activity.
When Aksulu Smetullaeva went to Khodjeli's main mosque to sort out the problem, Khodjeli's head imam, Urazymbet (last name unknown) demanded that she write a statement saying that she attends "the Isa Masih [Jesus Christ] sect," teaches people Christian doctrines, and holds religious services. "She was also told to indicate their leaders and pastors," the source from Khodjeli said.
The imam told Smetullaeva that it was necessary to send such a statement to the central authorities in Tashkent to get permission for the burial. "The authorities from Tashkent have warned us not to participate in the funeral and not to allow any imams to conduct a funeral either," Urazymbet was reported as telling Smetullaeva. The imam also told her that she needed publicly to renounce her faith in Christ. "Only then would you be allowed to bury the deceased," he was reported as telling her. She did not agree to the conditions and went back to ask the local aksakals
to help with the burial.
Aliko Sultanov, chairman of the district mahalla,
said they are not pressuring the Smetullaevs for their religious beliefs. "The order to prevent the burial did not come from us," he insisted. He referred Forum 18 to Hodjabai, his deputy who oversees the apartment block where the Smetullaevs live – his last name was not given – who happened to be there in the office.
Hodjabai likewise denied allegations that they put pressure on the family. "We are small people. We’re not the ones who command here," he said. "We had warned the family earlier, too, but they did not heed our warnings." Hodjabai refused to explain what the warnings were about.
Another official from Khodjeli, who asked not to be identified, said that the Khodjeli department of the NSS secret police was behind the pressure on the family. The phones at that department went unanswered on 16 March.
An officer at an NSS department in a nearby town, who would not give his name, said he would call Khodjeli and find out what happened. The officer asked Forum 18 to call back later and talk to the department chief. However, the calls later went unanswered.
Attempts to reach Imam Urazymbet were unsuccessful.
Shavkat Shamratov, the deputy hokim
(governor) of Khodjeli, said he would look into the matter, but on calling back later, Forum 18 was referred to another official, Khudoyor Kurbaniyazov. Kurbaniyazov insisted that there should be "no problems" with burial in Khodjeli. "We have six cemeteries, and even one for Christians," he said. He denied that Christians are persecuted in the town. He also denied that any instructions have been received from Tashkent to prevent Christian activity. "I hear about this problem from you for the first time," he insisted. He, too, promised to look into the issue.
Nurulla Zhamolov, chairman of Karakalpakstan's Religious Affairs Committee, also downplayed the issue, insisting that it must have been a misunderstanding. "I will call Khodjeli and sort out the issue. Please call me back in hour," Zhamolov said, but he did not answer subsequent phone calls.
The assistant of Muzaffar Akhmedjanov, an adviser on nationalities and religions to Uzbek President Islam Karimov, initially agreed to talk to Forum 18 but later referred a reporter to Uzbekistan's state Religious Affairs Committee.
As has been the custom of the Religious Affairs Committee in Tashkent, the official who answered the phone told Forum 18 that they do not give interviews over the phone. Informed that Forum 18 was referred to them by the presidential adviser, he hung up.
The Smetullaev family has already faced pressure. In the middle of February, police and NSS secret police officers had raided their home without a search warrant. They found and seized a personal Bible that belonged to Polat Smetullaev, who is 39 years old and has been an invalid since early childhood. "The Bible was a source of hope in his life," the source said. "The officers put moral and psychological pressure on the family."
Protestants from Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan, said they face similar problems burying their dead. "The authorities don’t allow family members of deceased Christians to bury them according to local traditions," one Protestant said. "We will bury a Christian woman today on our own. The community is forbidden to participate or render any material help." However, in this case the authorities are not preventing the Protestants from burying the dead in a cemetery, Forum 18 was told.