BISHKEK (TCA) — Some lawmakers in Kyrgyzstan have proposed to force employers in the predominantly Muslim, but officially secular, country to allow employees extended lunch breaks to attend Friday prayers, the main worship service for Muslims, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.
The initiative comes three years after an abortive bill to reshape the work week from its current Monday-Friday to Sunday-Thursday, also in keeping with the practice in many states with Muslim majorities.
The latest debate accompanies years of broader discussion on the role of Islam in Kyrgyzstan, where the authorities have expressed alarm over the dangers of radical Islam but tended to look the other way as illegal practices like bridenapping and polygamy continue.
All state and private employees would have the right to be absent between 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to attend Friday Prayers under the newly proposed changes to the Labor Code.
Supporters of the Friday lunch-hour extension argue that it simply defends the rights of employees, while critics insist religious norms should not steer labor practices in a secular country.
“It’s only one hour a day, once a week, or the equivalent of two calendar days a year,” says lawmaker Tazabek Ikramov, who supports the changes and adds that “many lawmakers support it.”
He argues that “people are attending mosque prayers anyway, and it would continue that way even if we didn’t change the law.”
About three-quarters of Kyrgyzstan’s nearly 6 million people are Muslims.
Deputy Mufti of Kyrgyzstan Akimzhan Ergeshev welcomed the bill, saying it would spare practicing Muslims from “having to break rules.”
“Currently, our religious people have to break laws, facing warnings at work, and losing jobs and money to practice their faith,” Ergeshev told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service.
Not everyone welcomes the proposal, including some practicing Muslims among the opponents of the bill. “I am a Muslim and I follow and respect Islamic religious rituals, but I think it’s wrong to cut short working hours because of prayers,” Bishkek-based journalist Bayana Kulova says.
Kulova suggests that practicing Muslims perform Friday Prayers in their offices instead. “Many workplaces have special rooms for prayers,” she says. “Especially lawmakers each have their own offices, so they can pray there if they wish to pray.”
Lawyer Nurdin Asanov warns that the bill might set an awkward precedent. “What if representatives of other faiths demand changes to the law to accommodate their religious norms, too?” he says. “After all, we have followers of the Orthodox Church and Catholics, and then Muslims are divided into Sunnis and Shi’a, and all have their different rules.”
Parliament has not yet scheduled a date for the debate.