US says Uzbekistan improving on religious freedoms

TASHKENT (TCA) — The US State Department’s annual report on religious freedom, released on December 11, removed for the first time since 2006 Uzbekistan as a “Country of Particular Concern”. The State Department did, however, include Uzbekistan on a special Watch List, RFE/RL reported.

Washington has issued an annual ranking of countries and their treatment of religious groups annually since the passage of a 1998 law on the issue. Being ranked low, or placed on a watch list, can result in economic sanctions.

Others on the “Country of Particular Concern” blacklist, which singles out “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom,” included China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Uzbekistan, meanwhile, was removed from that designation — for the first time since 2006, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told reporters.

That designation had long irked the governments in Tashkent. Under the late President Islam Karimov, independent religious expression, particularly by devout Muslims who shunned officially sanctioned mosques, was harshly repressed.

Since Karimov’s death in 2016, the Uzbek government under President Shavkhat Mirziyoev has sought to lift many of Karimov’s more repressive policies and attract investment from Western nations.

Several Islamic militant groups have also been designated as “entities of particular concern” since they do not meet the definition of countries.

They include the Al-Nusra front in Syria, Al-Qaeda, the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia’s Al-Shabab, Boko Haram in West Africa, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, the Islamic State and the Taliban.

Sergey Kwan