Central Asia: Authorities Stiffen Control Over Pilgrimage

Tighter government regulations on pilgrimage to Mecca are causing discontent among Muslims in the Ferghana Valley. While Uzbek and Kyrgyz authorities justify the measures on security grounds, observers say the regulation is fueling official corruption and extortion.

For Muslims, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, is an important religious duty. But local officials have long viewed the journey with suspicion, fearing the influx of inflammatory Islamic radicalism from abroad.

With this year's hajj slated to begin at the end of December, Uzbek and Kyrgyz authorities are moving to regulate the process more tightly. The Saudi government annually allots Uzbekistan a quota of 25,000 pilgrims. However, in 2005 only 4,200 individuals received permits to make the pilgrimage. A decree recently adopted by the administration of Namangan -- a province located in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley -- has restricted pilgrimages to those aged between 40 and 65 years. Other Uzbek provinces are reportedly preparing to implement similar measures.

In Kyrgyzstan, the State Agency for Religious Affairs' allegedly uneven distribution of permits for the 4,500 allotted spaces for the hajj has been a source of discontent between Muslims in the northern and southern parts of the country. Agency Director Jolbors Jorobekov announced on October 10 that residents from southern Kyrgyzstan, where traditional Islamic practices and beliefs are more widespread, would receive 3,500 permits and that residents from the north would take the remaining 1,000.

Hajj-2006, a non-governmental group of pilgrim associations headed by Talaibek Ylayev in northern Kyrgyzstan, has accused the state agency of discrimination and demanded the resignation of Jorobekov.

"Jorobekov shouldn't have divided the country into North and South," said Ylayev at an October 12 press conference in Bishkek. "The prosecutor's office must take up his case."

Muslims in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have also complained that the authorities are clamping down on travel options.

In the past, Uzbek pilgrims were able to travel to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where privately organized transport to Saudi Arabia was available. Now Uzbek Muslims must fly to Saudi Arabia on the state-run Uzbekistan Airways, at prices exceeding $2,000. The average monthly salary in Uzbekistan is a mere $50.

In September, the Kyrgyz government announced that it will not allow privately funded trips to Saudi Arabia. The decision came after more than a hundred pilgrims were stranded near the borders of Saudi Arabia during last year's hajj season, when the Saudi government denied them entry for a lack of visas.

To prevent this scenario, the State Agency for Religious Affairs is now requiring pilgrims to pay a flat rate of $1,700 to arrange for visas, lodging and transportation on the state-run Kyrgyzstan Airways.

Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials say that state control of pilgrimages bolsters order and security, and benefits travelers. But many Muslims view the state's clampdown as an assault on their faith and their rights. In Uzbekistan, some pilgrims quietly complained that officials regulating the hajj are demanding bribes of up to $500 to ensure inclusion on the list of approved pilgrims.

In Kyrgyzstan, Ylayev told journalists that the state agency is amplifying the cost of the journey to Mecca by some $400. "The state agency's requirement of $1,700 is an effort by officials to pocket our money," he said.

While many Muslims are angered, the fear of government reprisals means that few are willing to protest the new measures, especially in Uzbekistan. In recent years, the Uzbek government has arrested and tortured thousands of Muslims who practice their faith outside of the rigorously controlled state-sanctioned religious structures. In Kyrgyzstan, security structures carried out a crackdown on suspected Islamic radicals last summer that resulted in the death of a respected mullah.

Alisher Khamidov is a PhD Candidate at School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Central Asia: Authorities Stiffen Control Over Pilgrimage

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