Bahai News - Gotta Have Faith 9 March 2001

Gotta Have Faith

A religious sect in Uzbekistan preaches spiritual tolerance amid extremism and terrorism.

by Shukhrat Khurramov

photo by Shukrat Khurramov TASHKENT, Uzbekistan--Though in a crowded area next to a popular cafe in the suburbs of the Uzbek capital, few people know what goes on behind the red brick walls of this unique house. There is no sign on the door, only a young, silent doorman named Muzaffar Juraev waiting to escort his guests inside--to a world of prayer, music, and mantras in Uzbek, Russian, Tajik, Persian, and English.

This building--despite the fact that the country is about 80 percent Muslim--is not a mosque, and this is not Islam. It's Baha'i, a religion that has spread over the past few years to all 12 regions of Uzbekistan. There are as many as 25,000 Uzbeks who practice Baha'i, but they make a conscious effort to conceal their numbers to avoid the attention of the authorities--so far, it's a successful endeavor. The Baha'i members are peaceful, calling for racial and religious tolerance in their country.

But Muslims and Orthodox Christians are open about their disapproval of the Baha'i--especially since the sect has drawn many of its converts from among Muslim and Orthodox flocks. Overwhelmingly, Baha'i draws young people who find the peaceful message of the religion's founder, Bahaulla, a welcome protest against traditional religious tinderboxes such as Islam and Orthodoxy.

Muzaffar, 33, and his brother Alisher, 25, have been practicing Baha'i for seven years. A leader of the Baha'i community in the southern Uzbek city of Navoi, Muzaffar recently visited Tashkent to participate in one of the group's annual meetings. A cameraman for the Navoi Region Culture Center, Muzaffar says it took him a long time to "find God." Originally, he was an atheist and participated in the communist youth movement. When the great socialist empire of the Soviet Union collapsed, his beliefs collapsed along with it, and a moral and spiritual crisis pushed him--like many others--to seek something different.

Muzaffar said he was turned off by the strong role of the priest in Orthodox Christianity. But he also said that Islam failed to provide any spiritual sanctuary with its radical, and sometimes extremist sects bent on terrorism and lacking in tolerance. It is for that same reason, he says, that many Uzbek Muslims have abandoned their faith. Frequent militant incursions into Uzbekistan by Islamic extremists from Afghanistan and Tajikistan with purpose of establishing an Islamic religious state in Uzbekistan and destroying the secular government have discredited Islam. Militant religious and political groupings, such as the Islamic Liberation Party (Hisbi-attahrir)--which is currently operating underground--take part in the raids and frighten the people. Baha'i is different, Muzaffar says, and it's not organized to intimidate people. "We have no professional clergy of priests, mullahs, or imams, and no real headquarters, and we elect our leaders on spiritual and democratic basis only," he says.

Rahim Khakikberdiev, a 48-year-old businessman and a former Muslim, came to the Baha'i community a year ago. "Having been Muslim, I learned the Koran and still I had many questions for which I could not find answers. Islam has strict [rules]; it depresses its followers and puts pressure on people," he says.

SHORT AND LONG HISTORY

The Baha'i religion was founded in 19th century Iran by Bahaulla, a Muslim priest who sought to create a universal religion that would unite people of all races, cultures, and religions. Authorities in Iran considered Baha'i to be heresy, and Bahaulla was sentenced to death and executed. Following his death, Baha'i members proclaimed him a saint, considering him to be an equal to Jesus Christ and Mohammed. Today, the religion boasts over six million members in over 190 countries and claims to be an amalgam of various faiths, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

In Uzbekistan, the first Baha'i members appeared in the early 1990s. However, Tatyana Ivanova--a Baha'i leader--says the religion has a much longer history in the country. According to Ivanova, in the beginning of the 1900s, large Baha'i communities existed in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, and they had their own churches, cultural centers, and educational institutions. In Tashkent, the Baha'i "Unity" printing house issued prayer books and its own newsletter called "Solidarity." But the October 1917 revolution and Stalinist repression led to the termination of all religions in Uzbekistan, including Baha'i. Many of its members were persecuted and forced to flee the country. The community's rebirth, she says, is a direct result of the collapse of Soviet Union and the gaining of independence for Uzbekistan in 1991. Officially, Baha'i was registered as an Uzbek religion in 1992.

Baha'i followers are generally active in their religion, making frequent pilgrimages to India, where the largest Baha'i temple is located, and implementing numerous social projects at home. They host concerts and theatrical performances in primary and secondary schools, paying particular attention to projects aimed at discouraging drug abuse and alcoholism.

Ivanova says the religion's members are attracted primarily by the principles of equality between men and women, self-expression during worship, and unwillingness to recognize national and racial superstitions. Like Islam and Orthodoxy, the Baha'i community is multinational, and includes every nationality living in the country: Uzbeks, Russians, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Tatars, and Persians.

Human rights groups have long complained about the restrictions present in the amended Uzbek law on religion that was passed in 1998, as well as about the persecution of certain religious groups. Since then, however, the government has shown a growing tolerance for other religions. The Baha'i community has encountered fewer problems than most non-traditional faiths in Uzbekistan. It faced no problems re-registering after the passage of the amended law, and so far has not had any significant problems with the authorities. The Committee on Religious Affairs has approved the registration of 167 minority religious groups including 32 Russian Orthodox, 23 Baptist, 26 Pentecostal, 10 Seventh-Day Adventist, 47 Korean Christian, 8 Jewish, 5 Baha'i, 2 Jehovah's Witness, and two Hare Krishna. A few of these groups had even failed to meet the strict requirements of at least 100 members per congregation, but the government exempted them. The Word of Faith Pentecostal Church near the capital city lost its registration in 1998 but has since been re-registered.

Still, the Baha'i remain cautious in light of the fact that their members are persecuted in other countries around the world. In the meantime, gaining the sympathy of authorities seems less an uphill battle than persuading religious extremist groups to work toward peace. In a country where religious warfare is the rule of the day, the Baha'i feel that conditions for spiritual tolerance and freedom exist--and they are hoping that they will be left alone long enough to see their message of religious tolerance manifest itself in the form of peace for Uzbekistan.


Shukhrat Kurramov is a freelance correspondent based in Uzbekistan and a regular TOL contributor.


©Copyright 2001, Transitions Online (Uzbekistan)

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