Tajik boy wearing a kufi. Photo courtesy of babasteve.

On August 6, 2011, Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, signed the Parental Responsibility Law into effect, banning children under the age of eighteen from attending religious services or events except funerals. Enforcement began on August 31, the last day of Ramadan, and police stopped individuals under the age of eighteen from entering mosques to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. So far, the law has only been enforced against Muslims, who make up 90% of Tajikistan’s population. The Tajik government adopted the Parental Responsibility Law in conjunction with an amendment to the Criminal Code created to punish organizers of “extremist religious” teaching. According to Suhaili Hodirou, a spokesperson for the Tajik government’s Office of Human Rights, “When people reach 18 they can decide which religion to follow. Religious activity is only banned up to the age of 18 – beyond that they have full rights.” Tajik officials say these restrictions will create a safer environment for children who are vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups; however, the provisions violate the freedom of worship provided in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As a party to the ICCPR, Tajikistan is bound to protect the very rights that its new law violates, including the right to freedom of religion, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to engage in cultural activities.

The new laws restricting religious freedom in Tajikistan come during government movement to eliminate unsanctioned religious teaching, which the government suggests leads to violent extremism. The President introduced the new laws after the Tajikistan Defense Minister released a report showing increased juvenile violent crime rates in 2010. In August 2010, President Rahmon made a public announcement to Tajik parents warning them that their “children will become extremists and terrorists” if they do not bring them home from Islamic colleges abroad. At that time, 2,000 Tajik students were officially registered to study at religious schools in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan. During 2011, government authorities shut down mosques throughout Tajikistan’s capital, arrested individuals in their homes for teaching unapproved schools of Muslim thought, and forced religious groups to pay for heavy censoring of published literature.

Article 8 of the new Parental Responsibility Law states, “Parents are obliged…not to let children-teenagers participate in the activity of religious organizations.” The only children exempt from this law are those who are enrolled in state-sanctioned religious schools. While the Tajik government’s laws violate multiple articles in both the ICCPR and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, one of the most notable violations is of Article 18 of the ICCPR. Article 18 provides for freedom of “thought, conscience, and religion” and is one of seven non-derogable rights identified in the ICCPR. Because the rights outlined in Article 18 are non-derogable, Tajikistan cannot, except under very limited circumstances, infringe on these rights. Although the Parental Responsibility Law does not prevent individuals from self-identifying as Muslim or from practicing Islam as an adult, it does violate the Article 18 right for any individual to “manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.” Article 18 also requires that countries “respect the liberty of parents…to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” The Parental Responsibility Law prevents parents from exercising the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Paragraph 3 of Article 18 lists exceptions to the freedom to manifest one’s religion in worship if such restriction is necessary to protect the public interest. However, General Comment 22, which informs Article 18, specifies that these restrictions should be interpreted narrowly: they may never derogate from Article 18’s “fundamental character” but may restrain the freedom to manifest religious beliefs if the limitations proceed from a need to protect other rights guaranteed in the ICCPR. Permissible limitations must meet the specific purpose for which the restriction is implemented, be directly related and proportionate to the need it is meant to fill, and may not be “applied in a discriminatory manner” or be based on principles that derive exclusively from a “single tradition.”

If, as President Rahmon says, the Parental Responsibility Law is necessary to prevent religious extremism and terrorism in Tajikistan, a restriction on the manifestation of religious practice would need to be directly related and proportionate to the possibility of individuals becoming terrorists through religious practice in Tajikistan. Because the Criminal Code does not specify the meaning of “extremist religious” teaching and the new law restricts most children from attending all religious activities, the statute is neither directly related nor proportionate. The Parental Responsibility Law is also being implemented in a discriminatory manner because, thus far, it has only been enforced against Muslims. The right to freedom of religion is non-derogable under the ICCPR, and the Parental Responsibility Law does not meet the Comment’s stringent test to allow for limitation on the manifestation of religious practice.