Central Asia in the Spotlight as Azerbaijan hosts European Games
Sporting event draws attention to religious and human rights abuses
By Jeremy Reynalds, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (firstname.lastname@example.org)
AZERBAIJAN (ANS. JUNE 14, 2015) — In a somewhat geographically and culturally challenging development, the first ever European Games began June 13 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
According to a story in World Watch Monitor, Azerbaijan is more usually identified as a Central Asian country, but the European Union considers it to be in what it calls its “European Neighborhood” – what others in the world would call “our backyard.”
This might be shorthand for “an area close enough to us that what happens there affects our peace and stability.”
Ukraine is another country in the “Neighborhood.”
And even as the Games start, the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe has been given one month to halt its operations in the country.
World Watch Monitor reported that Aidyn Mirzazade, a lawmaker from the Azeri ruling party, said this was because the OSCE has fulfilled all its goals.
However, OSCE has a role to oversee free and fair elections, and parliamentary elections are due in the autumn.
Just days ahead of the Games, on Tuesday the global human rights organization Amnesty International was also ordered to leave Azerbaijan.
Amnesty launched its report, ““Azerbaijan: the Repression Games,” in London on Wednesday, in which it highlighted human rights abuses in the country.
But what about rights to freedom of religion or belief in Azerbaijan, and, more generally, across Central Asia?
World Watch Monitor said the Games and the surrounding publicity offer a reason to take a closer look at the region.
Which countries belong to Central Asia?
Central Asia is generally understood to refer to the geographical region encompassing the five “Stans” formerly belonging to the Soviet Union – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Parts of the neighboring Caucasus region such as Azerbaijan and some areas of Russia are often mentioned in the same breath (although not technically part of Central Asia), due to similarities in cultural, political and religious life.
Why is there pressure on religious practice, and especially on Christians?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago, World Watch Monitor said, the newly established Central Asian nations used Soviet tactics to maintain control. As in Soviet Russia, religious “zealots” were considered a particular threat, and laws were created to ensure all aspects of religious life were closely monitored.
The laws vary and have evolved over time, but the general trend is for a slow, steady increase in pressure to ensure (as governments follow the mantra of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini), that nothing is considered more important than the state.
How pressure is exerted
The pressures on Christians in Central Asia vary from country to country. In some places, Christians face harassment, fines and even imprisonment for very ordinary activities.
This can mean anything from possessing a single religious book or DVD to holding a prayer
meeting at a building not registered with the state as a place of worship – even one’s own home.
Christian charity Open Doors International refers to this type of pressure as “dictatorial paranoia.”
Rolf Zeegers, an analyst for the charity, said “The regimes want to stay in power at any cost. Communism as an ideology is dead. Now it is a simple question of staying in power.”
The respective Presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have each been in power since the early 1990s.
The re-election in March of Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, to a third term (even though the constitution limits Presidents to two terms) was followed in April by a fifth consecutive election victory for Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Both elections were foregone conclusions, World Watch Monitor said, with each victor recording more than 90 per cent of votes.
The World Watch List, Open Doors International’s annual list, which ranks the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult, cites two major persecution “engines” in Central Asia: “dictatorial/totalitarian paranoia” and “Islamic extremism.”
Two more “engines,” “organized corruption” and “tribal antagonism,” are secondary “engines” in some countries.
For information about “engines of persecution,” click here.
Photo captions: 1) Banner art for the European Games. 2) Jeremy Reynalds.
About the writer: Jeremy Reynalds is Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, a freelance writer and also the founder and CEO of Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest emergency homeless shelter, www.joyjunction.org. He has a master’s degree in communication from the University of New Mexico, and a Ph.D. in intercultural education from Biola University in Los Angeles. His newest book is “From Destitute to Ph.D.” Additional details on “From Destitute to Ph.D.” are available at www.myhomelessjourney.com . Reynalds lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, Elma. For more information contact: Jeremy Reynalds at email@example.com.
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