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US: Terrorism Not an Excuse to Crack Down on Islam in Central Asia - 2003-07-18

At a conference in Vienna, the United States has called on Central Asian countries not to use the war against terrorism as an excuse to repress Islam.

The United States has told an international conference on freedom of religion, sponsored by the the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that some countries are using the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, as an excuse to crack down on Islam.

State Department official Nancy Maisto Hewitt told reporters that some countries are using so-called national security reasons to limit religious freedom.

"We have some special concerns that we raised yesterday, and again in the sessions today, about the Caucasus region and Central Asia," she said. "The concerns there are more fundamental, involving the ability of individuals to freely profess and practice religion or belief, without fear of government harassment or imprisonment. We've observed how the overly aggressive response of some governments to security concerns threatens religious freedom for individuals and groups wishing to peacefully practice their faith."

Ms. Hewitt says this is a particular problem in Uzbekistan, where thousands of people are in prison for allegedly being members of Islamic extremist groups.

But the United States says not all those arrested or convicted are connected with extremism.

The U.S. delegation told the conference that people who pray at mosques five times a day could face imprisonment and even torture by the Uzbek authorities. The United States says other Central Asian governments are copying this kind of religious repression.

U.S. officials told conference delegates that even if there is reason to believe a religious group is funding terrorism, the rights of individuals to worship should not be infringed.

Instead, the U.S. officials say, countries should enact appropriate legal controls on financial institutions to combat money laundering and terrorist financing.

The U.S. delegates say they made some progress on the issue in meetings with their Uzbek counterparts during the two-day conference.