Tajikistan’s Attack on Religious Freedom: The Plight of the Pamiri Ismaili Community in the Mountains of Gorno-Bakakhshan

Copenhagen, Berlin (11/8 – 42)

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted severe restrictions imposed by the Tajikistani government on religious freedom during a virtual hearing on July 20, 2023. The commission expressed grave concern over the intensified persecution targeting the Pamiri Ismaili Muslim population of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO).

Source: https://www.uscirf.gov/events/hearings/religious-freedom-tajikistan-policy-options-country-particular-concern

A Pattern of Repression

Since 2009, Tajikistan has enacted a complex web of laws to monitor, control, and restrict religious practices. Not only are women and children under 18 prohibited from attending public religious services, but unregistered religious communities are also denied the right to convene legally. Consequently, many are forced to worship in secret, risking their safety.

The USCIRF has recommended the U.S. government to designate Tajikistan as a ‘country of particular concern’ (CPC) since 2012 due to its systematic violations of religious freedom. Although the State Department agreed with this recommendation in 2016, the U.S. government has yet to take any punitive action.

Above in picture: Abraham Cooper, Chair, USCIRF

The Crisis in Gorno-Badakhshan

Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie shed light on the recent spate of persecution focused on GBAO’s Ismaili Shi’a community. Actions from the government include shutting down religious schools, community centers, and bookstores selling Ismaili literature. Moreover, individuals were penalized and fined for holding private prayer sessions, and many were forced to remove images of their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, from their residences.

A distressing case highlighted was that of Ismaili cleric Muzaffar Davlatmirov, who was incarcerated for five years after officiating funeral services for protestors killed by the government.

International Perspective

United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea, who recently visited Tajikistan, shared her findings. Despite meeting several high-level officials and observing religious prisoners, her primary observation was the significant hurdles Tajikistan places in the path of those seeking to practice their faith. The country’s legislation and policies hinder freedom of religion, with an overarching goal to counter extremism and terrorism. However, these laws have led to an overly broad and ambiguous definition of extremist acts and groups, which has had severe consequences for religious freedom in the nation.

Above in picture: UN Special Rapporteur Nazila Ghanea

Ghanea particularly highlighted the Tajik government’s reduction of religious freedom to a mere “individual and private freedom,” severely restricting the public expression and practice of faith. Surveillance and reporting requirements, particularly in places of worship, have caused significant concern among religious communities.

Ghanea concluded that, while the fight against violent extremism is valid, this should not come at the expense of religious freedom. It is a balance that Tajikistan has failed to strike, leading to alarming consequences for its citizens.

Persecution of the Pamiri Ismaili Ethnic Minority

Among the other notable speakers set to discuss this issue were Felix Corley, editor of Form 18 News Service, human rights advocate Bakhtiyor Safarov, and Dr. Edward Lemon, President of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. Bakhtiyor Safarov reported how the Rahmon regime has specifically targeted the religious and civil society freedoms of the Pamiri Ismaili ethnic minority, including in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous region, including prohibiting voluntary lessons for secondary school children based on materials published by the Aga Khan Foundation. This decision comes in tandem with the closing of the Aga Khan Lyceum, a high school dedicated to providing premier education to its attendees.

The U.S. Department of State has designated Tajikistan as a country of particular concern since 2016 for systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom. Since 2009, the government of Tajikistan has passed and enforced a web of laws controlling and restricting religious expression and practice for the country’s majority Sunni Muslim population.

Further restricting the freedom of the Ismaili community, individuals are now barred from traveling to the UK for further education, particularly at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Moreover, the operations of the Ismaili tariqa and religious education board (ITREB) – responsible for overseeing religious education for the Ismaili community – have been suspended.

Safarov reported on growing concerns of discrimination following recent reports that government officials have been inquiring about individuals’ ethnicity, notably distinguishing between Tajik and Pamiri roots. These officials have been conducting door-to-door checks. Further deepening these concerns, the usage of Pamiri languages has been banned in governmental institutions and even in public gatherings.

Such regime actions have sparked concerns of ethnic cleansing involving suppression of the linguistic, cultural, and educational rights of the Pamiri Ismaili ethnic minority.

Despite these alarming internal decisions, the state continues to receive substantial economic support from the international community for institutional building as well as financial aid.

Dr. Edward Lemond described Tajikistan as an authoritarian state with a strong cult of personality surrounding its president. The state views alternative figures of moral authority, such as the Aga Khan, as threats to its power. The Aga Khan Foundation, which supports the Ismaili community, has faced severe restrictions from the government, suggesting an intention to consolidate authoritarian power.

Commissioner Turkel inquired about the source of the hostility of the Rahmon regime towards Pamiri Ismailis in Tajikistan. Bakhytior Safarov identifies the source of hatred as historical, stemming from the Tajik communist -Russian war against Tajik independence groups (often referred to as the Tajik civil war) of 1992-1997. The government wrongfully blames the war on Muslim religious groups and specifically targets the Pamiri community because of its involvement in pro-independence movements. The opposition’s stronghold was in the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous area, leading to a history of tensions and persecutions.

Forum 18’s Felix Corely described how the Rahmon issued a 28 April 2023 presidential decree, which was just after Special Rapporteur Ghanea’s visit, denying the families of those killed in alleged “ anti- terrorism operations,” the possibility of, among other things, burying their dead with the religious or other rights they would have chosen, or even knowing where they are buried. 

Corley sited Pamiri journalist Anora Sarkorova who reported a case when the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) secret police tortured the relative of a protestor killed in May 2022 after the relative put the deceased’ s name on the gravestone.

Corley reported also how on 14 January 2023, Tajik government officials told Pamiri Ismaili village elders at a meeting in Badakhshan’ s regional capital Khorog not to allow prayers in homes and warned that those who take part would be fined. “People met outside the elders’ homes to hear the news, and many were crying,” according to an Ismaili speaking in confidence to Forum 18, adding, “but people are too afraid to protest. They can only pray at home on their own.”

Vice Chair Davie pressed the Safarov why the Rahmon regime has targeted the Aga Khan Development Network by closing of development projects led and funded by the Ismaili Shi’a spiritual leader Aga Khan, and with more closed in just this past month.

Safarov noted that in 1992, the whole GBAO came under an economic blockade imposed by the regime during the civil war, noting that if it had not been for the Aga Khan development institutions and other international humanitarian organizations, the Pamiris could have suffered famine.  Today, the regime is continuing this policy with an economic blockade so the Pamiris will be more dependent on the government and not on independent, external supporters.


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