About half the population is Christian, but only Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and members of the Evangelical Church may worship without registering. The government closed 12 independent Pentecostal and charismatic churches in May 2002, forcing more than 20,000 church members to gather secretly in small groups. About 300 Christians have been jailed or harassed during the last year; authorities reportedly forced one pastor visiting his imprisoned congregants to walk over sharp stones.
The state religion is Wahhabism, a stringent Sunni school of Islam. Members of all other religions are forbidden from worshipping publicly. The Shiite Muslim minority faces job and political discrimination. Non-Muslims may worship in private, but in practice don't know when their activities will attract the attention of the Mutawwa'in, or religious police. Doing so risks imprisonment, lashings, and deportation. Distributing non-Muslim literature, including Bibles, is illegal. In 2002 two Filipinos were sentenced to 30 days in jail and 150 lashes for leading a Catholic prayer group in their home. They were among dozens of Christians deported for evangelism and worship activities. Riyadh terrorist attacks in May 2003 prompted the government to fire hundreds of extremist prayer leaders and retrain others. By and large, religious freedom has improved little. But one-fifth of the U.S. oil supply says Saudi Arabia will never be classified as a persecutor.
The Communist government officially recognizes Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Muslim religions. In practice, authorities curtail religious activities deemed threatening to the state. The Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam, while recognized in 2001, has seen 400 congregations associated with its underground predecessor shut down. Authorities demolish church buildings and try to force Protestant ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands and northwest provinces to recant their faith. One Hmong Communist Party member who converted to Protestantism died last year from a police beating after refusing to renounce his faith, build an ancestral altar, or drink alcohol. According to Compass Direct News, Vietnamese officials said he "drowned crossing a stream while drunk." Religious-freedom advocates think Vietnam may be designated a persecutor, even though the Bush administration pushed through a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam.
Religious groups must register with the government to be legal, but must have at least 500 members in each locality to do so. Only Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church have succeeded in registering. All schools must teach President Saparmurat Niyazov's spiritual guide, Rukhnama, or Book of the Soul. Police raided illegal Christian gatherings; the government has confiscated Christian literature and limited the building of mosques and churches. One imam did not display Rukhnama on the same stand as the Koran. Secret police interrogated him and closed down his mosque when he refused to comply, according to Forum 18 news service.
In trying to quell Islamic militants, the government has begun to harass the country's Muslim majority in general. Religious groups must register to be legal. Authorities have imprisoned about 6,000 Muslims, some of whom may be terrorists. Most claiming to be jailed for religious reasons are also practicing extremist Islam, says Freedom House's Nina Shea. But simply devout Muslims attract attention too. Neighborhood committees feel pressure to name those who pray daily. Beards are considered symbols of extremism, broadly called "Wahhabism"; suspected adherents face arbitrary arrest. Christians also are caught in the "extremist" dragnet. In one instance, police raided an apartment where 10 Baptist women had gathered and detained them for 27 hours. Since the war with Afghanistan, the United States locates some forces in Uzbekistan, making its placement on the list of persecutors a hard sell for the State Department.