By Roman Kozhevnikov
DUSHANBE, March 26 (Reuters) - Tajikistan, a Muslim nation bordering Afghanistan, introduced a new religion law on Thursday which the United States has criticised as highly restrictive. The law empowers the government to impose stricter control of religious groups in the former Soviet republic which tolerates only the state-approved version of Islam.
The law was signed by President Imomali Rakhmon on Thursday and will come into force after its official publication.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the law would only "legalise harsh policies already adopted by the Tajik government against its majority Muslim population".
"The picture for religious freedom in Tajikistan is growing dim," the commission, which advises the U.S. government on religious freedom in the world, said ahead of the signing.
"The passage of this problematic new law could severely limit religious freedoms in Tajikistan," it said in a report.
Countries across former Soviet Central Asia, including Tajikistan, have been criticised in the West for using the threat of extremism as an excuse to crack down on political dissent and religious groups outside state-sponsored Islam.
In Tajikistan, religion has been a particularly thorny issue since Rakhmon’s Moscow-backed forces defeated an alliance of Islamists and liberals in a bloody 1990s civil war.
Ever since, Rakhmon has tolerated little dissent and tightened his grip on power. Worried about resurgent Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, he says his main goal is to maintain political and economic stability in his impoverished homeland.
The law imposes censorship on religious literature and restricts performing rituals to state-approved venues. It makes it harder for new religious communities to get registration.
Like elsewhere in Central Asia, most people in Tajikistan, a mountainous Persian-speaking nation, practice the Sunni branch of Islam but there is also a substantial Shi‘ite minority.
The opposition, which is weak and carries little weight in domestic politics, criticised the law as too harsh.
"People’s religious rights are violated in every article of this law," said Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, one of the leaders of the main opposition Islamic Revival Party, told Reuters.
"It would have been more accurate to call this law not ‘Law on the Freedom of Consciousness’ but "Law on its restriction’." (Writing by Maria Golovnina)