Imams in central Uzbekistan are being compelled ahead of the New Year's holiday to donate funds for something that's normally well outside their purview -- street decorations.
Uzbek authorities have demanded millions of soms from more than 100 mosques across Bukhara Province in connection with the civic plans, sources in the former Soviet republic have told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
Some 25 mosques in the city of Bukhara were told to collect 30 million soms (around $3,680) for the decorations, a Bukhara mosque employee said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.
The source, who oversees the finances at the mosque, described the officials' request for funds as "compulsory-voluntary" and said it had "upset us."
But local officials insisted to RFE/RL that the donations from mosques -- and other institutions -- were purely voluntary. "All local organizations, including religious institutions, are contributing money on a voluntary basis for the purchase of festive street decorations," a Bukhara city official said, declining to give his name.
"Bukhara has long been considered a city for pilgrimage. People leave money in charity boxes in the city's holy places," another official said. "No religious figure is against giving a small amount of these donations [to the authorities] for the purchase of the New Year's decorations."
No imam in Bukhara contacted by RFE/RL was willing to comment about the request for the donations.
It's unclear whether mosques in other regions of Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country of around 30 million people, have received similar instructions.
But in the capital, Tashkent, influential imam Shermurod Toghai said that "nothing is wrong with donating money to the city's improvement."
'Wrong And Shameful'
Some Uzbeks suggested the donation request was an unfair imposition on the religious community, which could make better use of the funds.
"New Year's isn't even a religious festival.... It's regrettable and shameful to ask funds from mosques for New Year's celebrations. Those 30 million soms should be better donated to those who don't have money for clothes and have nowhere to live," Facebook user Nurislam Yuldoshev wrote.
"It doesn't matter what kind of celebration it is. It's just wrong and shameful to ask for money from a mosque for it," Mirzohid Karimov said.
In an apparent reference to reports of religious figures in Uzbekistan being told to promote the state-sponsored cotton harvest, Facebook user Dilorom Shahavutdinova wrote: "Until recently mullahs, imams, and elders were being dragged into the cotton-picking campaign, now it's time to help the fir-tree celebrations."
Shoira Hasanova suggested that imams would have little choice but to obey the authorities' instructions: "They know what happens if they don't pay. If someone opened their mouth, they would be told, 'You're against the government policies, against the president,' and would be locked up."
Uzbek authorities in the past have shown little tolerance for perceived dissent or criticism of government policies, although there have been modest reforms in President Shavkat Mirziyoev's first year in office following the death of strongman leader Islam Karimov.
Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service