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Demand For Exorcisms On The Rise In Tajikistan And Central Asia, Despite Crackdown, Scandals

Madrid (10/03 – 21.43)

Exorcism is a key source of income for Sabohiddin Shodiev, a popular cleric in his rural community on the outskirts of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

Shodiev — not his real name — says that every week he treats about 15 clients who ask him to expel what they believe is an evil spirit, or jinni, possessing them, or to rid them from “an evil eye.”

The 53-year-old cleric has been practicing exorcisms — which he learned to do from his father — for more than two decades. Most of Shodiev’s clients come from Dushanbe and nearby districts, but some to travel from faraway regions to seek his help.

Shodiev says he doesn’t have a set fee for performing the Islamic rite. “It’s up to the clients how much to pay.”

Three Tajik clerics who spoke to RFE/RL claimed the demand for exorcisms is on the rise in the predominately Muslim country.

There are no official statistics in Tajikistan on exorcisms or the number of people performing the centuries-old practice, which survived decades of religious crackdowns during the atheistic Soviet era and most recently the Tajik government’s attempts to restrict exorcisms.

Tajik laws do not ban the procedure. But several men who perform exorcisms have been jailed in recent years on charges of fraud, sexual molestation, or practicing the occult.

Some Tajiks see the ongoing efforts by the secular government as a way to keep a tab on “all things religious.” As part of that campaign, Islamic hijabs have been banned in schools and offices, while growing a long or bushy beard is frowned upon for young men.

Exorcisms are practiced among the followers of Islam, Christianity, and some other world religions.

There is a belief among Muslims that an evil spirit or jinni can possess a person but can be driven out of the possessed person’s body through an exorcism that includes reciting certain verses from the Koran.

But several Tajik clergymen told RFE/RL that many clerics in the country refrain from performing exorcism because it requires special training.

In the meantime, the spike in demand for exorcisms has led to a rise in the number of self-proclaimed exorcists, and charlatans, according to the clerics and officials. Many of them perform exorcisms and do faith healings.

Some also mix in elements of the occult, which is outlawed in Tajikistan and prohibited within Islam.

Tajikistan’s Religious Affairs Committee said, “Muslims believe that the Koran has healing powers, therefore they seek help [from exorcisms] to treat certain mental health issues, but unfortunately there have been cases in which some [self-proclaimed exorcists] tried to take advantage of people’s [religious] beliefs.”

Exorcism Gone Wrong

Tajik law-enforcement agencies in recent years released what they called footage of self-proclaimed exorcists and faith healers molesting their female clients. The incidents were allegedly recorded by hidden cameras, which police installed after receiving complaints.

In 2021, police in the northern Sughd Province released a video that purportedly shows Alijon Ghaniev, a 50-year-old self-proclaimed exorcist and faith healer, performing an unusual ritual on a female client that ends with sexual intercourse.

According to local media, Ghaniev charged his 21-year-old client the equivalent of $14 for three exorcism and faith healing sessions.

State television showed what it described as Ghaniev’s exorcism tools, including several knives, tarot cards, various herbs, and a bunch of dried tree branches. Once in police custody, Nabiev told the TV channel that he regretted his actions “getting out of control under the devil’s temptation.”

It is not clear if Nabiev’s confession was voluntary or was made under pressure.

In a similar case in 2019, a court in Hisor district handed a prison sentence to Juraboi Sochaev, who was accused of sexually harassing his female clients during exorcism rites. Sochaev charged his clients up to $270 for a session, prosecutors said.

A probe is under way in the northern city of Khujand against a self-proclaimed exorcist, Abduvali Nabiev, 68, who was arrested in October on sexual harassment charges.

Police and prosecutors said none of the men has had religious education or medical training but claimed to have special abilities to expel jinni and treat ailments.

Exorcisms made shocking headlines in Central Asia recently when a woman died due to severe beatings during the ritual in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

Court documents say two men used a hammer, chain, and stakes in the procedure that broke several of the woman’s ribs and caused internal bleeding. The exorcists were sentenced to 2 1/2 and three years in prison.

Gone Underground

Asked about the tragic Uzbek case, Shodiev said he has never performed or heard of an exorcism that led to physical harm.

“We do use some tools, but we don’t beat the clients to death, we just tap their elbow, for example, with the blunt side of a knife,” Shodiev said.

Shodiev and many others in Tajikistan no longer perform exorcisms openly, fearing what they see as the government’s campaign against the practice.

About five to seven years ago, clients used to come to Shodiev’s house for the procedure, but nowadays he visits them in the evenings in their homes to perform the ritual.

“I don’t want to get accused of some made-up charges, like practicing the occult, for example,” he said.

For some Tajiks — such as Akmal Halimov, a 34-year-old resident of the Vadhat district — the scandals surrounding the exorcists have done little to erode their faith in the religious ritual.

Halimov believes an exorcism saved him after he “was possessed by an evil spirit” during his student years in Dushanbe.

“My relatives took me to a mullah who treated me for 10 days. After that I felt that something bad had left my body,” he said.

But in the rural district of Mastchoh, Zuhro Mukhtorova isn’t optimistic about receiving any benefits from an exorcism.

About a decade ago, the 34-year-old Mukhtorova developed an illness that affects her ability to speak. When medical treatments didn’t help, relatives suggested she must have been “possessed by jinni.” Mukhtorova has been to several exorcists, but despite her faith in them the rituals have not helped her.

She still speaks with difficulty and has given up on exorcisms.

Source: RFERL