The Kyrgyz Republic — a former Soviet republic that has recently hindered efforts by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for official recognition — is about to severely further erode religious freedom, a U.S. watchdog agency says.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom warned Wednesday that the country's parliament passed a law that would make it more difficult for churches to register before they can operate legally, ban children from participating in religious organizations and ban distribution of religious materials in public places.

"If the president signs the law as passed by the parliament, religious freedom will be eroded in Kyrgyzstan, which used to enjoy the reputation of being (the) most democratic of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics," said Felice D. Gaer, head of the commission established by Congress to watch religious freedom globally.

She called for the United States to work through diplomatic channels to urge Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev not to sign the legislation, which she said would provide "legal cover for egregious discrimination on the basis of religion."

A State Department report released earlier this year said the LDS Church was already having troubles there even before the new law.

That report said, "Several religious groups had difficulties registering. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which initially applied for registration in 2004, was still not registered at the end of the reporting period," a requirement before it may operate legally in the country.

The new law would make it much more difficult to register. Instead of requiring just 10 members in the country before a church could register, it would now require 200, the commission said.

Members of the European Parliament, in a visit to Kyrgyz last month, raised concerns about the new bill. Also, Alexander Shumilin, chairman of the Kyrgyz Council of Church of Evangelical Christians, told a press conference last month the new law could force many churches there into operating illegally and in hiding.

"We respect Kyrgyz laws, but our main mission is spreading of the gospel and we are so committed to it," he said.

The Kyrgyz Republic, which is slightly smaller than South Dakota, has a population of about 5.4 million. It is 75 percent Muslim, 20 percent Russian Orthodox, with other religions accounting for 5 percent of the population. It is bounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.

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