BISHKEK -- A series of nationwide training programmes is providing imams with the knowledge to teach people about traditional Islam and to counteract extremist propaganda.
Hundreds of imams have participated in a series of week-long training programmes in January.
"Our goal is enlightened Islam," Saidamir haji Jeenaliyev, a member of the country's Council of Ulema, told Caravanserai. "We want to pit our imams, who have undergone comprehensive training, against extremism and religious illiteracy."
At the first session, held January 2-8, 118 imams from Chui Province, 134 imams from Batken Province and 10 imams from the city of Osh underwent training, he said.
During the second session, held January 10-16 in Bishkek and Osh, 269 imams received certificates.
Two hundred thirty imams from the Alay, Chong-Alay and Kara-Kulja districts of Osh Province attended the third round of training courses January 18-24.
At the training sessions, the imams learned about Islamic law, ethics, the government's religion policy, including the fight against extremism, the history of Islam, and interpretation of the Koran and hadith, among other topics.
Imams on frontline
The number one goal today is to keep extremism from cleaving society, said Absattar haji Erkinbekov, the chief imam-khatib for the city of Mayluu-Sai, Jalalabad Province.
"A few days ago, we had a meeting for all door-to-door [Dawah] preachers," he told Caravanserai. "We reminded them not to forget their true calling and to carry the true words of faith to the people."
Religious illiteracy among religious figures and within the community facilitates the growth of extremism, observers warn.
"Only imams armed with knowledge can oppose extremism," Nazira Kurbanova, a Bishkek-based independent scholar of religious affairs, told Caravanserai.
"They're on the frontline ... it's important for them to have the relevant education," she said.
Bayaz Arapov, 80, an elder and imam from Eshme village, Kadamjay District, Batken Province, said he sees the value in such trainings and participated in a similar programme last year.
"Last year ... I attained certification from the muftiate after passing a course," he told Caravanserai. "I was as happy as a little kid."
Arapov has been an imam in his village for 23 years.
"I'm interested in learning because it's never too late to learn," he said, adding that he intends to keep taking all possible imam training courses available to him.
The effort to educate imams comes after the first nationwide testing revealed widespread lack of knowledge of Islam among them. The enforced atheism of the Soviet era (1917-1991) created an Islamic educational gap that still affects society.
The first tests for imams, imam-khatibs, and the teachers and directors of religious schools took place in late 2015 and early 2016.
Out of 2,500 imams who sat for those exams, only 800 passed.
Authorities also recognise the need to educate troops about the extremism they are sworn to fight.
In January, Erik Moldokulov, a member of the Kyrgyz Council of Ulema, held a series of anti-extremism training sessions for border guards in Batken and Osh provinces.
"The main topic was ... how to prevent and oppose outbreaks of extremism," Moldokulov told Caravanserai. "[With that training] they will be able better to recognise such groups."