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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pilgrims and Politics Converge Over Lamb Fleece

DURMEN VILLAGE, Uzbekistan -- Just three days before a major Islamic holiday, a lamb was born with white patterns on its black fleece resembling the Arabic words for Allah on one side and Mohammed on the other.

The phenomenon has caused a sensation among ordinary people in this former Soviet state where most people are Muslims -- and been an annoyance to authorities in the staunchly secular government.

Mainstream religious organizations are pursuing a campaign to characterize the lamb as nothing special. But thousands have flocked to this village in the eastern Fergana Valley to see what they believe is a lamb of God sent to strengthen Muslims' faith.

Religion is an extremely sensitive matter in this Central Asian country, where the government has been cracking down on Islamic militants for several years. Officials worry the lamb may boost the ranks of opposition sympathizers.

Adding a political angle, the lamb belongs to a family that had a young male relative beaten to death by security officers last November after he was detained for alleged links to a banned religious group.

The lamb is owned by Khudoiberdy Odylov, 36, whose first name means "given by God" and family name means "just." He says the lamb may be God's answer to his prayers for justice for his dead nephew, Alimohammad Mamadaliyev, and consolation for his family and other suffering people.

"This is how God shows his mercy," Odylov says.

In early May, three security officers went on trial charged with murdering his nephew. The trial in the capital, Tashkent, is a rarity in a country where police abuse is common.

The lamb was born Feb. 19, just before Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice holiday that marks the end of Islam's annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Word spread quickly. At first, people came from the area, then from farther afield. Some visitors have even come from other Central Asian countries, Turkey, China and Arabic nations.

So many people came for a while that they could not fit into Odylov's courtyard. He stacked two tables on the street and put the lamb on a makeshift support to allow everyone to see it.

"I had to take the lamb inside from time to time to give it a half-hour break," Odylov says.

There are fewer visitors now, but a steady flow still enters the gate in twos and threes, about a dozen in an hour, passing a few boys selling calendars and cards with the lamb's image. The visitors come and go quietly, as one would behave in a holy place.

Salomat Saburova, 29, believes the lamb's birth was a wake-up call to people who have turned away from God. She and her family came from the western Khorezm region, some 1,450 kilometers from Durmen. "I'm very happy. It is a real miracle," she says.

But the female lamb does not get any special treatment -- no special diet, no special shed. The animal, which has grown to almost the size of its mother, is kept in the courtyard in the shade of vine leaves. It doesn't have a name, because Uzbeks have no tradition of naming animals.

Odylov has been able to buy a car and repair the roof of his house thanks to donations from visitors. He says he tried to refuse the money at first, but that offended people. It is an Uzbek tradition to make donations at sacred places.

Official Islamic institutions are trying to convince people there is nothing holy about the lamb.

Clergy and other religious officials push that message at public meetings and through newspapers, radio and television, all of which are controlled by the state.

"It is a sin to worship this lamb. People have been misled," says Khamidjon Ishmatbekov, a spokesman for the Muslim Spiritual Board.

"It's an ordinary lamb. There is no miracle whatsoever," he says.

For Odylov, though, the lamb is a message from heaven sent to support him, his 77-year-old mother, wife and four children at a difficult time.

Still, while Odylov intends to keep the lamb for a few years -- maybe let it have its own lambs -- he eventually will slaughter it for the Eid al-Adha feast and share the meat with his neighbors as one does on that holiday.

"Knowledgeable people say that the best of men become prophets and that the best of animals are created to be sacrificed," he says.