Religious intolerance in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan is an independent republic. It was once part of the USSR, but received its
independence in 1991-OCT-27. It is located to the east of the Caspian Sea, north of Iran.
The main religion in the country is Sunni Muslim. The 10% Russian minority are mostly
Atheists and Christians.
The country's constitution guarantees religious freedom. However the government's Council
for Religious Affairs and the secret police have discouraged Protestant missionary
activity since independence. 1
Essentially all Protestant churches in the country have been redefined as illegal
organizations as a result of a recent presidential decree. 2 The government in Ashkebad
now requires a religious organization to have a minimum of 500 members before it can be
recognized by the state and given official status. Only the Russian
has been so recognized by the end of 1997. Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Greater
Grace, Pentecostals and others were considered illegal. Their situation improved
in 2004 when the government allowed smaller faith groups to register.
Between 1997-MAR to 1997-JUN, the leaders of all of the non-Orthodox congregations
were interrogated by the police and ordered to stop their activities. University students
have been threatened by expulsion if they continue to attend church and proselytize.
Report on religious freedom (2005):
On 2005-OCT-18, Forum 18 News Service published the following survey of
religious freedom in Turkmenistan:
Turkmenistan regularly claims that religious freedom exists in the
country, one example being Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov's statement to
the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
(CERD) in August 2005. However, in practice, people in Turkmenistan are
not permitted by the government to practice a faith or belief alone or
with others, to meet freely for worship and spread their religious
beliefs, or to freely choose to change their beliefs. The government tries
to control the extremely limited legal religious activity it permits, which
often does not - even for registered religious groups - include the right
to worship. All unregistered religious activity remains banned and the
government actively tries to suppress such activity along with its attacks
on registered activity.
Places of worship have been confiscated and destroyed in recent years,
while those still open are tightly restricted - with many faiths not being
allowed any place of worship. Sharing religious beliefs in public and in
the media is impossible, while formal religious education, apart from at a
basic level, within places of worship or elsewhere is impossible. The
exception to this is a small Muslim theological faculty in the capital
Ashgabad [Ashgabat], and this faculty has this year had all its foreign
(Turkish) staff expelled, its student numbers reduced, and its status
downgraded. Religious believers have been fired from their jobs because of
their faith, evicted from their homes and harassed, fined and beaten for
meeting - even in private homes - for unsanctioned meetings.
The changes to the religion law in March 2004 to allow small religious
communities to register has allowed about nine previously "illegal"
religious communities to gain legal status. But this seems to have been a
move purely for purposes of foreign publicity, as it is rendered worthless
due to government refusal to allow religious communities to meet,
especially outside Ashgabad.
The March 2004 changes to the religion law and the subsequent registration
by the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry of some religious minority
communities, together with the removal of criminal penalties for
unregistered religious activity - which came under strong international
pressure - were much trumpeted by the Turkmen government. The states
record has encouraged religious communities to view the changes with
suspicion (See F18News 28 February 2005
religious activity remains an administrative offence and state agencies
have continued to behave as if unregistered religious activity was still a
The statistics given by Foreign Minister Meredov showed the limited impact
of the changes. He said there are 91 registered Muslim communities, 12
registered Russian Orthodox communities, plus about nine registered
communities of other faiths. A special commission attached to the Adalat
Ministry is entrusted with processing registration applications, he added.
It is believed this commission includes representatives of law enforcement
agencies and other ministries.
Maysa Durdiyeva of the Adalat Ministry department that registers religious
communities and non-governmental organizations told a conference in
Ashgabad on 19 August that her ministry has registered 118 religious
communities. Durdiyeva did not specify which denominations the 118
registered communities belong to and, contacted by Forum 18 in the wake of
the conference, refused absolutely to give any information on registered
communities or the numbers who have sought registration in vain.
Significantly, she reminded conference participants - who came from a
range of civil society groups and international organizations - that all
activity by unregistered NGOs and religious communities remains illegal.
Strangely, in its written submission to the CERD, the Turkmenistan
government had spoken of 382 mosques, 12 Orthodox churches and houses of
prayer of other faiths in the country, without further explanation. The
latest figures for registered religious communities are likely to be more
accurate. Shirin Akhmedova, then an official of the Adalat Ministry, told
Forum 18 in March 2004 that 152 religious communities currently had
registration, 140 of them Muslim and 12 Russian Orthodox. She admitted
that far more religious communities had registration before 1997, when the
harsh restrictions on registration came in. In 1997 there were some 250
registered Muslim communities, as well as communities of many other
However, the 12 Russian Orthodox communities cited by officials are known
to have been refused re-registration up to the present time, because the
Turkmen government has tried to pressure the Russian Orthodox Church to
take the Turkmen parishes from the jurisdiction of the Central Asian
diocese based in Tashkent in neighboring Uzbekistan and put them directly
under the Patriarch of Moscow. Patriarch Aleksi wrote to President Niyazov
in July 2005 politely rejecting this proposal. A Moscow-based priest
familiar with the situation told Forum 18 in July that he personally
believes President Niyazov is trying to create "independent Orthodoxy" in
Turkmenistan. "He wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in
his hand, just as he has done with Islam." (see F18News 11 July 2005
Appeals from the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod for the parishes to be
re-registered have gone unanswered. Given the refusal to re-register the
parishes, it remains unclear why government officials continue to include
them in the statistics they give out.
There are signs that the international community increasingly does not
believe Turkmen official statements. The CERD in August 2005, whilst
noting what it called "the relaxation of registration rules in 2004," was
unimpressed by Turkmenistan's human rights claims and amongst its
recommendations pointedly called on the government "to respect the right
of registered and unregistered religions to freely exercise their freedom
of religion, and register religious groups who wish to be registered."
Despite the government's emphasis in its report to the CERD that Article
154 of the Criminal Code punishes "obstructing the exercise of freedom of
conscience and religion", Forum 18 is not aware of any government
officials punished for organizing or taking part in harassment of
religious communities, whether beatings, threats, detention, fines,
demolition or seizure of places of worship, confiscation of religious
literature or denial of the right to travel for religious purposes.
In the wake of the government's proclaimed liberalization in 2004,
harassment of religious communities continued. On 29 March 2004 President
Niyazov told officials of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs -
which runs the Muslim community for the government - that he was handing
over three new mosques to it and that no further mosques would be allowed.
This appears to bar both Sunni and Shia Muslim communities that have been
denied registration from taking advantage of the relaxation of the harsh
Religious meetings continued to raided (with a new wave in summer 2005
which saw Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses and
Hare Krishna devotees
harassed), places used for worship have been confiscated or demolished and
believers have been beaten, fined, detained, deported and sacked from their
jobs in punishment for religious activity the government does not like.
Some believers have been given long prison sentences in recent years for
their religious activity (most of them Jehovah's Witnesses, though all of
them have now been freed) or have been sent into internal exile to remote
parts of the country.
Jehovah's Witness sources have expressed concern to Forum 18 that although
their last conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing compulsory
military service on grounds of religious conscience were freed in April
2005, the lack of any alternative service means that any of their young
men could still be arrested at any time.
Turkmenistan's restrictions on religious activity come despite
constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion (repeated in the March
2004 presidential decree and reiterated to the UN CERD). Yet while the CERD was in session, police raided a registered Baptist church in Dashoguz
[Dashhowuz] claiming that "Individuals can only believe alone on their own at
home." (see F18News 18 August 2005
Forum 18 was told that when church leaders strongly disputed this, the
police were unable to find Article 11 of Turkmenistan's constitution,
"The state shall guarantee the freedom of religions and
confessions and their equality before the law. Religious organizations
shall be separate from the state and may not fulfill state functions. The
state education system shall be separate from religious organizations and
shall be a secular nature."
Everyone shall have the right independently to define his attitude toward
religion, to profess any religion or not profess any either individually
or jointly with others, to profess and disseminate beliefs associated with
his attitude to religion, and to participate in the practice of religious
cults, rituals, and rites."
This police raid on a legal religious community was a further indication
of the emptiness of official claims that Turkmenistan's constitution and
legal system defends human rights.
Turkmenistan's restrictions on religious freedom also break its
international human rights obligations. Freedom of religion or belief is
enshrined in the requirements for membership of the Organisation for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN, as well as being
within the international human rights conventions which Turkmenistan has
voluntarily signed. The country has pointedly failed to respond to
repeated requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion
and Belief, Asma Jahangir, to be allowed to visit the country to
investigate the religious freedom situation for herself.
In her annual report covering 2004, Jahangir noted that her repeated
requests for further information about specific violations of religious
freedom had elicited only one bland response from the government with no
information on the specific cases she was seeking further clarification
on. The government response merely claimed that her facts "did not
correspond to the reality".
With a dictatorial ruler, who has appointed himself for life, President
Saparmurat Niyazov (who likes to call himself "Turkmenbashi" or Father of
the Turkmens), Turkmenistan already suffers from an absence of political
and social freedom. State control was tightened even more in the wake of a
failed assassination attempt on the president in November 2002, which some
observers believe may have been staged to provide a pretext for
Niyazov's rule is characterized by a grotesque cult of personality, with
ever-present statues and portraits. Works published in his name -
especially the two volume ideological book, the Ruhnama ("Book of the
Soul"), which officials have likened to the Koran or the Bible - are
compulsorily imposed on schools and the wider public. Russian Orthodox
priests and Sunni Muslim imams are forced to quote approvingly from it in
sermons and display it prominently in places of worship. One Ashgabad
mosque has a dedicated Ruhnama room. The personality cult includes a
massive mosque built at taxpayers' expense in the president's home village
of Kipchak, in southern central Turkmenistan, decorated with quotations
from the Ruhnama, a gold statue in Ashgabad that revolves to follow the
sun and a monument to the Ruhnama.
The government-enforced cult of Niyazov's personality was stepped up at
the beginning of the year, with Muslims facing mounting pressure to
venerate the Ruhnama and local officials insisting that Russian Orthodox
churches must have a minimum of two copies of it in parish libraries. Also
important in the President's cult are his books of poetry, and Muslim
clerics were told in February 2005 that "it was a priority task for
clergymen to disseminate the lofty ideas in our great leader's sacred
books on the duties of parents and children". An apparently full-time
official at the massive Saparmurat Haji mosque in the village of Geok-tepe
near the capital Ashgabad is present to "remind" the imam which pages of the
work he is to read from at prayer times (see F18News 1 March 2005
Some Muslims have objected to this attack on the content of Islamic
belief. Anonymous anti-government leaflets circulating in Ashgabad in July
2004 contained calls for Muslims not to go to mosques where the Ruhnama is
cited together with the Koran. There have been reports of attendance at
such mosques declining.
One Jehovah's Witness told Forum 18 in September 2004 that they had not
applied for registration because they would not accept official demands
made of other faiths to hang the country's flag and a portrait of the
president in places of worship. "These are unacceptable demands," he
Religious parents - Muslim, Christian and members of other faiths - face a
dilemma over whether to send their children to state-run schools. The
Ruhnama plays a major role in the school curriculum from the very first
year. (English, for example being taught using translations of the
Ruhnama). The all-pervasive use of the Ruhnama, together with recitation
of the oath of loyalty to the country and president, is objectionable to
many religious parents do not wish to subject their children to what they
see as blasphemous practices.
The oath of loyalty, which is printed at the top of daily newspapers,
reads in translation: "Turkmenistan, you are always with me in my thoughts
and in my heart. For the slightest evil against you let my hand be cut off.
For the slightest slander about you let my tongue be cut off. At the moment
of my betrayal of my motherland, of her sacred banner, of Saparmat
Turkmenbashy [Father of the Turkmens] the Great [i.e. President Sparmurat
Niyazov], let my breath stop."
After the adoption in July 2002 of the law on guarantees of the rights of
the child, the unregistered Baptist Church complained bitterly about
Article 24 part 2 which declared: "Parents or the legal representatives of
the child are obliged . . . to bring him up in a spirit of humanism and the
unshakeable spiritual values embodied in the holy Ruhnama." Pointing out
that officials are promoting the Ruhnama as "the last word of God to the
Turkmen people", the Baptists declared: "In practice this law is a direct
infringement on the freedom of conscience of citizens professing faith in
Jesus Christ or another faith not recognized by the state."
Orthodox Christians echo the Baptists' concerns, telling Forum 18 that the
issue has put Russian Orthodox priests in a difficult position. "Worried
parents have come to their priests," one Orthodox Christian reported. "The
priest can't tell his parishioners not to send their children to school.
All he can do is tell them to do as their conscience dictates." Some
parents have begun to teach their children privately at home.
Turkmenistan's deliberate isolation from the outside world and the
punitive measures taken against those engaged in unauthorized religious
activity make religious freedom reporting very difficult. Believers often
fear retribution for reporting their difficulties, and so Forum 18 is
unable to give the names or identifying features of sources within the
Religious activity is overseen by the secret police's department for work
with social organizations and religious groups. This department, formerly
the sixth department of the National Security Committee (KNB) secret
police, is one of the six or seven main departments of the State Security
Ministry (MSS) secret police and was created when the KNB was restructured
in late 2002. The social and religious affairs department of the secret
police is believed to have 45 officers at the headquarters in Ashgabad,
with a handful of officers in each local branch.
People known to be active in religious communities are recorded with the
security agencies locally and can be summoned at any moment for
interrogation. "All our believers are on file at the State Security
Ministry secret police and we are treated as though we have a criminal
record," a Hare Krishna devotee told Deutsche Welle in July 2005. The
Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation reported that since August 2005, the
secret police in Ahal region have been summoning young men who go to the
mosque five times a day for prayers. It also reported that the secret
police summoned the parents of a devout Muslim conscript who prayed
regularly in his military unit and warned that they should extract a
statement from him declaring that he was renouncing his faith.
Local MSS secret police officers regularly summon Muslim and Orthodox
clerics to report on activity within their communities. Some believers
have told Forum 18 that the MSS also runs "spies" in each Muslim and
Orthodox community, sometimes as many as half a dozen. In addition to
their spies - who attend the religious community solely at MSS behest to
gain information - there might be another ten or fifteen believers who are
regularly interviewed by MSS officers and forced to reveal details of the
community's religious life.
The MSS secret police and the ordinary police also try to recruit spies in
unregistered religious groups, such as with the attempted recruitment of a
member of a Baptist church they had detained in June 2003 in the
north-eastern city of Turkmenabad (formerly Charjew).
The Gengeshi for Religious Affairs - which is headed by an imam,
Yagshimurat Atamuradov - has nominal responsibility for religious affairs,
and has a headquarters in Ashgabad and branch offices in each of
Turkmenistan's five velayats (regions). The Gengeshi's main job appears to
be approving clerical appointments in the Sunni Muslim and Orthodox
communities. "Imams are chosen by the Gengeshi and are then approved by
the president," one source told Forum 18. Niyazov confirmed this in March
2004, when he instructed Gengeshi officials to make sure they appointed
all imams, warning them not to allow local believers to do so.
Places of worship of a variety of faiths have faced demolition - as with
numerous mosques most recently in 2004, as well as the Adventist church in
Ashgabad in 1999 and two Hare Krishna temples in the eastern Mary region in
1999 - and confiscation - as with the Baptist and Pentecostal churches in
Ashgabad in 2001. The six mosques were demolished in Ashgabad in autumn
2004 and one was turned into a police outreach post. The imam of one of
the demolished mosques - 40-year-old Abdylla Geldymuradov - was held for
several days by the MSS for interrogation. His father Shirmolla, an imam
in a village near Ashgabad, was also harassed, the exiled Turkmenistan
Helsinki Foundation reported. No compensation has been offered to the
Muslims, Adventists or Hare Krishna communities and the authorities have
refused to return confiscated places of worship.
It was only with difficulty and after six months' effort that Ashgabad's
Adventist community could find somewhere to rent for worship after
regaining registration in 2004 after seven years. Yet renting somewhere
for worship - even for registered communities - can be highly difficult.
One director of a government-owned house of culture in the capital
Ashgabad told Deutsche Welle in July 2005 that the city authorities had
warned him and fellow directors in the city that providing premises for
religious minorities is "unacceptable".
Unregistered religious communities face regular raids by MSS secret police
officers, backed up by ordinary police officers (especially from the 6th
Department, which notionally counters terrorism and organized crime),
officials of the local administration and local religious affairs
officials, who work closely together in suppressing and punishing as
criminal all unregistered religious activity. Summer and autumn 2005 saw a
spate of new raids on Jehovah's Witnesses, with one, Konstantin Vlaskin,
detained for two weeks in Turkmenabad in July, raids, threats, beatings
and fines and even the refusal to continue medical treatment on one (see
F18News 13 September 2005). When in July 2005 police raided the private
home in Turkmenabad where unregistered Baptists gather regularly for Bible
study and prayer, they beat the host, Asiya Zasedatelevaya, with her own Bible
and even threatened to hang her (see F18News 29 July 2005
But congregations of registered religious communities have faced similar
raids. Anti-terrorist police raided the Sunday worship service of the
registered Baptist church in Dashoguz [Dashhowuz] on 14 August 2005. After
the service, police questioned church members, confiscating all
Turkmen-language Bibles and hymnbooks. The police took particular interest
in children at the service, and were disappointed they were in the service
with parental permission. Interrogation of church leaders followed, with
officers insisting the Baptist Church's national registration in Ashgabad did
not extend to other towns (see F18News 18 August 2005
"Turkmenistan relegates All Protestant Churches to Illegal Status,"
Christians in Crisis magazine, 1997-NOV/DEC
- Presidential Regulation #2906 issued 1996-DEC-6.
Felix Corley, "Turkmenistan: Religious Freedom Survey, October 2005,"
Forum 18 News Service, at: http://www.forum18.org/
Copyright © 2005 by Forum 18 News Service. All rights reserved. ISSN 1504-2855
Forum 18 News Service states: You may reproduce or quote this article provided that credit is given to F18News
Author: Felix Corley (main text) & B.A. Robinson (overview only)