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Religious Tolerance logo

Religious intolerance in Turkmenistan

Part 1

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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 Orthodox Church 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.

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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 http://www.forum18.org/). Unregistered religious activity remains an administrative offence and state agencies have continued to behave as if unregistered religious activity was still a criminal offence.

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 faiths.

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 http://www.forum18.org/).

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 registration requirements.

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 http://www.forum18.org/).

Forum 18 was told that when church leaders strongly disputed this, the police were unable to find Article 11 of Turkmenistan's constitution, which reads:

"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 repression.

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 http://www.forum18.org/).

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 insisted.

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 country.

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 http://www.forum18.org/).

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 http://www.forum18.org/). 3

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This essay is continued in Part 2

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References used:

  1. "Turkmenistan relegates All Protestant Churches to Illegal Status," Christians in Crisis magazine, 1997-NOV/DEC
  2. Presidential Regulation #2906 issued 1996-DEC-6.
  3. Felix Corley, "Turkmenistan: Religious Freedom Survey, October 2005," Forum 18 News Service, at: http://www.forum18.org/

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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 http://www.forum18.org/
Latest update: 2005-OCt-18
Author: Felix Corley (main text) & B.A. Robinson (overview only)

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