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RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE IN TURKMENISTAN

PART 2

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This essay, obtained from Forum 18 News Service, is continued from Part 1

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Baptist congregations in Turkmenabad and Mary (see F18News 10 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/) and a Pentecostal congregation in the port city of Turkmenbashi ([Türkmenbashy] formerly Krasnovodsk) faced similar raids earlier this year (see F18News 31 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/). In July 2005 local authorities warned Hare Krishna devotees in the Mary region not to meet for religious rites in private homes, despite the fact that the Hare Krishna community also has registration.

Even the two major faiths - the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church - face government meddling and require government approval for the nomination of all officials. In January 2003 President Niyazov ousted the Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, an ethnic Uzbek who had led Turkmenistan's Muslims for the previous ten years, and replaced him with the 35-year-old Kakageldy Vepaev, someone widely believed to be more pliant. However, he too was soon ousted and Rovshen Allaberdiev was appointed the new chief mufti in August 2004.

In the wake of his dismissal, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah apparently lived quietly in his home town of Dashoguz [Dashhowuz] until his arrest in January 2004, apparently accused of being an accomplice in the apparent November 2002 assassination attempt. An MSS-compiled "confession" allegedly written in prison by the chief plotter, Boris Shikhmuradov, alleged that the former chief mufti had been a key associate with the code name "Rasputin". Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment at a closed trial in Ashgabad in March 2004. The government has refused repeated international requests to make the verdict public. It remains unclear whether he was punished for his lack of enthusiasm for the president's book the Ruhnama, for taking part in the plot, or as a prominent member of the Uzbek minority.

Vepaev then took over Nasrullah's role in enforcing the president's religious policy. His dual role - as a Muslim leader and a state official (he was also one of the deputy chairmen of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs) - became all too apparent during the crackdown on Protestant and Hare Krishna communities in spring 2003: he personally took part in raids on Protestant churches in Ashgabad and in follow-up meetings at hyakimliks (local administrations) when church members were questioned and threatened. In a similar move, local mullahs have frequently been involved in raids on local religious minorities elsewhere in the country - most recently in August 2005 on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in Turkmenabad - threatening them and calling them to renounce their faith and, if they are ethnic Turkmens, to "return" to their ancestral faith. Sunni Muslim mosques are reported to have seen attendance slump as, in response to government orders, imams placed copies of the Ruhnama in mosques with equal prominence as copies of the Koran. At least one mosque has been closed down after its imam refused to put the Ruhnama in a place of honor. The grand mosques constructed on the president's orders - and with state funds - are likewise reported to be largely empty, as Muslims decline to regard them as places of worship. Imams are, at least in theory, required to recite the oath of loyalty to the president and country at the end of the namaz (daily prayers). President Niyazov told Muslims in 2000 that they were to renounce the hadiths, sayings attributed to the Muslim Prophet Muhammad which do not appear in the Koran but are valued by devout Muslims.

On 1 July 2005 Niyazov told his cabinet that Turkmen Muslims had their own way of praying and ordered the publication of a list of common religious rituals for all Turkmens. "Officials from the Turkmen National Security Ministry secret police are going around mosques identifying Muslims who perform religious rites in a way that differs from Turkmen practice," Khaitbai Yakubov told Forum 18 from neighboring Uzbekistan of what was happening in ethnic Uzbek-populated regions of Turkmenistan.

Devout Muslims have expressed concern about the government-sponsored ousting of imams who have theological education in favour of those who have never been formally educated in Islam. In the past, imams were educated in neighboring Uzbekistan, but that appears to have come to a halt. Even in areas dominated by Turkmenistan's ethnic Uzbek minority, such as in the Dashoguz region of north-eastern Turkmenistan, the authorities have ousted ethnic Uzbek imams and replaced them with ethnic Turkmens.

Muslim education has become almost impossible in recent years. The madrassah (Islamic college) in Dashoguz was ordered closed in 2001, leaving the Faculty of Muslim Theology at Magtymguly Turkmen State University in Ashgabad as the only institution in Turkmenistan authorized to train imams. In 2002 the president set limits on the number of students who could study there. These were further reduced under a 30 June 2005 decree passed by President Niyazov, which also ordered the merger of the Theological Faculty with the History Faculty from the new academic year beginning in autumn 2005, with the theological section now merely a sub-department with 55 students.

Foreign lecturers, who were all Turkish, were forced to leave the country to be replaced by local, less qualified teachers. Under a decree issued by the education ministry on 5 July, 20 students were expelled from the preparatory department of the Theological Faculty. A local staff member at the faculty described the enforced cut-back to Forum 18 in July 2005 as "a virtual catastrophe for us" (see F18News 22 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/).

One source told Forum 18 that the decline in the level of education among practicing imams has led to a growth in respect for the artsakal, or traditional religious leaders. "They have preserved their authority and people go to them for weddings and funerals," the source reported. "The authorities don't attack them."

Government tolerance of Sunni Islam has not extended to Shia Islam, which is mainly professed by the ethnic Azeri and Iranian minorities in the west of the country who are traditionally more devout than ethnic Turkmens. Shia mosques failed to gain re-registration during the compulsory round of re-registration in 1997 after the adoption of the much harsher law on religion. Judging by the president's remarks in March 2004, they also appear unable to apply for registration now. An unregistered Shia mosque in Turkmenbashi was raided in December 2003 as local Shias commemorated the death of the former Azerbaijani president Heidar Aliev.

The president's dislike of Shia Islam has also extended into history. Among the accusations levelled at the writer Rahim Esenov was that he had correctly portrayed Bayram Khan, a sixteenth-century regent of the Mughal Empire and the hero of one of his novels, as a Shia rather than a Sunni Muslim. Niyazov had warned Esenov in 1997 to amend his text, but the writer had refused to comply. Detained in early 2004, national security officers repeatedly asked him about why Bayram Khan was depicted as a Shia. Freed from prison in March 2004 under international pressure, Esenov awaits trial accused of inciting social, religious and ethnic hatred under Article 177 of the criminal code.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which is nominally under the control of the Church's Central Asian diocese led from the Uzbek capital Tashkent by Metropolitan Vladimir (Ikim), is in fact under the direct control of the Ashgabad-based priest Fr Andrei Sapunov, widely regarded with suspicion by members of the Orthodox Church and other Christian faiths who have suffered from his actions.

The Turkmen government tries to isolate the local parishes from the Tashkent diocese and the wider Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, three or four priests who are Russian citizens who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan have been denied visas. Church delegations to Turkmenistan from both Tashkent and Moscow have in recent years been forced to reduce the numbers of participants. President Niyazov and successive chief muftis (as leader of the largest faith in the country) have refused to invite Patriarch Aleksi to make a pastoral visit to Turkmenistan.

However, although Muslims are not allowed to travel abroad for religious education, Russian Orthodox men from Turkmenistan are allowed to study for the priesthood at the Tashkent seminary.

In an echo of the practice in Sunni Muslim mosques, Orthodox priests reportedly received instructions from the end of 2000 to quote from the Ruhnama in sermons and to "preach to us about the virtues of living in Turkmenistan and of the policies of Turkmenbashi," one parishioner complained.

Close to President Niyazov, Fr Sapunov frequently deploys the extravagant personal praise of the president required of all officials. Many Orthodox regard such statements as close to blasphemy. Some Orthodox have told Forum 18 that they have evidence he passes information received in the confessional - which the church teaches he should never reveal to anyone - to the secret police.

In addition to his duties in the Church, Fr Sapunov is also one of the deputy chairmen of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs, with particular responsibility for Christian affairs. This gives him an official power of veto over the affairs of other Christian denominations. He is also well-known in the secret police, even to local officers outside Ashgabad, and has praised a ban on the importation of literature from Russia, which includes a ban on the official Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. During numerous raids on Protestant churches in different regions, secret police officers have told the Protestants that they must gain permission from Fr Sapunov before they can operate.

Article 205 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which dates back to the Soviet period, specifies fines for those refusing to register their religious communities of five to ten times the minimum monthly wage, with typical fines of 250,000 Turkmen Manats (363 Norwegian Kroner, 44 Euros or 48 US Dollars at the inflated official exchange rate). Fines can be doubled for repeat offenders. Many believers of a variety of faiths have been fined under this article, including a series of Baptists and Hare Krishna devotees last year after the series of raids on unregistered religious meetings.

There is a Catholic mission in Turkmenistan, based at the Holy See's Nunciature in Ashgabad. However, at present Catholics can only celebrate Masses on this Vatican diplomatic territory. The priests have diplomatic status.

One of the biggest religious communities that has been denied registration is the Armenian Apostolic Church. An estimated fifteen per cent of those who attend Russian Orthodox churches are said by local people to be Armenians, although the Armenian Church is of the Oriental family of Christian Churches, not of the Orthodox family. "Sapunov told parish priests to accept Armenian believers," one local Orthodox told Forum 18. However, the Orthodox Church would stand to lose a sizeable proportion of its flock were the government to allow the Armenian Church to revive its activity.

The one surviving pre-revolutionary Armenian church - in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi - is said to be in a "sorry state of repair". The Armenian ambassador to Turkmenistan has repeatedly sought permission for it to be restored and reopened as a place of worship but in vain. When the Armenian priest last visited from neighbouring Uzbekistan he had to conduct baptisms and hold services in the Armenian embassy in Ashgabad. Asked at the UN CERD meeting in August about why no Armenian Apostolic communities had gained registration, foreign minister Meredov said this was because no application had been submitted and claimed that if the Church does submit an application there is no reason for it not to be approved.

The obstructions to travel abroad have made it difficult to take part in international gatherings. In March 2004 border guards took two female Jehovah's Witnesses off the airplane at Ashgabad airport while on route to a Jehovah's Witness meeting in Kiev. They were barred from leaving the country.

This January's pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj, as in previous years, saw only 188 pilgrims allowed to travel, far below the quota allocated to Turkmenistan by the Saudi authorities. One Ashgabad imam reported that he knew at least one person who had been on the hajj waiting list for at least 10 years and who found out that somebody else who had been on the waiting list for less than 2 years went on the hajj by paying a bribe.

Believers who want to receive information from fellow-believers abroad face virtually insurmountable obstacles. Access to the Internet is possible only via state providers that exert strict control over what information can be accessed. The majority of international religious websites are simply not accessible by an Internet user in Turkmenistan. Moreover, a special computer program searches emails for coded words that could be used to send "unreliable information", while "a suspicious message" will simply not reach the addressee.

Religious literature is no longer published in Turkmenistan. Mosques and Russian Orthodox churches often have small kiosks where a limited quantity of literature is available. A typical Orthodox church bookstall might have a few prayer books, small icons and calendars, with the Bible available only erratically - and often, at about 12 US Dollars [62,400 Turkmen Manats, 78 Norwegian Kroner, or 10 Euros], too expensive for the badly-paid local people. Supplies of religious literature and articles to Orthodox churches are equally erratic, with no official distribution of books, icons, candles and baptismal crosses.

Customs officers sometimes allow travelers returning to the country to bring in a small quantity of religious literature for personal use. However, one Orthodox believer told Forum 18 that on at least five occasions known to him, Orthodox priests had had literature taken from them at the border on their return to the country. Hare Krishna devotees, Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses have complained to Forum 18 they cannot import religious literature.  Religious literature is routinely confiscated from members of unregistered religious minorities during police raids on their homes.

Orthodox believers trying to receive alternative information are in a more difficult situation than Sunni Muslims. Under a September 2002 presidential decree, direct subscription to Russian newspapers and magazines, including religious publications such as the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, is banned in Turkmenistan. Even Orthodox priests do not receive the Journal regularly, being forced to rely on old copies they pick up when they are visiting Moscow or Tashkent.

Of the Russian television channels, only a few hours a day of the ORT channel are broadcast, and then only with a day's delay after programs have been approved by a censor. Currently there are a number of broadcasts on Russian television covering Orthodox issues. The broadcast of Russian cable programs is forbidden in Turkmenistan, so that unlike in other Central Asian states, local Orthodox believers cannot use this as an alternative source of religious news. Richer local people try to evade these restrictions by installing satellite receivers.

Officials have not simply restricted themselves to banning the receipt of political information from the former metropolis. Purely religious communications between local Orthodox believers and Russia have inevitably also been obstructed. As Turkmenistan has become even more isolated from Russia, individual Orthodox believers have become more isolated from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Much religious activity has of necessity to be shrouded in secrecy, with believers of having to hide their faith and worship from the knowledge of intrusive state officials. In response to the pressure, all unregistered communities have seen the numbers of their active members fall. Yet despite the severe controls and the threat of punishment, the religious believers practice their various faiths as best they can, while waiting for better times.

Governmental attacks on religious freedom in Turkmenistan are wide-ranging and permeate society. For religious freedom to be a reality, the Turkmen government would have to:

  1. Implement in full the international human rights commitments it has freely accepted, such as the the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 - to which all OSCE states are committed - which states the binding importance of "respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief";
  2. Respect and defend the right of all individuals and religious communities - whether registered or unregistered - to exercise their right
    bullet to freedom of religion or belief, to worship and witness,
    bullet to not change (or change) a religion or belief. and
    bullet to join together and express a religion or belief
  3. Register all religious communities that wish to apply for registration;
  4. Cease attacking unregistered religious activity, including abolishing all legal barriers to peaceful religious activity;
  5. Stop interfering with the beliefs and internal affairs of religious communities, including their internal personnel appointments;
  6. Stop imposing a religious personality cult of the President on citizens;
  7. End ordinary police and secret police raids on religious meetings, whether in private homes or elsewhere;
  8. End interrogations and fines of peaceful religious believers;
  9. Compensate people punished by the state for peacefully practicing their faith;
  10. Reinstate believers fired from their jobs for their membership of religious communities;
  11. Bring to legal accountability all those responsible for attacking citizens' religious freedom;
  12. Allow believers to publish and distribute religious literature;
  13. Permit believers to freely give voluntary religious education.

Only if the authorities implement, and not continue to break, the international human rights obligations they have voluntarily accepted, will religious believers in Turkmenistan believe that the situation has changed for the better. 1

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References used:

  1. 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

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