Turkmenistan – Religious communities theoretically permitted


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief


Thursday 1 April 2004

Despite Turkmenistan now theoretically allowing minority religious
communities to get state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt
that in practice attacks have been renewed against the Jehovah’s Witness
and Baha’i minority communities. President Saparmurat Niyazov announced the
changes on 11 March, the same day that a Jehovah’s Witness was arrested and
pressured by officials, including a Mullah, to renounce his faith and then
fired from his job. There have also been at least three raids on Jehovah’s
Witnesses in the capital Ashgabad and reported raids in other towns. Also,
a Baha’i has had his home raided and been pressured to renounce his faith.
Believers from the country’s banned minority faiths – including Catholics,
a variety of Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, Jews, Adventists, Pentecostal
and Armenian Apostolic Christians, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah’s
Witnesses and Baha’i – are unsure whether it is apply for state
registration. Although some Protestants are optimistic about the situation
improving, the NSM secret police told an arrested Baha’i that the new law
“applies only to Sunni Islam and the Orthodox Church, while such dubious
groups as yours will be thoroughly checked out with the aim of preventing
any possible conflicts.” And on 29 March President Niyazov banned Muslims
from registering new mosques.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Despite the new religion law allowing minority religious communities to
register – at least in theory – for the first time since 1997, Forum 18
News Service has learnt that pressure has been renewed on some minority
communities. Since President Saparmurat Niyazov heralded the legal changes
in an 11 March decree, the home of a Baha’i in the town of Balkanabad
(formerly Nebit-dag [Nebitdag]) was raided and he was pressured to renounce
his faith, while there have been at least three raids on Jehovah’s
Witnesses in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] and reported raids in other
towns. “Officials are quite nervous at the moment,” believers in Ashgabad
told Forum 18, “as they react to international pressure.” However, the
latest raids indicate that even senior officials are continuing to pressure
members of some communities, with the Baha’i and one of the Jehovah’s
Witnesses even pressured to renounce their faith. The Jehovah’s Witnesses
complain of a “new wave” of persecution against them. “The attitude to our
work has not changed,” one told Forum 18.

Believers from the country’s banned minority faiths – including Catholic,
Protestant (including Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist and New
Apostolic), Shia Muslim, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic, Hare Krishna,
Jehovah’s Witness and Baha’i communities – are divided as to whether it is
safe to apply for registration with the Adalat (Fairness or Justice)
Ministry. Some have sought information about how to apply and are preparing
to lodge applications, while others remain suspicious that putting
signatures to applications will only open up the signatories to
persecution. On 29 March President Niyazov appeared to rule out Muslims
from registering any new mosques under the new religion law (see F18News 30
March 2004 ).

Despite the raids on the Baha’i and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, an Ashgabad
Protestant Radik Zakirov told Forum 18 on 1 April that he is not aware of
any Protestant Christian churches that have suffered raids or fines since
members of an unregistered Baptist congregation in Balkanabad were fined in
January in the wake of a raid last November (see F18News 9 January 2004
). Unregistered Baptists
in Moscow, who retain close links with their communities in Turkmenistan,
told Forum 18 on 1 April that these fines and the confiscation of property
in lieu of a fine from a Baptist family in Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy] in
January (see F18News 26 February 2004
) are the most recent
incidents. “We have not learned of any problems since then.”

Jehovah’s Witness representatives in Russia, who maintain close contacts
with their communities in Turkmenistan, have told Forum 18 that “there is
no realistic chance” of getting registration. “There has been no real
change,” one Jehovah’s Witness told Forum 18 on 1 April. “Until our
prisoners are freed and until we can meet undisturbed there won’t be any
serious attempt to change.”

On 11 March – the same day the president issued his decree – a Jehovah’s
Witness in Ashgabad was taken to the government’s Gengeshi (Council) for
Religious Affairs, where seven officials – including a mullah – pressured
him to renounce his faith. It remains unclear if the mullah was either the
Gengeshi’s chairman, Yagshymyrat Atamyradov, or the deputy chairman,
Kakageldy Vepaev (who is also the government-appointed chief mufti of
Turkmenistan). That same day, after refusing to renounce his faith, the man
was fired from his job, leaving his family with no breadwinner.

Reached at the Gengeshi on 1 April, Muhamed Resulov – who gave his position
as assistant to the deputy chairman Andrei Sapunov, who is a Russian
Orthodox priest – declined to discuss this case – or indeed anything else –
with Forum 18.

On 13 March, more than twenty Jehovah’s Witnesses, including women and
children, were interrogated by National Security Ministry officers after
being detained for meeting in a private flat in Ashgabad (see F18News 23
March 2004 ).

On 18 March, Jehovah’s Witness sources told Forum 18, police visited the
home of another Jehovah’s Witness in Ashgabad, claiming that he had not
paid his most recent fine imposed for conducting unregistered religious
activity. “This is not true – he had paid,” sources told Forum 18, “but
without any court hearing they insisted he pay 250,000 manats [350
Norwegian Kroner, 41 Euros, or 51 US dollars]. He had to pay again.” The
man is believed to have been fined up to ten times in the past few years
for his religious activity. The average monthly salary is estimated to be
less than 30 US dollars a month.

The Jehovah’s Witness sources declined to name their members targeted in
the three Ashgabad raids for fear of making their situation worse. The
raids came in the wake of a 9 March incident in Ashgabad when a female
Jehovah’s Witness was taken to the police station, had her Bible and other
literature confiscated and she was threatened with rape. The Jehovah’s
Witnesses said there had been raids in other towns since the 11 March
decree. “No-one mentioned to our people the new law during the raids, or
the possibility to register,” the Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18. “We
expected that they would have mentioned this.”

On 24 March, local officers of the National Security Ministry (NSM) secret
police raided the home of a Baha’i, Rahman S. (full name unknown), in the
town of Balkanabad. The exiled human rights group the Turkmenistan Helsinki
Initiative reported that the officers confiscated religious literature and
other materials belonging to the local Baha’i community. The officers
demanded that Rahman renounce his faith which, they complained, “provokes
schism in our democratic society” and threatened to have his home
confiscated from him.

“I thought that with the signing of the new decree on religious freedoms,
our situation would improve,” Rahman was quoted as stating, “but nothing
has changed.” He complained that Balkanabad’s Baha’i community has not been
able to function legally since 1997 as it had not been able to gather the
signatures of 500 adult citizen members required until the change in the
law in March of this year. Rahman tried to tell the NSM officers of the new
law, but they reportedly responded: “This applies only to Sunni Islam and
the Orthodox Church, while such dubious groups as yours will be thoroughly
checked out with the aim of preventing any possible conflicts.”

The Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative reported that the Balkanabad Baha’is
have in recent years suffered numerous police raids on meetings in private
homes, while members have been detained, sacked from their jobs and

However, Zakirov, a member of a non-denominational Protestant church in
Ashgabad, said he was “very optimistic” that the situation for believers
would change for the better. “The government has responded quickly to
international pressure,” he told Forum 18. “This shows they have learnt.”
He said his church is not intending to register under the new law. “We do
not consider it necessary.” After explaining to officials that they are
merely a “circle of friends” and not an organisation with a hierarchy, he
said they understand. “They know our community inside out anyway, they know
who all our members are,” Zakirov declared. “They know we’re not

For more background see Forum 18’s report on the new religion law at

and Forum 18’s latest religious freedom survey at

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at

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