F18News: Turkmenistan – Religious freedom survey, April 2004


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


Wednesday 7 April 2004

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan,
Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to
practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and
Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of
worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite
recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register.
All other communities – Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other
Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha’i,
Jehovah’s Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their
activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious
meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah’s Witnesses
and a Baha’i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy.
Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from
their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been
confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on
how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to
register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow
religious faiths to be practiced freely.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Despite legal changes in March that – at least theoretically –
allow minority religious communities to register for the first time since
1997, Turkmenistan retains one of the harshest systems of state control
over religious life of any of the former Soviet republics. Under the highly
restrictive 1996 religion law, only two religious faiths were able to gain
registration: communities of the state-sanctioned Sunni Muslim Board and
the Russian Orthodox Church. Amendments to the religion law enacted in
October 2003 made all unregistered religious activity de jure illegal and a
criminal offence. Unregistered religious activity was already being de
facto treated as criminal activity. Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist,
Lutheran and other Protestant churches, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian
Apostolic, Jewish, Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witness and Hare Krishna communities
are among those whose activity is banned and punishable under the
administrative or criminal law.

The surprise legal changes this year came at a time when Turkmenistan’s
government was under heavy international pressure over its human rights
abuses. Key United Nations bodies had already condemned Turkmenistan’s
record and this was due to come up again at the UN Commission on Human
Rights in Geneva, which opened on 15 March. The legal changes were heralded
by a decree from President Saparmurat Niyazov on 11 March, the same day
that the president met the visiting United States Deputy Assistant
Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe, who had raised human rights concerns. A
parallel decree issued at the same time eased exit requirements, a second
key foreign concern.

The presidential religion decree abolished the requirement to have 500
adult citizen members before a community could apply for registration with
the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry, explicitly allowing
“religious groups of citizens” to register “independently of
their number, faith and religion”. However, Adalat Ministry officials
immediately stressed to Forum 18 that unregistered activity remains a
criminal offence.

The decree was followed up by amendments to the religion law, published on
24 March. The new law requires that “religious groups” must have
between five and fifty adult citizen members to register, while
“religious organisations” must have at least fifty. In theory at
least, this removes the obstacle to registering non-Sunni Muslim and
non-Orthodox communities.

Religious groups – especially those that have suffered years of
persecution – were divided over the apparent liberalisation. Many
were sceptical that a government that had persecuted them for so long could
have had a genuine change of heart. But others were determined to at least
try to register. Among groups which immediately sought information about
the registration process from the Adalat Ministry or the government’s
Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs were a number of Christian
communities – including the Catholics, New Apostolic Church, Greater Grace,
Church of Christ and Adventists – and the Baha’i community. The Russian
Orthodox Church also signalled to Forum 18 that it might wish to register
more parishes. However, many religious leaders stressed that until their
communities have registered successfully they will not be convinced that
anything has changed. One Jehovah’s Witness representative in Russia
– who maintains close contacts with fellow believers in Turkmenistan
– told Forum 18 that they believe there is “no realistic
chance” that their communities will get registration.

Serious questions were raised about the sincerity of the government’s moves
when, on 29 March, President Niyazov told officials of the Gengeshi –
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.

Even on the day the president issued his decree a Jehovah’s Witness in the
capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] was summoned to the Gengeshi, where seven
officials – including a mullah – pressured him to renounce his
faith. He refused and was eventually allowed to leave, but he was sacked
from his job, leaving his family with no breadwinner. Two days later more
than twenty Jehovah’s Witnesses attending a meeting in a private home in
Ashgabad were taken to the police station and interrogated and threatened
by police and secret police officers. In other March incidents, police
confiscated a Bible and other religious literature from a Jehovah’s Witness
(who was also threatened with rape), and extracted money for a fine from
another Witness which he claimed to have already paid last year. On 24
March secret police officers raided the home in the town of Balkanabad
[Nebitdag] of a Baha’i, accusing him of “provoking schism” in
society by his faith and threatening to confiscate his home. Believers are
disturbed that these incidents have taken place when, officially, religious
policy is claimed to be being relaxed after a long period of persecution.

In the past few years, religious meetings have been raided (with a spate of
raids against Protestant and Hare Krishna communities during summer 2003
and intermittently since then), 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) or have been sent into internal exile to remote parts
of the country.

Jehovah’s Witness sources have told Forum 18 that at least five of their
young men are serving imprisonment for refusing compulsory military service
on grounds of religious conscience (Turkmenistan has no provision for
alternative service). The most recent known prisoner is Jehovah’s Witness
Rinat Babadjanov, sentenced in February in Dashoguz to several years’
imprisonment. Another Witness, Kurban Zakirov, is serving an eight-year
sentence on charges the Jehovah’s Witnesses say are trumped up.

Turkmenistan’s restrictions on religious activity come despite
constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion (repeated in the March
presidential decree) and its obligations to maintain such freedom of
religion as a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in
Europe (OSCE) and a signatory to international human rights conventions.
Turkmenistan has pointedly failed to respond to repeated requests from the
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Professor
Abdelfattah Amor, to be allowed to visit the country or to respond to
enquiries about specific incidents.

With an authoritarian ruler, President-for-life 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
characterised by a grotesque cult of personality, with ever-present statues
and portraits. Works he allegedly wrote – especially 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 quite approvingly
from the Ruhnama in sermons, and to display it prominently in places of

Turkmenistan’s deliberate isolation from the outside world and the punitive
measures taken against those engaged in unauthorised 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 organisations and religious groups. This department, formerly
the sixth department of the National Security Committee (KNB), is one of
the six or seven main departments of the State Security Ministry (MSS) 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.

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 Turkmenabad.

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.

The Adalat Ministry officially registers religious organisations, although
until now it has had little work to do on this as so few applications have
been approved anyway. Shirin Akhmedova, the official at the ministry in
charge of registering religious organisations, told Forum 18 in March that
152 religious communities currently have 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 (there were some 250 registered Muslim communities alone, as well
as communities of many other faiths).

Unregistered religious communities face regular raids by MSS secret police
officers, backed up by ordinary police officers, officials of the local
administration and local religious affairs officials, who work closely
together in suppressing and punishing as criminal all unregistered
religious activity.

Even the two officially-recognised 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.

In the wake of his dismissal, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah apparently lived
quietly in his home town of Dashoguz until mid-January of this year, when
he was arrested, 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 on 2 March. 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 has taken over Nasrullah’s role in enforcing the president’s
religious policy. His dual role – as a Muslim leader and a state
official (he is 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,
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 honour. 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
Prophet Muhammad which do not appear in the Koran but are valued by devout

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
neighbouring 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 [Dashhowuz] region of north-eastern Turkmenistan, the authorities
have ousted ethnic Uzbek imams and replaced them with ethnic Turkmens.

One source told Forum 18 that the decline in the level of education among
practising imams has led to a growth in respect for the artsakal, a
traditional religious leader. “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 and, judging by the president’s remarks in March, appear unable to
apply for registration now. An unregistered Shia mosque in the Caspian port
city of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy] was raided last December as local
Shias commemorated the death of the former Azerbaijani president Heidar

The president’s dislike of Shia Islam has also extended into history. Among
the accusations levelled at the 78-year-old 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 earlier this year, national security
officers repeatedly asked him about why Bayram Khan was depicted as a Shia.
Freed from prison in March 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.

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

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 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.
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.

The 1996 religion law specified that an individual religious community
needed 500 signatures of adult citizen members before it could apply for
registration. Officials repeatedly declared (although it was not specified
in the law) that these 500 had to live in one city district or one rural
district. This made it all but impossible for any new religious community
to register, even if the government wished to allow it to. Most religious
communities – including many mosques – lost their registration
and had to close down in the wake of the new law. Most Islamic schools were
also closed. It is so far unclear if the Adalat Ministry will register all
those communities that now wish to register under the new religion law.

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 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

There is a Catholic mission in Turkmenistan, based at the Vatican
nunciature in Ashgabad. However, at present Catholics can only hold 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

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. Some Armenians expect that the new law will allow the community
finally to register and regain its church.

Religious parents – Muslim, Christian and members of other faiths –
face a dilemma over whether to send their children to state-run schools.
With the Ruhnama playing a major role in the school curriculum from the
very first year, together with recitation of the oath of loyalty to the
country and president, many religious parents do not wish to subject their
children to blasphemous practices. The oath of loyalty, which is printed at
the top of daily newspapers, reads: “Turkmenistan, beloved homeland,
my native land, both in my thoughts and in my heart I am eternally with
you. For the slightest evil caused to you, let my hand be cut off. For the
slightest calumny against you, may my tongue lose its strength. In the
moment of treachery to the fatherland, to the president, to your holy
banner, let my breathing cease.”

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 recognised 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.

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

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, 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.

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 programmes
have been approved by a censor. Currently there are a number of broadcasts
on Russian television covering Orthodox issues. The broadcast of Russian
cable programmes 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.

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.

Religious literature is routinely confiscated from members of unregistered
religious minorities during police raids on their homes or as they return
to the country from foreign travels.

With sweeping measures against religious groups in the wake of the harsher
religion law in 1996, the denial of registration to most religious
communities in the 1997 re-registration drive, the expulsion of hundreds of
foreigners, mainly Russians, engaged in religious activity (including
Muslims, Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna
devotees), the confiscation or demolition of unauthorised places of worship
(including Ashgabad’s Adventist church in November 1999), the sacking of
believers from their work (especially Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestants)
and a climate of fear only slightly tempered by the promised registration
of minority faiths, the Turkmen authorities have succeeded in all but
wiping out public religious activity except in a small number of registered
Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox places of worship.

All other religious activity has of necessity to be shrouded in secrecy,
with believers 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 remaining believers
practice their various faiths as best they can while waiting for better

The changes to the law this year show that concerted pressure on the
Turkmenistan authorities from outside has led to a public change of the
proclaimed policy. However, for religious believers to see real and not
spurious change, the Adalat Ministry will have to register all religious
communities that apply for registration without discrimination;
unregistered religious activity will have to be decriminalised (including
abolishing articles of the criminal and civil code which punish
unregistered religious activity); believers in prison for their faith will
have to be freed; there will have to be an end to police and security
ministry raids on private homes where believers are meeting for worship;
there will have to be an end to interrogations of and fines on believers;
those fined for practising their faith will have to be compensated;
believers who have been fired from their jobs for their membership of
minority religious communities will have to be reinstated; those
responsible for raiding religious meetings and beating and otherwise
punishing believers for the free exercise of their faith will have to be
brought to legal accountability; and believers will have to be able to
enjoy the right to publish and distribute whatever religious literature
they wish to and organise and take part in religious education freely. Only
if the authorities meet these obligations will believers in Turkmenistan
believe that the situation has changed irrevocably for the better.

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at

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From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress


Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS