F18News: Turkmenistan – Religious persecution’s latest disguises


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 13 May 2004

In his latest attempt to disguise Turkmenistan’s de facto criminalisation
of religious belief, President Saparmurat Niyazov has today (13 May)
revoked the de jure criminalisation of unregistered religious activity.
Believers were, before the de jure criminalization, treated as de facto
criminals and fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs,
had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or
deported in retaliation for unregistered religious activity. Niyazov has
also cancelled a secret decree requiring registered religious communities
to subject themselves to tight financial regulation by the state –
but has imposed tight financial regulation in a different way, through an
official model statute for religious communities. Forum 18 News Service has
obtained a copy of this, and religious leaders in Turkmenistan have told
Forum 18 that they find these restrictions unacceptable. Many prefer to
continue to exist in the underground.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Under intense international pressure over its repression of religious life,
Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niyazov has today (13 May) revoked the
punishments introduced into the Criminal Code last year on those involved
in unregistered religious activity. Before these punishments were
introduced, Turkmenistan already had tight controls -which it still
maintains – on unregistered religious activity. All Shia Muslim, Baptist,
Pentecostal, Adventist, Armenian Apostolic, Lutheran, Hare Krishna,
Jehovah’s Witness, Baha’i and Jewish activity was de facto if not de jure
treated as illegal. Believers were, even before the de jure criminalization
of unregistered activity, fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from
their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the
country or deported in retaliation for involvement in unregistered
religious activity. De jure decriminalisation is not expected to change the
established pattern of de facto criminalisation.

President Niyazov also cancelled a secret decree he had issued on 23 March
which required registered religious communities to subject themselves to
tight financial regulation by the state. However, Forum 18 News Service has
also received a copy of the six-page model statute handed out to religious
communities by the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry which requires all
religious communities to pay 20 per cent of their income to the
government’s Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs and imposes other
tight controls. This imposes tight financial regulation in a different way,
as well as forcing registered communities to provide the state with
information helpful to its continued persecution of religious believers
(see F18News 10 May ).

The pro-government website turkmenistan.ru claimed that the president
cancelled the criminal penalties and the secret decree “with the aim
of creating the necessary legal guarantees to secure freedom of religion
and belief, as well as to complete the laws of the country on religious
organisations”. Turkmenistan has for the last seven years refused to
register all communities of the Shia Muslims, Armenian Apostolic Church,
all Protestants (including Pentecostals, Lutherans and Baptists), Jews,
Baha’is, the Hare Krishna community and the New Apostolic Church.

The president’s moves are the latest in an embarrassing series of
conflicting legal moves designed to head off international criticism
sparked by last October’s amendments to the religion law and the criminal
code which tightened even further restrictions on registered religious
communities and criminalized unregistered religious activity.

In March this year, the president also announced an apparent paper
relaxation of persecution, apparently allowing religious communities to
gain official registration regardless of how many members they have or what
faith they belong to (see F18News 12 March
). However, it became
clear that this apparent relaxation masked moves to impose stringent
controls on any community that registered, such as a requirement that any
worship service or other event needs state permission to take place (see
F18News 10 May ).

The change in bureaucratic requirements also did not signal any respite in
persecution, being apparently intended to allow religious communities to
exist in theory but be persecuted in practice. Secret police raids
continued and on the same day the March announcement was made, a Jehovah’s
Witness was arrested and pressured by officials, including a Mullah, to
renounce his faith and then fired from his job (see F18News
). As Forum 18 has
documented, persecution continued since then unabated, Muslims, for
example, being barred from building new mosques on 29 March (see F18News 30
March ). It is highly
unlikely that today’s announcement marks any actual relaxation in

The registration regulations issued by the Adalat Ministry on 10 March,
which appear still to be in force despite the latest legal moves, come in
the form of a model statute which religious communities appear required to
follow very closely if they are to get registration. Article 13 defines the
first aim of a religious organization, ahead even of “jointly
confessing and spreading their faith”, as “respecting the
Constitution and laws of Turkmenistan”.

Services would be allowed in property owned by religious organisations and
in private homes “in cases of ritual necessity”. It remains
unclear if regular services in private homes or elsewhere would be

Only adults citizens of Turkmenistan would be allowed to belong to
religious organizations, according to Article 16, leaving it unclear
whether foreign citizens living in the country would even be allowed to
attend religious services of registered organizations.

Although registered religious communities would be able to teach children
on their own premises, teachers would have to be approved in advance by the

Article 15 of the statute requires the payment of 20 per cent of income to
the Gengeshi every quarter, while all donations from abroad have to be
registered at the Adalat Ministry.

Leaders of religious organizations have to be Turkmen citizens, making it
difficult for faiths like the Catholics or the Armenians which do not have
native clergy. The model statute also defines how the administration of
each faith must work and how often its governing body must meet.

The model statute also states that leaders of religious organizations are
also expected to have higher religious education, a concept which is not
defined. This concept may be a further restriction on the clergy who can be
appointed, possibly related to Niyazov’s decree dismissing from state
employment, with effect from 1 June, anyone who holds higher education
decrees awarded outside Turkmenistan since 1993.

Article 38 allows courts to liquidate religious organizations for
“repeated or gross violations” of the country’s laws, while the
Adalat Ministry can also terminate an organisation’s registration (for
which the statute gives no further explanation).

Religious leaders in Turkmenistan have already told Forum 18 that they find
the restrictions in the model statute unacceptable. Many prefer to continue
to exist in the underground, as the latest apparent relaxations mark no
change in the continued de facto criminalisation and persecution of
religious believers.

For more background see Forum 18’s latest religious freedom survey at

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at

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