TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution’s latest disguises

Forum 18, Norway
May 14 2004

TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution’s latest disguises
By Felix Corley, Editor, Forum 18 News Service

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.

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

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 illegal.

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 Gengeshi.

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

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

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