F18News: Turkmenistan – Continued isolation of religious believers


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


Tuesday 26 October 2004

Turkmenistan has, as part of an apparent policy of keeping religious
believers isolated, denied permission for a group of Seventh Day Adventists
to visit the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, despite the fact
that their invitation came from Turkmenistan’s registered Adventist church.
Other religious communities facing obstacles in visiting co-religionists
include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, ethnic Uzbek Muslims,
and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The head of Uzbekistan’s Bible Society
has also been denied entry, as was the United Nations special rapporteur on
freedom of religion or belief. The only religious community to have
unimpeded travel to Turkmenistan is the Russian Orthodox Church.


By Igor Rotar, Forum 18 News Service, and
Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Turkmenistan’s Foreign Ministry has refused permission for a group of five
leading Seventh Day Adventists to visit the country in December, despite
the fact that their invitation came from Turkmenistan’s registered
Adventist church, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The group had intended
to meet officially with the staff of the government’s Gengeshi (Council)
for Religious Affairs in the capital Ashgabad and to familiarise themselves
with the work of the Church in the country, which received registration
again in June after a seven and a half year break. Also barred from
visiting Turkmenistan is the head of the Bible Society from neighbouring
Uzbekistan, whose fourth successive application was rejected in
mid-September. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have had many
visa denials over the past few years.

Officials at Turkmenistan’s foreign ministry have declined to explain why
foreign religious representatives are being denied visas. Reached by
telephone on 25 October, one official even told Forum 18 that the number of
the ministry press office is a secret and that he had no right to give it
out. Agdylek Jumaniyazova, third secretary in the ministry’s consular
section, told Forum 18 from Ashgabad the same day that she had “no
right to comment on visa refusals”. Asked whether it is harder for
religious figures to get visas than it is for other individuals, she said
she did not know.

The Adventists launched the application process at the beginning of August
for the five hoped-for visitors – Rubin Ott, head of the Church in
Central Asia, and his wife, Viktor Vitko and Valeri Ivanov from Moscow, and
John Graz, the Washington-based general secretary of the International
Religious Liberty Association. Although all the required documents were
presented, when church members went to the reception desk at the foreign
ministry in mid-September to collect the permissions they were told
verbally that this had not been granted. “No explanation was
given,” Adventist sources told Forum 18.

“This means that although we are registered as a religious
organisation and our statute specifically allows us to invite foreign
visitors, we don’t have the right to invite people in practice,”
Adventists in Turkmenistan told Forum 18. “We are upset, as
registration means nothing.” They point out that their congregations
in Turkmenistan are part of a worldwide Church and it is “only
natural” that leaders and fellow Church members should visit and learn
about Church life in the country.

Adventists have also been denied permission to worship, despite the
much-trumpeted “liberalisation” of Turkmenistan’s religious
policy (see F18News 4 October 2004

Local Adventists also asked the Gengeshi about how they should go about the
invitations. One of the deputy chairmen, Murad Karriyev, told them that
they need permission from the Gengeshi and instructed them to request such
permission in writing. “We wrote and got no reply,” Adventists
told Forum 18. “Karriyev told them that permission could take six
months to come through as it was not he who decided.”

Turkmenistan’s Adventist church does not know whether it will ever be able
to invite fellow-Adventists from abroad. “We have the foreign ministry
on one side insisting that it is their decision, while on the other the
Gengeshi insists they decide. But neither gives permission.”

The head of the Uzbek Bible Society, Sergei Mitin, told Forum 18 in the
Uzbek capital Tashkent on 15 October that the rejection of his visa
application was the fourth since 2000 and, as on the previous occasions,
the Turkmen Foreign Ministry gave him no reason for the refusal.

He said that on each occasion he had arranged an invitation as a private
individual through a commercial tourist company, but had indicated on the
application form his job as head of the Bible Society. He said one of his
main aims was to meet officials of the Gengeshi in Ashgabad to discuss the
return of 1,500 booklets belonging to the Uzbek Bible Society confiscated
by the Turkmen authorities in 1999.

The Turkmen Foreign Ministry has also denied visas to Hare Krishna
followers and Jehovah’s Witnesses from other Central Asian republics,
Anatoli Melnik, leader of the ruling council of Jehovah’s Witnesses in
Kazakhstan, and Andrei Gorkovy (Achuta garaji-das) of the Society for
Krishna Consciousness in Uzbekistan told Forum 18 on 21 October.

Both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Krishna devotees tried to obtain
Turkmen visas as private individuals because their religious communities
were unregistered in Turkmenistan and therefore could not send them an
invitation. Given the lack of success of Turkmenistan’s Adventist church in
inviting foreign leaders, it seems unlikely that even with the registration
it gained earlier this year that the Hare Krishna community will be
successful in inviting devotees from abroad.

Foreign religious representatives occasionally manage to obtain a Turkmen
visa in spite of this, but only if the Turkmen authorities fail to
establish that the foreigner is coming to make contact with
fellow-believers. Uzbek Krishna devotee Aleksandr Prinkur lived and
preached in Turkmenistan for several years in the 1990s before being
deported and his name is well known to the Turkmen special services. But
his two recent applications for a Turkmen visa have been refused. After
returning from visits to Turkmenistan, Jehovah’s Witness Anatoli Melnik
gave several interviews to journalists about the infringement of Jehovah’s
Witnesses’ rights in the country. He was refused a visa last year, as was
Fedor Jitnikov, another leader of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan.

Interestingly, Uzbek Muslims have no contact with their fellow-believers in
Turkmenistan. Abdurazak Yunusov, an adviser to Uzbekistan’s chief mufti,
told Forum 18 on 22 October in Tashkent that contact with Turkmen Muslims
ceased when Turkmenistan became independent, although Turkmenistan has a
large ethnic Uzbek minority which traditionally had close links with
Uzbekistan. “No-one invites us there, so we do not apply for Turkmen
visas,” Yunusov declared. “Why should we go there if no-one is
expecting us?” The Turkmen authorities have been placing obstacles in
the way of such contacts (see F18News 4 March 2004

It is notable that no foreign Islamic religious dignitaries attended the
opening of the largest mosque in Central Asia on 22 October, an enormous
personal project of President Saparmurat Niyazov in his home village, which
can accommodate 10,000 worshippers. Niyazov was reported by Radio Free
Europe/Radio Liberty as saying then that “We keep religion pure and we
will not use it for political purposes, nor will we allow anyone else to
use religion for their personal ambition.”

Although it does not have registration in Turkmenistan, the Armenian
Apostolic Church was occasionally able to send one of its priests, Fr Vram
Ghazarian, who is based in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. However on his last
visit in December 1999, at the invitation of the Armenian embassy in
Ashgabad, he held services only on Armenian diplomatic territory. Forum 18
was unable to reach Fr Ghazarian on 21 and 22 October to find out if he has
tried to visit Turkmenistan more recently.

The only faith whose representatives travel unimpeded to Turkmenistan to
meet fellow believers is the Russian Orthodox Church, which has always had
registration in Turkmenistan. “The bishop of the Central Asia diocese
and accompanying members of his delegation travel to Turkmenistan whenever
necessary,” Fr Nikolai Rybchinsky, archpriest for the Central Asian
diocese, told Forum 18 on 21 October in Tashkent. “Such visits take
place at least once a year, and sometimes more often. We have no difficulty
in obtaining Turkmen visas.”

Even United Nations (UN) officials have been denied entry to the country.
The previous UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief
Abdelfattah Amor applied to visit Turkmenistan in 2003, but the government
failed to respond with an invitation, as the current rapporteur Asma
Jahangir noted in her report to the UN General Assembly on 16 September

For more background, see Forum 18’s Turkmenistan religious freedom survey

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at

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