F18News: Turkmenistan – Religious freedom survey, August 2008


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

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Tuesday 5 August 2008

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News
Service has found continuing violations by the state of freedom of thought,
conscience and belief. Unregistered religious activity continues – in
defiance of international human rights agreements – to be attacked. The
government tries to control the extremely limited religious activity it
permits, which often does not – even for registered religious groups –
include the right to worship. Promises to respect human rights after the
accession of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov have not stopped the
state’s continuing actions to deny freedom of thought, conscience and
belief to peaceful Turkmen citizens of all faiths, including Muslims,
Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses,
Catholics, Hare Krishna devotees and Baha’is. Officials appear to have no
expectation that they will be held accountable for violating fundamental
human rights such as religious freedom.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service <;

Ahead of the Universal Periodic Review of Turkmenistan by the United
Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in December 2008, Forum 18 News Service
has found continuing violations by the state of people’s freedom of
thought, conscience and belief.

The religious activity of people of all faiths in Turkmenistan is highly
restricted. State officials frequently violate international human rights
standards on freedom of thought, conscience and belief – which the country
has freely signed. Religious communities are raided and their members
threatened and assaulted. The government tries to control the extremely
limited legal religious activity it permits, which often does not – even
for registered religious groups – include the right to worship. All
unregistered religious activity remains banned and the government actively
tries to suppress such activity along with its attacks on registered
activity. Religious believers and communities also suffer from the general
denial of rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of
expression and freedom of movement that affect all residents of

Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov took over as president in the wake of the
December 2006 death of his predecessor Saparmurat Niyazov. President
Berdymukhamedov has downgraded his predecessor’s personality cult, but has
mostly continued other internal policies, including tight control of
society and its isolation from other societies. It has been noted within
Turkmenistan that state officials have a continuing interest in maintaining
the system of repression and control developed under Niyazov. Most of the
population of some 5 million would identify themselves as Muslim by
tradition. Poverty is widespread.

Human rights violations have even taken place during separate visits to
Turkmenistan by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Director
of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Turkmen
officials appear to think that promises to respect fundamental human rights
need not have any impact on official actions.

State controls on religious believers and communities

Article 11 of Turkmenistan’s Constitution states: "The state shall
guarantee the freedom of religions and confessions and their equality
before the law. Religious organisations shall be separate from the state
and may not fulfil state functions. The state education system shall be
separate from religious organisations and shall be of a secular nature.
Everyone shall have the right independently to define his attitude toward
religion, to profess any religion or not profess any either individually or
jointly with others, to profess and disseminate beliefs associated with his
attitude to religion, and to participate in the practice of religious
cults, rituals, and rites."

However, in defiance of these constitutional guarantees all religious
activity is tightly controlled and restricted by the state. The Sunni
Muftiate (Muslim Spiritual Administration) – the only form of Islam
permitted – is under tight government control. The government’s Gengeshi
(Committee) for Religious Affairs names the Chief Mufti (who is also a
Gengeshi Deputy Chair) and imams at least down to regional level. All
Muslim and Russian Orthodox clergy are appointed by the Gengeshi.

Successive Chief Muftis were removed from office by former President
Niyazov and one, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was imprisoned on unclarified
charges from 2004-7. Devout Muslims expressed concern about the state’s
replacement of imams who had formal Islamic theological education by those
who had never had theological education. Officials have stated that imams
cannot be appointed if they have trained outside Turkmenistan. Muslims have
told Forum 18 that they believe that the authorities’ removal from office
of ethnic Uzbek minority imams in the northern Dashoguz [Dashhowuz] Region,
and their replacement with ethnic Turkmen imams, was racially motivated.

Impact of official racial discrimination

Although the government allows Sunni Islam to operate (within tightly
controlled limits), this is not the case for 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. Such
official intolerance of Shia Islam may be linked to former President
Niyazov’s racially-motivated policy of promoting an ethnically homogenous
Turkmen-speaking, ethnic Turkmen cultural national identity of which Sunni
Islam was seen as a part.

The pro-ethnic Turkmen policy enforced on society is also evident in
official harassment of ethnic Turkmen members of religious minorities, as
well as on non-Turkmen minorities. While the Russian Orthodox Church is
tolerated, the Armenian Apostolic Church has been banned from reviving. An
estimated 15 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 of
churches. No Armenian Apostolic communities have legal status.

Ethnic Turkmens who are members of non-Muslim faiths face public
humiliation and accusations from officials of betraying their nation. For
example, an ethnic Turkmen Protestant reported to Forum 18 that in early
2008 he had been summoned before the community, accused of betraying his
"ancestral faith" and pressured to renounce Christianity.

State pressure to control religious communities

After isolating the 12 Russian Orthodox parishes from the rest of their
Uzbek-based diocese, former President Niyazov pressured the Moscow
Patriarchate to move them into a jurisdiction controlled from within
Turkmenistan. In October 2007 – after Niyazov’s death – the Russian
Orthodox Church took the parishes away from the Uzbek-based diocese and a
new jurisdiction is now being formed.

All other non-state controlled Islamic and non-Russian Orthodox religious
communities – whether legally allowed to exist or not – are also subject to
state pressure, restrictions and attempts at control. The permission of the
Gengeshi at national level or through its local representatives is required
for any activity, including state registration (the only means of gaining
the legal right to exist) with the Justice (Adalat) Ministry, acquiring a
place for religious meetings, acquiring religious literature or inviting
foreign guests. Such requests are almost always denied and state officials
often also impose illegal requirements, representatives of many religious
communities have told Forum 18.

Also violating the constitutional separation of religion from the state is
the government role given to religious leaders, particularly giving them
the right to interfere in the activity of other faiths. One of the Deputy
Chairs of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs is the Chief Mufti.

Another of the Gengeshi’s Deputy Chairs is Fr Andrei Sapunov of the
Russian Orthodox Church, who has particular responsibility for Christian
affairs. This gives Fr Sapunov an official power of veto over the affairs
of other Christian denominations. His state role is acknowledged within the
Ministry of State Security (MSS) secret police, even by local officers
outside the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat]. In many raids on Protestant
churches in different regions of the country, MSS secret police officers
have told Protestants that they must gain permission from Fr Sapunov before
they can operate. Some Orthodox have told Forum 18 that they have evidence
he passes information received in the confessional – which the Church
teaches he should never reveal to anyone – to the MSS secret police. He has
praised a ban on the importation of literature from Russia, which includes
a ban on the official Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Members of religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 that officials
of the Gengeshi appointed under President Berdymukhamedov tend to
discriminate in favour of state-controlled Islam more than their
predecessors appointed under former President Niyazov. The recently
appointed officials appear to be even more willing than previous officials
to routinely deny permission for non-Muslim activity.

Sharing beliefs and religious education severely restricted

Sharing religious beliefs in public is extremely hazardous and in the
state-controlled media is impossible, while formal religious education,
apart from at a basic level, within places of worship or elsewhere is
impossible. The exception to this is a small Muslim theological section in
the History Faculty of Magtymguly Turkmen State University in Ashgabad, the
only institution in Turkmenistan authorised to train imams. The section
faces restrictions on the number of students and has been banned from
employing foreign staff. This particularly affected the Turkish staff
previously employed by the Muslim theological section. However, although
Muslims are not allowed to travel abroad for religious education, Russian
Orthodox men from Turkmenistan are allowed to study for the priesthood
outside the country.

Other religious communities have been harassed for trying to give their
members less formal religious education. About ten officials from the
Religious Affairs Department of the Hyakimlik (the executive authority) of
Ashgabad city’s Kopetdag district, the Justice Ministry, the MSS secret
police, local police and the Tax Ministry raided a Bible class at a
Protestant church in April 2008. They threatened that any further religious
teaching without specific permission from the Gengeshi could lead to the
church being closed down, for teaching religion "without approval".

Religious minorities’ employment and education attacked

Religious believers – especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses –
have been fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of
their faith. Their children have also been threatened with expulsion from

Registration system used as a control system

The registration system for acquiring legal status seems to be designed to
ensure close control over religious communities that overcome the obstacles
against registration. No provision is made for unregistered activity, which
remains an offence under the Administrative Code and to be treated as if it
were a criminal offence. The Gengeshi has to approve registration
applications, which are then handed to the Justice Ministry. A special
commission attached to the Justice Ministry processes registration
applications. This commission includes representatives of law enforcement
agencies and other ministries. Any of these bodies can reject applications,
a frequent occurrence for communities the government does not like. This
often happens outside Ashgabad.

Shia Muslims, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church,
Protestant and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are known to Forum 18 to have had
applications rejected or to have decided that they should not submit
applications because of the tight restrictions imposed. Officials also use
applications as an opportunity to impose extra-legal requirements on
communities. If communities obtain registration, they then need to be
entered on the Register of Legal Entities, which has to be renewed by the
religious community every three years. Communities also have to allow state
officials to attend any meeting they wish to, read any document the
community produces and every week check the counting and banking of
donations. Registered religious communities have told Forum 18 that they
are also required to be ready to collaborate with the MSS secret police.

One arrested Baha’i was told – after the state decided in 2004 to allow
religious minority communities to apply to register – that 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." President Niyazov at that time banned Muslims from
registering new mosques. However, some religious minorities – such as some
Protestants including Seventh-day Adventists, Bahai’s and Hare Krishna
devotees – have been eventually allowed to register.

Religious communities have complained to Forum 18 that the 2004 Religion
Law contains no mechanism for granting legal status to branches of
religious organisations in other geographic locations. This means that the
main registered branch must approve in writing anything a branch in another
area tries to do. Officials have frequently used this as an excuse to raid
and harass religious believers, even when the main branch has given written

There is one Catholic church in Turkmenistan, at the Holy See’s Nunciature
in Ashgabad, which has to serve the entire country. At present, Catholics
in Turkmenistan can only legally celebrate Masses on this Vatican
diplomatic territory. The two priests at the Nunciature have diplomatic

Raids by the MSS secret police and other officials

Unregistered religious communities face regular raids by MSS secret police
officers, backed up by ordinary police officers (especially from the 6th
Department, which notionally counters terrorism and organised crime),
officials of the local administration and local religious affairs
officials, who work closely together in suppressing and punishing as
criminal all unregistered religious activity. Registered religious
communities have often also suffered these raids or, more frequently,
check-up visits.

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 agents in each Muslim and Orthodox
community, the numbers of such agents being as many as six agents per
separate geographic community. In addition to their agents – who attend the
religious community solely as part of their MSS work 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 agents in unregistered religious groups.

Fear of openly discussing human rights violations

Some religious communities are afraid to report human rights violations
such as raids and MSS spying publicly, fearing it will make their situation
worse or harm attempts to gain legal status. Religious believers and
communities are also reluctant to publicly discuss the use of physical
violence including torture by officials, which appears to be common.

Use of the Ruhnama apparently lessening

The forced imposition on places of worship of the Ruhnama (Book of the
Soul), written by former President Niyazov, seems to have lessened since
his death in 2006, but it has not disappeared. In his time all mosques and
other places of worship were required to have copies available and
officials likened it to the Koran or the Bible. The all-pervasive use of
the Ruhnama (for example during driving tests), together with recitation of
the oath of loyalty to the country and President, was objectionable to many
religious parents who did not wish to subject their children to what they
saw as blasphemous practices. However, the Ruhnama continues to be imposed
in many areas of both state-controlled Muslim religious life and in state

Isolation of religious believers and communities

The obstructions to travel abroad have made it difficult to take part in
international gatherings. Only 188 pilgrims – including MSS secret police
and other officials – are allowed to travel on each year’s haj pilgrimage
to Mecca, an obligation on all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it. This
represents less than 5 percent of the quota of about 5,000 allocated to
Turkmenistan by the Saudi authorities. Many prominent religious figures are
among those on an exit blacklist, or are earmarked for close scrutiny on
leaving or re-entering Turkmenistan. Apart from the Russian Orthodox men
allowed to study abroad, those travelling abroad for religious meetings and
education have to be careful not to allow government officials to discover
this. If officials find out that travellers intend to take part in
religious meetings and education abroad, they risk being denied permission
to leave the country.

As part of its programme of isolating religious communities from their
fellow-believers abroad, the government has expelled several hundred local
residents with foreign passports over the past decade who had been
prominent in religious activity. The last Shia imam of the Caspian port
city of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk], an Azeri citizen
who had lived in Turkmenistan for more than a decade, was forced to leave
the country in about 2005. The community has since had no trained imam.
Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky – a Ukrainian citizen – was freed
from prison in November 2007 and hoped to return to his native city of
Turkmenbashi to his wife, children and his congregation. He was forced to
leave the country the following month, the second Baptist pastor expelled
in 2007. The deportation of foreign citizens involved in religious activity
deprives local communities of their right to chose them as religious

Restrictions on places of worship

Places of worship have been confiscated and destroyed in recent years. At
least nine mosques – eight Sunni and one Shia – were reported to have been
destroyed in 2004-5. One local Muslim suggested to Forum 18 that four
Ashgabad mosques demolished in autumn 2004 were targeted because their
imams refused to read Niyazov’s Ruhnama in their mosques. Places of worship
that are still open are tightly restricted – with many faiths not being
allowed any place of worship. The administration chief in Dashoguz has
halted work on building a Russian Orthodox church. Other religious
minorities have been denied permission to buy land and build places of
worship or buy buildings to use as places of worship.

Even communities that have state registration often cannot rent premises
for worship and thus cannot meet as communities. Some have told Forum 18
they can only meet in small groups for fear of police and secret police
raids. They have complained to Forum 18 that "telephone law" prevails: the
owner of a venue who agrees to rent to a religious organisation soon
cancels the arrangement, apparently after a telephone warning from
officials. Some registered religious communities have had to move their
meeting place more than a dozen times over the period of a year.

Meeting for worship in unapproved venues – such as private homes – is
dangerous and can lead to raids and fines.

Officials have indicated to Forum 18 that no compensation will be offered
to Muslims for the destroyed mosques; the Armenian Apostolic Church would
get no compensation nor be allowed to get back their century-old church in
Turkmenbashi, partially destroyed in 2005; nor will the Adventist and Hare
Krishna communities be compensated for their places of worship destroyed in
1999; and nor will Ashgabad’s Baptist and Pentecostal communities be able
to get back their places of worship confiscated in 2001.

The state loudly publicises the mosques it is building at state expense in
Koneürgench in the northern Dashoguz Region, and in Mary in the east of the
country. However, the decision to build these mosques was taken by the
state, not by the Muslim community, and the use of state funds violates the
separation of religion from the state mandated in the Constitution.

Other "legal" controls

March 2004 changes to the Religion Law and a presidential decree the same
month in theory allowed communities with just five adult citizen founders
to apply for legal status. This allowed about a dozen previously "illegal"
religious communities to gain legal status over the next year, even if in
practice such registration is now rarely given and – if given – is
associated with extra-legal requirements. Also removed in 2004 were
criminal penalties for unregistered religious activity. However,
unregistered religious activity remains an offence under Article 205 of the
Code of Administrative Offences and state agencies have continued to behave
as if unregistered religious activity was still a criminal offence.

Article 205 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which was last amended
in October 2003, specifies fines for those refusing to register their
religious communities of five to ten times the minimum monthly wage. Fines
can be doubled for repeat offenders. Many believers of a variety of faiths
have been fined under this article, including Baptists, Hare Krishna
devotees and Jehovah’s Witnesses, after raids on unregistered religious

Officials declared in early 2008 that the Religion Law is among several
laws to be amended, but despite rumours that it was scheduled for adoption
in parliament in September 2008 had made no draft text available by late
July. These plans are not open to public discussion and debate, and
officials have refused to explain to Forum 18 how the Law is likely to be
amended. Religious believers Forum 18 has spoken to welcome any attempts to
make the Law conform to international human right standards. But they
remain sceptical over whether such changes will mark a genuine change by
the authorities away from attacking people who exercise their right to
religious freedom.

Officials appear to have no expectation that they will be held accountable
for violating fundamental human rights. Article 154 of the Criminal Code
bans "obstructing the exercise of freedom of conscience and religion", but
Forum 18 is not aware of any government officials having been punished for
breaking this published law. Examples of violations Forum 18 has documented
include organising or taking part in harassment of religious communities,
whether beatings, threats, detention, fines, demolition or seizure of
places of worship, confiscation of religious literature or denial of the
right to travel for religious purposes. When religious believers challenge
the legality of official actions, the officials concerned are often found
to be ignorant of the relevant parts of the country’s Constitution and
published laws. But officials continue to regularly break the country’s
laws while attacking people exercising their fundamental human rights.

Control of religious literature

Religious literature, CDs and DVDs found by police or the MSS secret
police in raids on religious meetings in private homes are routinely
confiscated. Occasionally it is later returned, though often only after
great efforts and pressure from the owners, who risk further punishment by
so doing. Bibles and other literature were confiscated from a group of
Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashgabad in March 2008.

No religious literature may be published in Turkmenistan or imported into
the country without permission from the Gengeshi. Each title and the
quantity must be specifically approved. The Post Office holds all religious
literature received from abroad by post, releasing it only when the
Gengeshi has given written approval. Forum 18 has learnt that very
occasionally the Gengeshi allows small parcels of religious literature sent
from abroad to registered religious organisations to be handed to them.

Customs officers sometimes allow travellers returning to the country to
bring in a small quantity of religious literature for personal use.
Anything more than a small quantity of books or other material is
confiscated, irrespective of whether or not the person is a Turkmen
citizen. One Orthodox believer told Forum 18 that on at least five
occasions known to him, Orthodox priests had had literature taken from them
at the border on their return to the country.

Religious publications such as the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate are
banned in Turkmenistan. Even Orthodox priests do not receive the Journal
regularly, being forced to rely on old copies occasionally acquired abroad.
Some Russian Orthodox churches have small bookstalls, but supplies of
books, baptismal crosses and icons are limited and often too expensive for
local people. Protestant Christians have lamented to Forum 18 that neither
a Bible Society nor Christian bookshops are allowed to exist.

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 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 not reach the addressee.


Some believers have been given long prison sentences in recent years for
their religious activity or have been sent into internal exile to remote
parts of the country. These have included Muslims, Protestants, Jehovah’s
Witnesses and a Hare Krishna devotee. All of them have now been freed,
though three Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving suspended sentences.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have expressed concern to Forum 18 about these
continuing sentences imposed on their conscientious objectors for refusing
compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. Six young
men were sentenced in 2007, of which two are still serving suspended
sentences. One, Vladimir Golosenko, was sentenced on 12 February 2008 to
two years’ forced labour. He is not in prison, but 20 percent of his wages
go to the state. The lack of any genuine alternative service means that any
of their young men could still be arrested at any time.

Forum 18 has learnt that the government is this year (2008) considering
introducing some form of alternative service, but it is unclear whether any
definite proposals are being considered or how genuine this alternative
service will be. It also remains unclear whether everyone’s right to
conscientious objection will be respected by the state. General Comment 22
on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
by the former UN Human Rights Committee, states that conscientious
objection to military service is a legitimate part of everyone’s right to
freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

What changes do Turkmen citizens want in religious policy?

Religious believers of a variety of faiths have told Forum 18 that they
want to see Turkmenistan respect freedom of thought, conscience and belief,
as defined under international human rights standards. They state that they
most want the government to:

– stop officials taking any action or imposing any requirement they want
against religious believers and communities;

– end the obstructions to building, buying, renting, or opening places of

– stop interfering with the beliefs and internal affairs of religious
communities, including theological education and internal personnel

– end racial discrimination against non-ethnic Turkmen religious

– permit believers to freely provide religious education to whoever wants

– reinstate believers fired from their jobs for their membership of
religious communities;

– allow people to share their beliefs in public, including through
publishing and distributing religious literature;

– allow peaceful unregistered religious activity and register all
religious communities that wish to apply for legal status in this way;

– cease attacking religious activity, including abolishing all legal
barriers to peaceful registered or unregistered religious activity;

– end police and MSS secret police raids on religious meetings, whether in
private homes or elsewhere;

– end MSS secret police and other official attempts to spy on and control
peaceful religious activity;

– end interrogations and fines of peaceful religious believers;

– stop trying to isolate religious believers and communities from
co-religionists in other states, including using exit blacklists and other
entry and exit controls as tools of oppression against all residents;

– stop imprisoning people for exercising their rights to freedom of
thought, conscience and belief;

– introduce a genuinely civilian non-discriminatory form of alternative
service for people liable for compulsory military service;

– compensate people punished by the state for peacefully practising their

– and bring to legal accountability all those responsible for attacking
individuals and communities exercising their internationally-recognised
right to religious freedom. (END)

For a personal commentary by a Protestant within Turkmenistan, on the
fiction – despite government claims – of religious freedom in the country,
and how religious communities and the international community should
respond to this, see < 728>.

For a personal commentary by another Turkmen Protestant, arguing that
"without freedom to meet for worship it is impossible to claim that we have
freedom of religion or belief," see
< _id=1128>.

More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Turkmenistan
can be found at
< mp;religion=all&country=32>.

The previous Forum 18 Turkmenistan religious freedom survey can be found
at < 672>.

A survey of the religious freedom decline in the eastern part of the
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) area is at
< id=806>, and of religious
intolerance in Central Asia is at
< id=815>.

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at
< s/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme& gt;.

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