OSLO, Norway (BP)–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, according to a report by Forum 18 News Service.
Under Turkmenistan’s highly restrictive 1996 religion law, only two religious faiths were able to gain registration in the Central Asian country: communities of the state-sanctioned Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church, according to Forum 18, which reports on religious freedom issues from its base in Oslo, Norway.
In October of last year, amendments to the religion law were enacted to make all unregistered religious activity illegal and a criminal offense. Unregistered religious activity already was being treated as de facto 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 were among those whose activities were banned and punishable under the administrative or criminal law.
This year’s surprise legal changes came at a time when Turkmenistan’s government was under heavy international pressure over its human rights abuses. Key United Nations bodies already had condemned Turkmenistan’s record, which was due to come up again at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, which opened March 15. The legal changes were heralded by a decree from Turkemen President Saparmurat Niyazov on March 11, the same day that he met visiting U.S. 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 officials immediately stressed to Forum 18 that unregistered activity remains a criminal offense.
The decree was followed up by amendments to the religion law, published on March 24. The new law requires that “religious groups” must have between five and 50 adult citizen members to register, while “religious organizations” must have at least 50. 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 liberalization. Many were skeptical 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 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 signaled to Forum 18 that it might wish to register more parishes. However, many religious leaders emphasized 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 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 March 29, President Niyazov told officials of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, which oversees the Muslim community, 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 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 fired from his job, leaving his family with no breadwinner. Two days later more than 20 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.
On March 24, secret police officers raided the home in the town of Balkanabad of a Baha’i, accusing him of “provoking schism” in society by his faith and threatening to confiscate his home.
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. Places used for worship have been confiscated or demolished and believers have been beaten, fined, detained, deported and fired from their jobs in punishment for religious activity. 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.)
Turkmenistan has restricted religious activity despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, which were repeated in the March presidential decree, and its obligations to maintain such freedom of religion as a member of the Organization 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 lead U.N. official on religion and belief, Abdelfattah Amor, to be allowed to visit the country or to respond to inquiries 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 characterized by a 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 quote approvingly from the Ruhnama in sermons and to display it prominently in places of worship.
Turkmenistan’s deliberate isolation from the outside world and the punitive measures taken against those engaged in unauthorized 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 organizations 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 10 or 15 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 Adalat Ministry officially registers religious organizations, although until now it has had little work to do because so few applications have been approved. Shirin Akhmedova, the official at the ministry in charge of registering religious organizations, 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.
Adapted from a report by Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News Service in Oslo, Norway, and on the Web at www.forum18.org.