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Turkmenistan’s religious repression decried by former Turkmen official

LONDON (BP)–Boris Shikhmuradov, the senior-most official to abandon Turkmenistan’s authoritarian regime, has launched an attack on the repression of religious believers in the Central Asian country.

Former foreign minister Shikhmuradov, in a telephone interview with Keston News Service Nov. 6, charged that all decisions about religious affairs are made personally by Turkmenistan’s president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov, thus making religion no different from any other aspect of life in Turkmenistan.

“If he doesn’t liquidate it, it must be controlled. Every believer is controlled by the KGB,” Shikhmuradov said. While Islam exists under tight state control, the former Turkmen official said Christianity has been “crushed.” Other religious minorities also are persecuted, he said, especially the Baha’is, for whom the nation’s capital, Ashgabad, once was a major center.

“Turkmenistan needs religious liberty immediately,” declared Shikhmuradov, who had parted company with the Niyazov regime only a few days earlier, after being dismissed as ambassador to Beijing. “This is an essential human value. The state must not interfere in the life of religious groups. We will have such religious freedom after Niyazov.”

Turkmenistan has the most repressive policy toward religion of all the former Soviet republics. Only Muslim communities loyal to the officially sanctioned Muslim Board and some parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church have been allowed to register. All other faiths are treated as illegal. Believers have been harassed and fined for their religious activity. Some have been imprisoned, including the Baptist Shageldy Atakov, serving a four-year sentence, while places of worship have been destroyed, such as the Adventist church in Ashgabad, bulldozed in November 1999. Hundreds of foreign religious activists — among them Muslims, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees — have been expelled in recent years.

The 52-year-old Shikhmuradov, a deputy prime minister and foreign minister before becoming ambassador to China, is now based in Russia. He did not explain why he suddenly turned against the regime of which he was a part for the past decade.

“It is not true that only religious minorities, such as the Protestants or Krishnaites, are persecuted,” Shikhmuradov told Keston. “The basic faith — Islam — is also persecuted.” The only Islam allowed is a state-sponsored version, he said, which is financed by Niyazov.

“Building a mosque with state funds is not building a house of God. This is a moral norm: places of worship should not be built with funds from the state budget,” Shikhmuradov said. It was announced in October that the French company Bouygues will build the country’s biggest mosque in the village of Kipchak near Ashgabad at a complex to commemorate Niyazov’s mother. The $86 million construction cost will be paid by the state.

“Believers won’t visit such mosques — they won’t accept them as houses of God but houses built by Niyazov,” Shikhmuradov said. “At the same time, other mosques he does not control are destroyed.” Asked how many such non-approved mosques have been destroyed, the former official said he did not have a number. He confirmed that numerous Koranic schools have been closed.

Noting the difficult position of the chief mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, Shikhmuradov said, “He is a very clever person, but he is under terrible pressure.”

The Russian Orthodox Church — the only other legal faith — has a number of registered parishes in several cities and towns, but Shikhmuradov said it too has suffered. “The Russian Orthodox Church is in a terrible state; it has no rights, though of course it is in a better state than the Baptist church, which is banned. Niyazov has practically halted the activity of the Russian Orthodox Church. He refuses to hand back their old churches. There are dozens of such churches confiscated during the Soviet period and used for other purposes.” Shikhmuradov accused Niyazov of lying when the Turkmen leader said the Russian Orthodox Church would be allowed to build and open new churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan is technically subject to Archbishop Vladimir (Ikim) of Tashkent in neighboring Uzbekistan, but Shikhmuradov claimed that de facto Ashgabad-based priest Father Andrei Sapunov is in charge. “Niyazov wants the church in Turkmenistan to be autonomous, not subject to Tashkent,” the former official said. “He wants it to be cut off from outside control.” Shikhmuradov said Russian Orthodox patriarch Aleksy could name the head of the church in Turkmenistan unilaterally, but then there would be problems. “If he named his own leader, Niyazov would destabilize him.

“The Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t want conflict with Niyazov, so it is mild and cautious,” Shikhmuradov said. “I think it should be bolder.” He contrasted such “mildness” with what he said was the more incisive intervention of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has tried to pressure Niyazov to change his policies.

Shikhmuradov — who is half-Armenian — declared that all Niyazov’s promises to Armenian leaders to allow confiscated Armenian churches to be handed back and reopened are lies. “He won’t consider the Armenian Church. He spoke about it with Armenian leaders and told them that is okay. But he has no intention of doing it.

“The Baha’is have great problems,” Shikhmuradov continued. “[Niyazov] has great fear of them. Once it was explained to him that Ashgabad was a great center for the Baha’i faith. He banned anyone from ever mentioning it.”

Shikhmuradov laid the blame for the bulldozing of Ashgabad’s Adventist church also on Niyazov, saying, “He gave the order to destroy the church, for it to be flattened to the ground within two days.” The destruction of the church — which was recorded on a video smuggled out of the country — aroused widespread protests from around the world.

Shikhmuradov described Niyazov — Turkmenistan’s first secretary from 1985, who became independent Turkmenistan’s first and so far only president — as a typical middle-ranking communist party secretary, which is reflected in his attitude to religion. “Some describe him as an oriental dictator, but this is not true,” Shikhmuradov said. “He acts as a basic, primitive party leader. He is a primitive atheist, and doesn’t know the history of religion. He doesn’t understand that nationality, ethnicity and religion are different things. He knows that religion is something bad that has to be controlled. As in the Soviet Union, sectarianism is especially bad. He has some experience only as a communist ruler.”

Shikhmuradov added that Niyazov “was baffled that President Clinton was a Baptist. He doesn’t understand what Baptists are.”

Asked by Keston who had been behind successive amendments to the 1991 religion law that, by the time of the most recent amendment in 1996, made it all but impossible for non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities to gain legal status, Shikhmuradov declared: “Niyazov decided himself to change the law. The first version of the law allowed religions to register and function. Niyazov was worried and issued instructions that the law must be changed. Specialists came and told him it would be difficult and the changes he wanted would not meet international norms and OSCE standards, but he got annoyed and insisted on dictating how the law should be changed.”

Shikhmuradov said Niyazov’s attempts to depict himself as a prophet and to portray the Rukhnama — a 400-page book he “allegedly wrote” on spiritual and moral values, which was officially adopted by the Khalk Maslakhaty (Council of the People) on Oct. 19 — as a modern equivalent of the Koran were “blasphemous” and caused outrage in the Muslim world. “Many Arab and Islamic states protested against this,” Shikhmuradov said, though he declined to name them. “They told him you can build your own policy but don’t touch Islam and the Koran. Niyazov blamed others.”

Turkmenistan’s National Security Committee, the KNB (successor to the KGB), is “not a special service, just an internal police service to control the country,” Shikhmuradov declared. “It does not prepare analytical reports, it just acts as a second Interior Ministry. At a time of mass unemployment, its ranks are expanding. It has added 10,000 officers this year.” He said “every believer” is monitored. “We are a small country.” He said the special KNB department covering religion has continued from the Soviet period, but “every department covers religion.” “Photos are taken at services to monitor who’s there, who’s speaking with the mullah or priest.” Even weddings and family gatherings are photographed or filmed. “Niyazov looks at these films — he likes to see what is going on.”

Shikhmuradov dismissed the importance of the government’s Committee for Religious Affairs as merely a body that carries out instructions from the president. “Everything is decided by him.”

Claiming to have been “always interested” in the subject of religious liberty, Shikhmuradov said he had regularly read Keston News Service’s reports on the Internet. “I am also very interested in this theme from an academic point of view,” he said.

He acknowledged that there had been a huge number of appeals from around the world to free religious prisoners, especially the Baptist Atakov, who is currently in an interior ministry prison in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi and who was the subject of negotiations earlier this year between senior Turkmen officials and U.S. diplomats based in Ashgabad, who hoped he would be freed and be allowed to leave Turkmenistan. “There was no reaction to the appeals to release Atakov,” Shikhmuradov said, “although Niyazov told people he would release him and that everything would be okay. He deceived the OSCE, the United States and others. He told the KGB not to release him. I know this for a fact.

“Many letters about the fate of religious prisoners were written from London, the United States, Moscow, but Niyazov throws them out,” Shikhmuradov continued. “If our embassy sends on such letters they have received, he persecutes the ambassador. Officials are afraid now to pass such letters on.” Shikhmuradov declined to say which ambassadors had suffered for forwarding such appeals to Ashgabad. “There is no point writing letters to Niyazov about prisoners like Atakov. He doesn’t read them and doesn’t allow other officials to read them.”

Asked whether the Niyazov regime faces a potential challenge from an Islamic-inspired insurgency, as does the regime of President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, Shikhmuradov was cautious. “One could expect a Muslim opposition, as there is no space for an opposition in the country and no opportunity to protest. The absence of freedom, democracy and religious liberty is the first source of armed opposition. Niyazov’s policy is a great danger for the potential appearance of terrorism.”

Although Shikhmuradov said there were people actively gathering to discuss their problems, “everyone is worried about the future of their family” and there is at present “no Muslim character” to such opposition. “I don’t know anything about weapons,” he said, describing the Turkmen as more reserved towards Islam. “God is in their souls. There are no mass protests where people gather under banners. Islam is an internal thing. Niyazov exploits this.

“Everything in Turkmenistan is organized and carried out by just one person, the president,” Shikhmuradov reiterated. “There is no possibility of presenting alternative views. Religious freedom does not differ from the position of other basic civil rights. It is all in accordance with Niyazov’s policy. Turkmenistan cannot be considered a civilized state or a worthy member of the OSCE. Unfortunately, no one is challenging him.”
Source: Keston Institute, at www.keston.org. Corley is a writer with the London-based Keston News Service.

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  • Felix Corley