The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice the Government exercises control over all forms of religious expression, including the only two registered religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity. The Government requirement that religious groups must have at least 500 members in order to register effectively prevents all other religions from registering. Nonregistered religious congregations are present in the country, but the Government severely restricts their activities. Such groups are prohibited from gathering publicly, proselytizing and disseminating religious materials. The Government's interpretation of the law severely restricts their freedom to meet in private homes.
The Government's respect for freedom of religion deteriorated during the period covered by the report. Harassment of unregistered religious groups intensified and included torture, arrest, and seizure or destruction of property.
There is no notable societal discrimination or violence based on religion in the country. Society historically has been tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. The Government's restrictions on nontraditional religions apparently do not stem from doctrinal differences or societal friction between the majority Muslim population and non-Muslim communities. Rather, some observers have speculated that official restrictions on religious freedom, a holdover from the Soviet era, reflect the Government's concern that liberal religious policies could lead to political dissent, including in particular the introduction of Islamic extremist movements into the country. The Government appears to view participation in nontraditional religions as a threat to the stability and the neutrality of the State.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. Representatives of the Embassy met frequently with the Government to appeal for greater support for religious freedom. The Ambassador, along with ambassadors from the European Union, repeatedly urged the Government to release religious prisoner Shageldi Atakov. Embassy officers attended several court hearings on the eviction of a Baptist pastor from the house in which his congregation held services.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 188,407 square miles and its population is approximately 5 million.
Reliable statistics regarding religious affiliation are not available. According to the Government's 1995 census, ethnic Turkmen constituted 77 percent of the population and are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Minority populations include ethnic Uzbeks (9.2 percent), ethnic Russians (6.7 percent) and ethnic Kazakhs (2 percent). The remainder of the population consists of Armenians, Azeris and other ethnic groups. Both the ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs are Sunni Muslim. There are small pockets of Shi'a Muslims in the country, many of whom are ethnic Iranians living along the border with Iran. There has been a modest, government-sponsored and tightly controlled revival of Islam since independence. During the Soviet era, there were only 4 mosques operating; now there are an estimated 318. Nevertheless, mosque-based Islam does not play a dominant role in society, in part due to 70 years of Soviet rule and in part because of the country's indigenous religious culture. Traditionally, Turkmen express Islam more through rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death, and through pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, rather than through regular attendance at a mosque.
While the 1995 census showed that Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, emigration to Russia and elsewhere probably has reduced this proportion considerably. The remaining 5 percent of the population consists of Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups. Among the Russian population, practicing Christians are most likely to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but their level of religious observance is uncertain. There are 11 Russian Orthodox churches in the main cities, 3 of which are in Ashgabat. The Russian Orthodox Church is led by a priest resident in Ashgabat, but is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop in Tashkent. There are five Russian Orthodox priests, but no seminaries. There are plans to build a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Ashgabat, but no date has been set to begin construction. There are no Armenian Catholic churches. There are also small communities of Pentecostal Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is, and Hare Krishna. None of these groups is registered; or maintains churches. (The Seventh-Day Adventist church was demolished by the Government in November 1999.) While most Christians are ethnic Russians, there are groups of ethnic Turkmen Christians as well. There is a Roman Catholic community in Ashqabat that meets in the chapel of the Vatican Embassy. It includes both citizens and foreigners. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Serakhs, reportedly practices the Lutheran faith.
An estimated 1,000 ethnic Jews live in the country. Most of their families came here during World War II from Ukraine, but there are also some Jewish families living in Turkmenabat, on the border with Uzbekistan, who are members of the community known as "Bokharski" Jews, referring to the city of Bokhara, in Uzbekistan. Virtually all Jews in the country are reportedly nonpracticing. There are no synagogues or rabbis in the country. The size of the Jewish community is dwindling as members emigrate to Israel, Germany, and the U.S.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, as does the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which was amended in 1995 and 1996; however, in practice, the law has been interpreted to control religious life tightly and to restrict severely the activities of all religions.
According to the law on religious organizations, all congregations are required to register with the Government. However, in order to register, a congregation must have 500 citizens of at least 18 years of age in each locality in which it wishes to register (i.e., it is not sufficient to have at least 500 members in the country as a whole). These requirements have made it impossible for religious communities other than Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians to register. The situation is exacerbated because ethnic Turkmen members of Christian groups are hesitant to sign their names to a public document that shows that they have converted. Ethnic Turkmen who have converted to Christianity have been subjected to official harassment and mistreatment.
Nonregistered religious groups are officially prohibited from conducting religious activities, including gathering, disseminating religious materials, and proselytizing. This is a consequence of the Government's interpretation of the law rather than because of the law itself, which does not prohibit nonregistered religious groups from gathering. In fact, the Law on Public Associations specifically excludes its application in the case of religious gatherings. Nevertheless, government authorities regularly apply the Law on Public Associations when nonregistered religious groups meet, even if the meetings occur in private homes. Participants are subject to fines and administrative arrest, according to the country's administrative code, and, once administrative measures are exhausted, are subject to criminal prosecution. In such cases, the Soviet-era 1988 regulation on the "procedure for conducting gatherings, meetings, marches, and demonstrations" is applied, although gatherings in private homes are not within the scope of this regulation.
There is no state religion, but the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. An individual is thought of as being born into an ethnicity and religion at the same time. Departures from the pattern are rare and do not meet with much support in society. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Islamic tradition into its effort to redefine a national identity. At the same time, it is concerned that foreign Islamic movements do not spread into the country. The Government maintains control over the practice of Islam in several ways. It pays the salaries of all Muslim clerics. In 1997 it began prohibiting mosque-based imams from gathering pupils and teaching about Islam. Following President Niyazov's closure of the Zamakhshari Madrasa in Dashoguz in June 2001, the Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat became the only institution to conduct Islamic education. In addition, the Government continues to control participation in the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), choosing all participants and limiting the number permitted to participate. In 2001 only 185 Turkmen citizens were given permission by the Government to participate in the Hajj, far fewer pilgrims than the country's quota, which was 4,600. The Government provided free transportation to Mecca and a member of the Council on Religious Affairs accompanied the group.
The Government provides some financial and other support for the construction of new mosques to the Council on Religious Affairs. This body consists of four government officials, one secular official, two Muslim clerics, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. It acts as an intermediary between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations. It has no role in promoting interfaith dialog. Through the Council, the Government also maintains control over the other registered religious institution, the Russian Orthodox Church. Although the Government does not pay the salaries of parish priests, the head of the Church is a member of the Council on Religious Affairs and, as such, is an official of the Government.
Religious holidays that are also national holidays are all Muslim. These include Gurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), a 3-day holiday that commemorates the end of the Hajj; and Eid al-Fitr, which commemorates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. These holidays do not have an overt negative impact on any non-Muslim groups.
There is no religious instruction in public schools. However, the Government requires instruction on "Rukhnama," President Niyazov's spiritual guidebook on Turkmen culture and heritage, which was released in February 2001, in all public schools and institutes of higher learning . The Russian Orthodox Church conducts religious instruction classes for children. Home-schooling is allowed only in cases of severe illness or disability, and not for religious reasons.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Government's registration requirements for religious groups, which specify that a group must have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as members in each locality, effectively prevent all religions but Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church from practicing openly. However, the only groups specifically banned by the Government are extremist groups that advocate violence.
The Government restricts organized religions in establishing places of worship. The Government does not allow unregistered groups to gather publicly or privately or to establish a church; it punishes individuals or groups who violate these prohibitions.
The Government restricts the number of Muslim places of worship whose construction requires government permission. According to the Council on Religious Affairs, every village should have one mosque. While large, monumental mosques, such as the ones in Ashqatab, and Gok Tepe, and the one planned for Kipchak, are supported by the Government, village mosques are supported by the local population. In theory villagers wishing to build a mosque must first obtain land from the local authorities, then get permission from nearby residents and provide the funding for construction and maintenance.
The Government also controls and restricts access to Islamic education. Beginning in 1997, the Government began to prohibit mosque-based imams from teaching Islam to pupils. In a meeting with media and academic leaders in June 2001, President Niyazov criticized the expansion of a network of Islamic schools and ordered the closure of one of the two theological centers remaining in the country, the Zamakhshari Madrasa in Dashoguz. The only remaining government center for Islamic education is the Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat. The Government also exercises control over who is allowed to participate in the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The Government chooses all participants. In February 2001, only 185 pilgrims were chosen, although the country could have sent many more.
The Government also has attempted to restrict the freedom of parents to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. When an Adventist pastor was detained in Turkmenabat in October 2000, one of the Government's formal charges against him was that he was corrupting minors because children of congregation members were present at the prayer service.
Foreign missionary activity is prohibited, although there is evidence that both Christian and Muslim missionaries have some presence in the country. Ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups who are accused of disseminating religious material receive harsher treatment than non-ethnic Turkmen, especially if they have received financial support from foreign sources.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
In November 1999, the Government razed the Seventh-Day Adventist church in Turkmenbat. In October 2000, the Adventist pastor was detained and questioned for several days in Turkmenabat after police and Internal Security Service (KNB) officials raided a prayer service he was conducting in a private apartment. In March 2001, an unregistered Baptist congregation was evicted from the private house in which it had held religious services for over 20 years. In April 2001, a Jehovah's Witnesses service in a private apartment was disrupted by a group of KNB, police, and city officials. In June 2001, the city of Ashgabat determined that the owner of the apartment, a Jehovah's Witness adherent, should be evicted from the apartment and not provided with another because she had used the apartment for holding unauthorized religious meetings. In April 2001, a Pentecostal pastor lost his long court battle against eviction from the house in which he held religious services; the Ashgabat city government implausibly claimed he had made unauthorized renovations that rendered it unsafe for occupation. Despite the pastor's intention to appeal, the city has allowed 20 workers to live in the house. Also in May 2001, a Baptist pastor and two fellow church members were detained by Mary KNB officials and questioned for several hours after the KNB broke up an open air religious service conducted by the pastor outside Mary. Local police officials prohibited the Baptists from ever travelling to Mary again.
In March 2000, the Government arrested religious leader Hoja Ahmed Orazgylychev and demolished the unregistered mosque and religious school operated by Orgazgylychev and his followers. Orazgylychev subsequently was released and sentenced to internal exile in Tedjen. Orazgulychev was charged with participating in a kidnaping plot, but his arrest came after he criticized President Niyazov for directing that local children dance around a Christmas tree during New Year's celebrations.
In November 2000, four ethnic Turkmen Baptists were detained, interrogated, and tortured by KNB officials in Anau, outside of Ashgabat, after Christian literature was found in their car by local police. In December the four Baptists again were detained and harassed by the KNB in Ashgabat and Turkmenabat. In December 2000, three of the ethnic Turkmen Baptists were forced to sign documents ceding houses, used for religious purposes, over to the Government, although they were allowed to keep their personal property.
In February 2001, human rights organizations and the international press reported that Baptist prisoner Shalgeldi Atakov had suffered a heart attack in prison and was gravely ill. Atakov has been in prison since 1999 for allegedly making an illegal transfer of automobiles in 1994. His original sentence of 2 years had been extended to 4 years and he was fined $12,000, an unusually large fine for such an offense. Atakov denied the charges and claimed that he was being imprisoned because of his religious beliefs. Following high-level approaches by foreign governments and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Atakov was transferred to a hospital prison near Mary. After his recovery, he was returned to his original prison and then, according to the authorities, was transferred in April 2001 to the maximum security prison in Turkmenbashy for violating prison rules. Although the religious press contains many statements about the circumstances surrounding his imprisonment, including the allegation that he was tortured in prison, and his subsequent potential release, such statements were impossible to confirm. Also in February 2001, according to the Keston News Service, the local authorities of the Niyazov district of Ashgabat sealed the country's last functioning Baptist church. In March 2001, the authorities reportedly broke the seals and removed all of the church's contents. The church had been in existence for 20 years, and was corporately owned by the congregation, which had been registered under the Soviets and lost registration in 1997 under the new law.
The religious press reported that Dmitri Melnichenko, a member of a Baptist Church in Ashgabat, was arrested and tortured because of his persistent refusal, on religious grounds, to perform military service. These reports have not been independently confirmed.
Several members of Jehovah's Witnesses who had been imprisoned for conscientious objection were not released at the end of their term because they refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the President.
There were no other reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect For Religious Freedom
A group of young Roman Catholics, all Turkmen citizens, traveled to Rome in August, 2000, to meet with the Pope and participate in the World Youth Day conference. This was a departure from the country's severely restrictive policies on travel. The Baha'i community, whose members had been prevented from conducting services since 1997, gathered publicly to celebrate Novruz Bairam in March 2001, and sent a delegation from Turkmenistan to Israel in June 2001 to participate in the opening ceremony of a Baha'i garden in Haifa.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
There was neither general, overt societal discrimination nor any violence based on religion during the period covered by this report. Turkmen culture historically is tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. For example, in the early part of the 20th century, Ashgabat was a refuge for members of the Baha'i Faith escaping persecution in Iran, and the first Baha'i temple was built in Ashgabat. Government repression of minority religions does not reflect doctrinal or societal friction between the majority Muslim population and minority religions. Rather, observers believe that it reflects the Government's concern that the proliferation of nontraditional religions could lead to loss of state control, civil unrest, and the undermining of the Niyazov Government. The societal attitude toward conversion from Islam to any other religion generally is surprise, and often disapproval. Although most citizens do not emphasize mosque attendance or observance of many Islamic customs practiced in other parts of the Muslim world, they view being Muslim as an integral part of the national culture and of Turkmen identity.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
During the period covered by this report, the Embassy has approached the Government regularly regarding the issue of religious freedom, at every level up to the President. In December 2000, the Charge joined EU ambassadors in protesting the brutal treatment of four ethnic Turkmen Baptists detained by the Government in November 2000, and demanded restitution of their property. In January 2001, an embassy officer, along with embassies from the EU and OSCE representatives, was successful in gaining access to the court hearing over the eviction of a Pentecostal pastor from his house. The embassy officer attended all subsequent hearings in the eviction case. In February 2001, following news that Baptist prisoner Shageldi Atakov was gravely ill, the Ambassador and EU ambassadors urged the Foreign Minister to release religious prisoner Shageldi Atakov, immediately. The Government responded by transferring Atakov to a prison hospital outside of Mary for treatment. In May 2001, embassy officers met with Atakov's family in Kakkha and later with Atakov in Ashgabat.