printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Turkmenistan


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Share

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice the Government continues to monitor all forms of religious expression. Amendments to the law on religious organizations adopted in March establish two categories of religious assemblies: religious groups (to comprise at least 5 and not more than 50 members of legal age) and religious organizations (to comprise at least 50 members). All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. Until recently the only religions that were registered successfully were Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the Government; by the end of the period covered by this report, four minority religious groups had registered. The March amendments to the law on religious organizations and subsequent Presidential decrees have enabled the Ministry of Justice to facilitate registration of some religious congregations and have engendered a noticeable reduction in harassment of minority congregations. The Government limits the activities of unregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials. The Government's interpretation of the law restricts their freedom to meet and worship in private.

The status of government respect for religious freedom, from a legislative perspective and in practice, improved during the period covered by this report. On March 11, the President signed a decree pledging to register all religious groups, regardless of creed or number, and to adhere to generally accepted international norms and rules concerning treatment of religious minorities; however, he subsequently promulgated an unpublished implementing regulation stipulating onerous additional requirements for minority congregations to register and operate. The President signed another decree in May that disavowed requirements enumerated in the unpublished regulation and eliminated criminal penalties for members of unregistered religious groups. In early June, the President also granted amnesty to six members of Jehovah's Witnesses serving prison sentences for conscientious objection to military service.

Although the level of harassment has significantly decreased in the last six months, the types of government harassment experienced by religious groups was consistent with that experienced in years past and included detention, arrest, confiscation of religious literature and materials, pressure to abandon religious beliefs, and threats of eviction and loss of jobs. There were reports of torture, but these claims have not been confirmed. Human rights observers widely reported that the Government replaced a number of Sunni Muslim imams with individuals believed to be less independent in their interpretations of Islam in an attempt to better facilitate government control of mosques.

There is no general, notable societal discrimination or violence based on religion in the country, although the overwhelming majority of citizens identify themselves as "Muslim," and ethnic Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert to other faiths are viewed with skepticism and sometimes ostracized, but the society has historically been tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. The Government's restrictions on nontraditional religions 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, particularly the emergence of extreme, political interpretations of Islam throughout the country. The Government appears to view active participation in, or sponsorship of both traditional and nontraditional religions, as a threat to the stability of the Government.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. During the period covered by this report, Embassy representatives and State Department officials raised specific cases of religious freedom abuses in meetings with government officials and urged greater support for religious freedom. The Ambassador, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, and the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) urged senior Government officials to cease minority religious group harassment, rescind numerical requirements requiring 500 members for registration of groups, decriminalize nonregistered group activity and permit minority groups to register. In addition, the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. State Department's Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom conveyed formal messages in April and May urging the Government to make a number of improvements with respect to religious freedom. Improving registration for nongovernmental groups, including religious organizations, was a top U.S. priority. Embassy officers met with representatives of unregistered religious groups on a regular basis; these representatives have been more willing to meet publicly with embassy officials after beginning the registration process.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 188,457 square miles, and its population is approximately 5 million. Statistics regarding religious affiliation are not available. According to figures from the Government's most recent census in 1995, ethnic Turkmen constituted 77 percent of the population. Minority populations included ethnic Uzbeks (9.2 percent), ethnic Russians (6.7 percent), and ethnic Kazakhs (2 percent). Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups comprised the remaining 5.1 percent of the population. The majority is Sunni Muslim, and the largest minority is Russian Orthodox Christian. The level of religious observance was unknown for both religions.

Ethnic Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs are predominantly 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 approximately 350.

While the 1995 census showed that Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, subsequent emigration to Russia and elsewhere has reduced this proportion considerably. The majority of ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian. Practicing Russian Christians are most likely to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). There are 11 Russian Orthodox churches in the main cities, 3 of which are in Ashgabat. A priest resident in Ashgabat, who also is a Deputy Chairman of the Government's Council on Religious Affairs, leads the ROC. He serves under the religious jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There are five Russian Orthodox priests, but no seminaries.

Russians and Armenians also comprise a significant percentage of unregistered religious congregations, although ethnic Turkmen appear to be increasingly represented among these groups as well. There are small communities of the following unregistered denominations: the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, Pentecostal Christians, the Protestant Word of Life Church, the Greater Grace World Outreach Church, the New Apostolic Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and several unaffiliated, nondenominational evangelical Christian groups. In addition, there are small communities of Baha'is, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Hare Krishnas, all of whom the Government recently registered after the adoption of a series of laws this spring that removed obstacles preventing minority groups from registering. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of who live in and around the city of Serakhs, reportedly practices Lutheranism. The Roman Catholic community in Ashgabat, which includes both citizens and foreigners, meets in the chapel of the Vatican Nunciate. Foreign missionaries, typically representing evangelical Protestant denominations, operate in the country, although the extent of their activities is unknown.

Estimates show fewer than 1,000 ethnic Jews living in the country, virtually all of whom are non-practicing. Most are descendants from families who came to the country from Ukraine during World War II, but there also are 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, Uzbekistan. There are no synagogues or rabbis in the country and the Jewish community continues to dwindle as members emigrate to Israel, Russia, and Germany.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, in practice the Government largely does not protect these rights. In November 2003, the Government implemented a new law on religion to replace the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and its subsequent amendments in 1995 and 1996. Under the old legislation, religious groups had to have 500 citizens of at least 18 years of age in each locality in which it wished to register, in order to obtain legal status. These requirements made it impossible for religious communities other than Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians to register. Even if a group did meet the numerical requirements for a locality, they were not allowed to assemble and were hesitant to sign their names to a document, fearing official harassment.

The November 2003 law, which replaced the 1991 law, required all religious organizations to register, made operations of unregistered religious organizations a criminal offense, further restricted religious education, and monitored financial and material assistance to religious groups from foreign sources. Parallel amendments to the criminal code imposed penalties of up to one-year imprisonment for a number of violations for which minority groups traditionally have faced administrative fines. In response to international pressure, criminal penalties were lifted in May, but the remaining laws continue to allow the Government to control religious life and to restrict the activities of all religious groups.

The President signed a decree on January 14 that strengthened the November law on religious practice and religious organizations. A prohibitive requirement introduced in the new registration rules increased registration fees for religious organizations to $100 (2.5 million manat at the unofficial rate). This doubled the previous rates set in effect by 1996 registration rules. In addition, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) was no longer obliged to publish in the local media a list of registered religious organizations. This not only limited the transparency of legally registered groups in the country, isolating them from other religious communities, but also limited the ability of the public to respond when authorities harassed legally registered groups. The law also allowed the MOJ the right to cancel a group's registration because of ill‑defined charges.

On March 11, the Government published amendments to the religion law that stipulated reduced numerical thresholds for registration (from 500 to 5), and all minority groups were eligible to register; however, the amendments left gray areas of the law that could be interpreted to prevent registration for groups, although this has not yet happened in practice.

On March 23, an implementing regulation and recommended standard charter were adopted but not published stipulating harsh requirements for religious groups wishing to register. The decree and charter required that religious groups give 20 percent of their donations to the Council on Religious Affairs (CRA), and register all financial support with the Government. It also required registered religious congregations to make written reports to the CRA on their activities. In addition, registered religious congregations were required to obtain permission from the CRA for individual groups to travel abroad for pilgrimages or conferences. After pressure from the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy, these regulations were publicly disavowed in a decree on May 13.

There are no practical mechanisms in the legal system to protect individuals against violation of religious freedom or persecution by private actors. Governmental entities at all levels, including the courts, have interpreted the laws in such a way as to discriminate against those practicing any faith other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity. Until June, only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians could legally hold worship services since they were the only two religions to successfully register with the government. Now, members of four additional religious groups -- the Seventh-day Adventists, Baha'is, Baptists and Hare Krishnas -- have also registered and are legally allowed to practice their faith.

There is no state religion, but the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Turkmen society considers an individual to be born into an ethnicity and religion at the same time. Departures from the pattern are rare and either receive little support or are criticized in society. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Islamic tradition as part of its effort to redefine a national identity. For example, the Government supports large, monumental mosques, such as the ones in Ashgabat and Goek Depe, and the one planned for Gipchak. The local population supports village mosques. Despite its embrace of certain aspects of Islamic culture, the Government is concerned about the establishment of foreign-backed Islamic movements in the country.

The Government maintains the CRA, which reports to President Niyazov. The Chairman is the Imam of the Goek Depe Mosque. He serves with three deputy chairmen: the Mufti of Turkmenistan, the head of the ROC in Turkmenistan, and a government representative. The CRA ostensibly acts as an intermediary between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations. In practice, it acts as an arm of the state, exercising direct control over the hiring, promotion, and firing of both Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox clergy, as well as helping to control all religious publications and activities. Its writ is enforced through security and police forces, and it has no role in promoting interfaith dialogue beyond that between these two religions. Although the Government does not officially favor any one religion, it has provided some financial and other support for the construction of new mosques to the CRA.

The Government maintains tight control over the practice of Islam. It pays most Muslim clerics' salaries and approves all senior clerics' appointments, requiring them to report regularly to the CRA. Throughout the reporting period, the CRA continued to urge imams to accord greater attention to President Niyazov's spiritual-social tome, Rukhnama, by teaching it as a religious text and placing it next to the Koran in some mosques. President Niyazov directed that selected phrases from the Rukhnama be inscribed on the large mosque under construction in his home village Of Gipchak. In March the former Chief Mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for alleged involvement in the November 2002 coup attempt; observers speculate that insufficient support of the Rukhnama may have also merited the arrest.

The Government recognizes only Muslim holidays as national holidays. These include Gurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), a 3-day holiday that commemorates the end of the Hajj, and Oraza-Bairam (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.

Unregistered religious groups are legally forbidden to conduct non-sanctioned religious activities, including gathering, disseminating religious materials, and proselytizing. Government authorities have disrupted meetings of unregistered religious groups, even if the meetings occur in private homes. According to the amended law, participants are subject to fines and administrative (not criminal) arrest under the administrative code. The number of disruptions decreased significantly during the period covered by this report and none have been confirmed since May.

Since the repeal of the unpublished regulation in May, four new religious groups registered by the end of the period covered by this report, including the Seventh-day Adventists in May, and the Baha'is, Baptists and the Hare Krishnas in June. It is unclear whether or not members of Jehovah's Witnesses have applied for registration, although they claim to have applied annually since 2001, but have been rejected. There was no information on a group comprising various Protestant evangelical groups who attempted to register a nondenominational Bible study society in Ashgabat, but were rejected in 2001. Shi'a Muslims were not registered by the end of the reporting period. It is unclear whether or not they have attempted to apply since the repeal of the unpublished regulation in May. The ROC remains unclear on whether or not it will have to reregister its parishes as required by the November 2003 revised law. Some groups remain either fearful of registering, citing the unpublished decree in late March as reason for skepticism, or refuse to do so on principle.

The Government does not offer alternative service for conscientious objectors. Individuals who refuse to serve in the military for religious reasons are offered noncombatant roles within the military, but are not provided with nonmilitary service alternatives.

There is no official religious instruction in public schools; however, the Government requires in all public schools and institutes of higher learning regular instruction on Rukhnama, President Niyazov's spiritual guidebook on culture and heritage. Beginning in 2002, the Ministry of Education required that each child bring a personal copy of Rukhnama to school.

Article 6 of the November law allows mosques to provide religious education to children after school for four hours a week with the approval of parents, the CRA, and the President. People who have graduated from institutions of higher religious education, (the law does not state if they must be Turkmen or international institutions) and who have obtained CRA approval, may provide religious education. Citizens of the country have a right to receive religious education individually or jointly with other persons based on their own choice; however, providing religious education in private is prohibited, and is subject to liability according to the laws of the country. In practice, no private religious education is permitted and the Government has done nothing to promote religious education.

According to the November law, the ROC is forbidden to conduct religious education programs without CRA and Presidential approval, and there were no reports that either the CRA or the President had approved such programs. Home-schooling usually is allowed only in cases of severe illness or disability, and not for religious reasons.

The Government, through the CRA, does little to promote interfaith understanding or dialogue beyond that between Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians. In some cases, the Government actively disparages minority religious groups. A July 2003 issue of state-owned newspaper, "Adalat," published by the Ministry of Justice, published a vitriolic attack against Hare Krishnas and members of Jehovah's Witnesses, describing the groups as foreign and implying they were dangerous.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

On March 11, the Government amended its registration requirements for religious groups and reduced the numerical thresholds for registration from 500 to five. The only groups officially banned by the Government are extremist groups that advocate violence. The activities of unregistered religious groups remain illegal, with violators subject to fines and administrative arrest under the administrative code.

The Government restricts registered and unregistered religious groups from establishing places of worship, and violations of the law constitute an administrative offense. It also forbids religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and punishes individuals or groups who violate these prohibitions. Some congregations continue to practice quietly, largely in private homes.

During the period covered by this report, there were credible but unconfirmed reports that certain congregations of Russian Orthodox Christians were prevented from practicing their faith despite the religion's registration with the Government. Early in the period covered by this report, other minority religious groups were prevented from registering with the Government despite apparently having the required minimum number of congregants.

During the period covered by this report, the Government replaced a number of dynamic imams with younger less qualified individuals to facilitate government control. Prior to December 2003, the Abu Bekir Mosque in Ashgabat was closed and ethnic Uzbek imams from three mosques were ousted for resisting the Council's pressure. There were also credible reports that authorities pressured Russian Orthodox priests to teach Rukhnama in their services in Turkmenabat and Ashgabat.

The Government continues to restrict the freedom of parents of some religious groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and members of Jehovah's Witnesses, to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs.

In practice, foreign missionary activity is prohibited, although 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, particularly if they have received financial support from foreign sources. The Government monitors peaceful minority religious groups in the country, particularly those that are perceived to have connections with or be supported by a supranational hierarchy. In January, President Niyazov warned the newly appointed Mufti of Turkmenistan against accepting money from foreigners seeking to patronize Turkmen mosques to propagate a more fundamentalist Islamic message. The November 2003 Law on Religious Organizations stipulated that religious groups must register any financial or material assistance received from foreign sources. A subsequent amendment in March further required that they also register all assistance received from entities inside Turkmenistan.

Religious literature is no longer published in the country, and in July 2002, the Government prohibited the delivery of all Russian-language newspapers and periodicals into the country, citing high airmail delivery rates. The ban has made it more difficult for religious minority groups, and the ROC, to obtain and import religious literature and materials. The ROC is now barred from subscribing to its Church's main journal, the Journal of the Moscow Patriarch. The decree has also limited the availability of Korans for Muslims. There have been periods in which it was difficult or impossible to find Korans available for purchase.

During the period covered by this report, the Government confiscated copies of Christian literature, including the Bible, claiming that it was not authentic Christian religious literature. As recently as June 10, local authorities raided the home of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses and confiscated two Bibles. There were also credible reports that authorities have claimed that Bibles not bearing the Russian Orthodox cross are not legitimate and are therefore subject to confiscation.

The enforced use of President Niyazov's spiritual guide, Rukhnama, in educational institutions, mosques, and Russian Orthodox churches constitutes a restriction of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Copies of the book are kept in some mosques, and authorities have pressured religious leaders to place it alongside the Koran and to teach Rukhnama in their services. In November 2003, the Ministry of National Security (MNB) closed down a mosque that failed to place the Rukhnama on the same stand with the Koran for Friday prayer. In addition, according to unconfirmed reports, authorities have forced imams to place the country's flag above mosque entrances, and required sermons to begin with praise of President Niyazov.

In 2003, the Government continued to limit the number of persons allowed to participate in the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), specifying that only 187 pilgrims out of the country's quota of 4,600 would be allowed to journey to Mecca. Transportation was provided free of charge by the national airline. The Government's control of religious pilgrims was facilitated by the re-imposition of an exit visa requirement in March 2003, following the failed assassination attempt on President Niyazov in November 2002. As a result, in August 2003, 48 members of Jehovah's Witnesses were denied exit visas to attend a religious convention in Tajikistan. Five other Witnesses who were able to obtain exit visas were stopped after crossing the border and forced to return.

The Government formally lifted the exit visa requirement in January 2004, theoretically permitting travel to all those who wished to participate in the Hajj or other travel for religious purposes; however, the government maintains a "black list" of targeted individuals, including religious believers, and continues to limit freedom of movement to a lesser degree. For example, on March 9, two women were stopped and prevented from boarding a flight to Kiev to attend a Jehovah's Witnesses conference because their names were included on a "black list" of citizens prohibited from leaving the country. They were told to apply to the Border Directorate in Ashgabat for further explanation. In April, Deutsche Welle Radio reported that five members of Jehovah's Witnesses were removed from a flight from Ashgabat to Moscow because they were on the Government's "black list" of persons forbidden to leave the country.

A religious minority group in Adaban has reported fewer instances of harassment than in the previous reporting period. In May 2003, officers of the MNB and local police raided the group, and one of the members, a teacher, was pressured to sign a letter of resignation, but refused to do so. The teacher had lost her job in 2001 after a similar raid, but was reinstated after teaching a class in the Turkmen language and demonstrating knowledge of the Rukhnama.

In their 2004 Report on International Religious Freedom, members of Jehovah's Witnesses report that some members of the group were dismissed from employment after their religious affiliation was discovered. The report also stated that some children were publicly humiliated in schools because of their religious affiliation, and that according to one school director, teachers were fearful of losing their jobs if they did not comply with Government orders to harass children from the group. In 2002, there were reports of a student and a teacher, both members of Jehovah's Witnesses, who were publicly humiliated in front of colleagues and fellow students, and threatened with expulsion and loss of employment. In June 2003, a teacher in Adaban was pressured to resign from her job because of her religious beliefs, but the teacher was subsequently reinstated.

The Government also controls and restricts access to Islamic education. Following President Niyazov's closure of a mosque and madrassa in Dashoguz in 2001, the Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat became the only academic institution in the country to conduct Islamic education. The Government has since declared further restrictions on Islamic education. In 2002, the President declared a limit of 10 to 20 clerical students a year, who would spend one year at Artogrul Ghazi Mosque in Ashgabat and one year at the Goek Depe Mosque. In April, an Islamic secondary school operating under the auspices of the sole remaining theological faculty was closed, reportedly in part because of school administrators' and teachers' refusal to promote the Rukhnama as an orthodox Islamic text.

The Government restricts the number of Muslim mosques by requiring government permission for construction. Government policy is that every community should have one mosque; however, on March 29, President Niyazov ordered that no more mosques were to be built and stated mosques would henceforth be led by state-appointed imams. The Government supports large, monumental mosques, such as the ones in Ashgabat and Goek Depe, and the one being built in Gipchak. The local population supports village mosques. Villagers who wish to build a mosque must obtain land from local authorities, receive consent from nearby residents, and provide the funding for construction and maintenance.

There are at least two Shi'a Muslim places of worship in the country, one near Ashgabat and one in Turkmenbashi; however, the Government continues to restrict the construction of Shi'a mosques.

There was no progress in the restitution of the Armenian Apostolic church in Turkmenbashi since the March law. Despite recent registration, a Seventh-day Adventist church in Ashgabat, which was bulldozed in 1999, has yet to be rebuilt. Ashgabat's Pentecostal church was seized as well and has yet to be returned.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

The systematic harassment of religious minority members, which began April 2003, continued and was extended to the Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities. The Government threatened members of religious minority groups with fines, loss of employment and housing, and imprisonment because of their religious beliefs. Several religious minority groups suspect that the government has infiltrated their gatherings to monitor their activities; nonetheless, some communities continue to function "underground" in a limited capacity. In response to international pressure, four religious groups have been allowed to register since May when most draconian parts of the November 2003 law on religion were removed. The level of harassment has markedly decreased; however, officers from the Sixth Police Department in Ashgabat, the division for fighting organized crime and terrorism, still occasionally question congregation members.

According to unconfirmed reports, prison guards regularly beat five members of the Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for their refusal to perform compulsory military service. They also reportedly threatened to kill two of the prisoners. According to the reports, prison guards pressured the prisoners to abandon their faith and convert to Islam. President Niyazov granted a general amnesty for conscientious objectors in June, resulting in the release of six members of Jehovah's Witnesses from prison on June 10-12. Two other members of the group, Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov, remain in prison, serving 18-month sentences for refusing to do their military service.

On September 30, 2003 a member of Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenabat was arrested by a police lieutenant and immediately taken to the Second Police Department where he was badly beaten and kept in custody for 20 hours. He was released the next day and went to a first-aid station for treatment of his injuries. Three police officers later forced him to withdraw his complaint about the beating.

There were no reports of Hare Krishnas being beaten by authorities during the period covered by this report. In May 2003, according to unconfirmed Forum 18 news service reports, authorities reportedly raided a meeting of Hare Krishnas in Ashgabat and beat one member during an interrogation. Authorities reportedly filmed the occupants of the home, confiscated all religious articles and religious literature, and fined the group.

Throughout the period covered by this report prior to the March decree, there were numerous accounts of authorities arbitrarily arresting and interrogating members of several minority religious groups that met to worship, including the Baha'is, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, members of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Shi'a Muslims. During such incidents, authorities took a range of actions including: filming those present; taking the names, addresses and places of work of the congregants; threatening fines and imprisonment; confiscating religious literature; and detaining members. In December 2003, secret police officers raided a Shi'a Muslim mosque in the city of Turkmenbashi in order to break up a commemoration for former Azerbaijani President Aliyev. The group dispersed after authorities threatened them with violence.

Reports of authorities arbitrarily arresting and interrogating members of minority religious groups who met to worship significantly declined after the March Presidential decree. However, there were some instances where local officials continued to harass religious minorities even after March, often because they were not aware of the March Presidential decree. On April 25, according to the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative, secret police officers, representatives of the city administration for religious affairs, and police officers raided a meeting of Hare Krishnas in a private home in Mary. After the group was questioned for three hours, a secret policeman threatened the Hare Krishnas with fines, dismissal from work, and criminal charges before allowing them to return home.

Two raids on meetings of members of Jehovah's Witnesses occurred in March, one, according to an unconfirmed report from Forum 18 News Service, in a private home in Ashgabat the day after the March 13 Presidential decree pledging adherence to international standards for respect of religious freedom. A similar raid occurred on March 9, and a woman involved was taken to a police station and forced to write an explanatory statement dictated by the police and was sexually harassed by a district police officer.

During the period covered by the last report, authorities raided a number of religious meetings as well. In June 2003, there were reports that authorities raided a Baptist prayer meeting in Turkmenabat, where several members were detained and threatened with imprisonment and fines. In May 2003, officials mistakenly raided the birthday party of a 16-year old girl, believing it was a meeting of a religious minority group. Officials took information on the individuals present, and questioned the parents. Also in May 2003, authorities broke up two unregistered Baptist services in the cities of Balkanabat and Turkmenbashi, and raided at least four different Protestant congregations in the city of Ashgabat. In March 2003, authorities raided a Balkanabat Baptist congregation during worship services and recorded the congregants' names, addresses and places of work. Authorities raided religious minority groups in 2002, in some cases questioned members about activities, and threatened to restrict members from leaving the country. In one case, officials cut off gas, electricity and water supplies to a community, and treated the members harshly, reportedly because of frustration that the ethnic Turkmen members had converted from Islam.

Since 2002, there have been no reports of harassment of Pentecostals.

Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Turkmenabat have continued to meet in private since the Government razed their church building in 1999.

There were some reports of authorities allegedly fabricating false charges in order to punish individuals for their religious beliefs. In March, authorities entered the home of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses and demanded he immediately pay a fine from 2001 that allegedly remained unpaid. Though the individual had paid all fines as required, the officials said they had an order from the city administration to collect and that if he did not pay they would confiscate his property.

Oguldzhan Dzhumanazarova, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 4 years in prison in 2001. The Jehovah's Witness community claimed that the accusations of fraud were based on fabricated evidence. Ms. Dzhumanazarova was released on September 30, 2003, after having served half of her prison sentence, but is suffering from bronchial and kidney problems due to harsh prison conditions. Though released, she remains under surveillance by the security agencies.

According to estimates, there was one long-term religious detainee in the country during the reporting period; however, a number of individuals were detained and harassed by officials for short periods of time, often because they were caught illegally worshiping or had outstanding fines. For example, in November 2003, police reportedly raided a Baptist service and brought everyone present, including children, to a police station. Congregants were accused of worshipping without state registration, and were threatened with fines and criminal charges for any additional violations. Authorities reportedly threatened to place one woman's children in a children's home. In July 2003, officers from the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Internal Affairs detained a Baha'i believer in her village near the southern city of Mary. The officials photographed and fingerprinted her, and detained her for over twelve hours, questioning her about the Baha'i faith, local believers, and her activities in the community. Officials also detained a Baha'i believer in Turkmenbashi City along with his wife and another woman for several hours in August 2003, asking for a list of the Baha'i believers in the area as well as for information about when and where Baha'is gather to worship.

In December 2003, Geldy Khudaikuliev, the leader of a Baptist congregation in Geok Depe, was detained without charge for six days after traveling to Ashgabat on business. His family was later told that Khudaikuliev was being held at the headquarters of the National Security Ministry in Ashgabat, although they were not allowed access to him. Khudaikuliev was released on December 20 as a result of international pressure for his release.

Ten members of Jehovah's Witnesses served prison sentences. Eight were held for refusing to perform compulsory military service, one was incarcerated for alleged fraud charges, and another served an eight-year sentence on questionable assault charges. One prisoner, Oguldzhan Dzhumanazarova, was released on September 30, 2003 after serving half of her prison sentence. Another, Nikolai Shelekhov, was released on January 2 after completing his second prison sentence for conscientious objection to military service. Six prisoners were granted amnesty by a Presidential decree and released in June. Two prisoners, Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov remain incarcerated for refusing to serve in the military.

Despite the President's announcement that all imprisoned conscientious objectors should be released, Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov were sentenced respectively on May 28 and June 3 to 18 months in prison because of their conscientious objection to military service. They are both members of Jehovah's Witnesses. They were invited for an interview by the authorities but were immediately taken into custody and put into pretrial detention. After the trials, they were transferred to the Seydi penal colony.

On March 2, Turkmenistan's popular and respected former Chief Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was secretly tried and sentenced to 22 years in prison, reportedly in connection with his alleged role in a failed November 2002 coup plot. Ibadullah was dismissed as Chief Mufti in January 2003, reportedly in part for his refusal to teach the President's tome, Rukhnama, as a sacred text. Little is known about the whereabouts or the condition of Ibadullah despite calls from the international community for access to him and his release.

Nikolai Shelekhov, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, was released in January from a labor camp in Turkmenabat after serving a second full sentence, for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Shelekhov's second conviction came only six months after his release from the prison colony at which he served one year for the same offense.

Religious leader Hoja Ahmed Orazglychev, remained isolated in internal exile in Tedjen, for alleged criminal activity. Some believe his refusal to publicly support the Niyazov regime and his strict religious beliefs also contributed to his exile. No update was available at the end of the reporting period.

During the reporting period, the Government imposed a number of financial penalties on religious groups attempting to meet for worship, though there have been no reports of fines imposed since April. An unconfirmed Forum 18 report indicates that one member of Jehovah's Witnesses was fined a large sum in April. On April 12, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative reported that police raided a Baptist meeting in a private Ashgabat apartment, and confiscated the belongings of one family, while threatening to do the same to other members. Many members attending the meeting were fined five times the minimum monthly wage.

On January 26, authorities entered the apartment of a family who attended a Baptist church in Turkmenbashi. The authorities confiscated a carpet and a clock in lieu of an unpaid fine that the wife had refused to pay. The husband's fine already had been deducted from his wages. The fines were imposed after authorities raided the Turkmenbashi Baptist church in May 2003.

The Baptist Church in Balkanabat reported that in July and August 2003, all of its members were fined $11 (250,000 manat) and that the rate doubled to $22 (500,000 manat) in October. In August 2003, police banned members of the Baptist Church in Balkanabat from meeting for services and threatened to issue fines for each meeting that occurred.

According to an unconfirmed Forum 18 news service report, in July 2003, a deaf and mute Baptist woman was summoned to court where she was threatened with fines and a fifteen-day imprisonment. In addition, authorities attempted to force her to deliver a summons to other Christians, which she refused to do. A few days later, court authorities confiscated her passport and withdrew her pension in order to collect a $58 fine (250,000 manat). The officials admitted to stealing $1 (4,000 manat) from the woman and did not return it. Forum 18 also reported that another deaf and mute Baptist woman was summoned to court in July 2003. She was also threatened with fifteen days imprisonment if she failed to pay her fine.

Individuals were also fined excessive amounts in June 2003, when authorities raided a Baptist prayer meeting in Turkmenabat. In April 2003, police raided the meeting of an unregistered Christian group, confiscated the group's Bibles, and fined the group's leaders $12.50 (250,000 manat). Two courts affirmed the actions. A similar case occurred in March 2003.

Individuals of minority religious groups were pressured by authorities to renounce their faith during the period covered by this report. Multiple sources report that prison guards in a labor camp in the town of Seydi beat and pressured the prisoners, who were members of Jehovah's Witnesses, to abandon their faith and convert to Islam.

On March 11, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses in Ashgabat was pressured by the Council on Religious Affairs to renounce his faith and was fired from his job when he refused. From May to September 2003, up to 40 members of the group, male and female, were taken to the Sixth Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the department responsible for the fight against organized crime and terrorism. Males were beaten, all were required to renounce their faith in writing, and passports were confiscated until fines were paid.

According to an unconfirmed report from Forum 18 News Service in May, a Hindu was forced by police officers to sign a statement renouncing his beliefs after being threatened with physical violence and criminal punishment.

There were no confirmed cases in which the Government carried out or permitted the forced mass resettlement of persons based on their religious beliefs or practices; however, authorities threatened individual members of several religious minority groups with resettlement unless they immediately ceased holding or attending meetings of their respective groups. For example, the home of former chief Mufti Ibadulla ibn Nasrullah was confiscated and assigned to a family whose house was demolished because of government construction projects.

In June 2003, a local MNB officer threatened to evict and resettle the owner of an apartment who was holding a meeting of an unregistered religious minority group. The congregants were detained, questioned and fined. In May 2003, officers of the MNB and local police raided a meeting of five members of the same group in Abadan.

There were also reports that individuals of religious minorities were singled out for abuse for refusing to register for military service. The five members of the Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in a labor camp in the town of Seydi were beaten repeatedly because of their religious beliefs and pressured to convert to Islam. Authorities also reportedly threatened to kill two of the prisoners. In April, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative reported that three unnamed Baptists had gone into hiding to avoid arrest for refusing military conscription on religious grounds. The men were not offered any nonmilitary service to perform as an alternative.

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

Since March, four religious minorities gained registration by the end of the reporting period. They include the Seventh-day Adventists, the Baha'is, the Baptists, and the Hare Krishnas. In response to strong international pressure, several legislative changes were implemented to relax laws hindering religious activities. In March, two presidential decrees were issued and amendments to the November 2003 law adopted. Changes included reducing the black list of individuals prohibited from leaving the country, pledging to register all religious groups and pledging to adhere to generally accepted international norms and rules concerning treatment of religious minorities. Though all religious groups are still required to register with the Government, the numerical threshold for each group was reduced from 500 to 5. Similarly, criminal penalties for activities of unregistered congregations were formally eliminated in May, and unpublished regulation that imposed additional registration requirements for minority congregations was publicly invalidated.

All minority religious groups in contact with the U.S. Embassy at the end of the reporting period reported that harassment has dramatically lessened since the March law was passed, and that conditions were much better than in 2003. The Ministry of Justice has started to display a much more helpful and positive attitude, by reaching out to unregistered groups to encourage applications and to offer assistance with the registration process. One minority religious leader commented that the attitude of the CRA has swung from indifference to relative support for registration. Several religions are pursuing registration and are working with the Government to complete the process.

In response to international pressure, President Niyazov granted a general amnesty for conscientious objectors in June. Six members of Jehovah's Witnesses -- Rinat Babadzhanov, Aleksandr Matveyev, Shohrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov, Rozymamed Satlykov and Kurban Zakirov -- were released from prison on June 10-12; however, it is still unclear as to whether or not charges have been officially dropped. Two other members of the group, Mansur Masharipov and Vepa Tuvakov, remain in prison, serving 18-month sentences for refusing to perform their military service.

Nikolai Shelekhov, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, was released in January from a labor camp in Turkmenabat after serving a second full sentence for refusing military service on the grounds of conscientious objection. Shelekhov's second conviction came only six months after his release from the prison colony at which he served one year for the same offense.

Geldy Khudaikuliev, the leader of a Baptist congregation in Geok Depe was released on December 20, 2003, as a result of international pressure. Khudaikuliev was detained without charge for six days after traveling to Ashgabat on business. His family was later told that Khudaikuliev was being held at the headquarters of the National Security Ministry in Ashgabat, although they were not allowed access to him.

Oguldzhan Dzhumanazarova, sentenced in 2001 to four years in prison for fraud after helping fellow believers with their legal problems in her capacity as a public attorney, was released in September 2003. Dzhumanazarova denies the charges.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There were no reports of general, overt societal discrimination or violence based on religion during the period covered by this report.

Restrictive government control, unorthodox indigenous Islamic culture, and 70 years of Soviet rule have meant that traditional mosque-based Islam does not play a dominant role in society. Traditional Turkmen interpretations of Islam place a heavy premium on rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death ("sadakas"), featuring music and dancing that more traditional Muslims view as unorthodox. Together with shrine pilgrimage, such rituals play a greater role in Turkmen Muslims' expression of Islam than regular prayer at mosques.

Although more traditional adherents of Islam consider Turkmen interpretations unorthodox and many Turkmen do not regularly attend mosques, the overwhelming majority of Turkmen identify themselves as "Muslim" and Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert from Islam to other faiths are viewed skeptically and sometimes ostracized, and ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups accused of disseminating religious material received harsher treatment than members of other ethnic groups, particularly if they received financial support from foreign sources.

Despite this, Turkmen society has historically been 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 undermine state control, promote civil unrest, facilitate undue influence by foreign interests, and destabilize the Government.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.

During the period covered by this report, U.S. Embassy representatives and State Department officials raised specific cases of religious freedom abuses in meetings with government officials and urged greater support for religious freedom. In November 2003, the Embassy conveyed to the Government a formal demarche outlining specific steps that had to be taken in order for Turkmenistan to avoid designation as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act. In March, when limited progress was noted the U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs conveyed a similar message to government officials, including the President and Foreign Minister. The American Embassy and the U.S. State Department's Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom conveyed formal messages in April and May urging the Government to make a number of improvements, including: to drop criminal penalties for activity by unregistered groups, to invalidate the secret decree imposing additional registration requirements for minority congregations, to register minority congregations, and to immediately cease their harassment. U.S. Embassy representatives continued to encourage the Government to communicate the March Presidential decree to local authorities.

The Ambassador and Embassy officers raised specific reports of abuse and urged greater respect for religious freedom in meetings with the Foreign Ministry. The Ambassador and visiting OSCE Ambassador Minikes also urged greater respect for religious freedom with the CRA. In multiple meetings with the Foreign Minister, the Ambassador also raised specific reports of abuses and urged the Government to end the policy of requiring numerically based registration for religious minority groups and to eliminate the criminal penalties for unregistered groups.

The Ambassador held an Iftar dinner in November 2003 to promote religious tolerance; members of the CRA, including the Mufti, attended.

The Ambassador and Embassy officers met regularly with the staff of the OSCE Center in Ashgabat and other diplomatic missions in order to maximize cooperation in monitoring abuses of and promoting greater respect for religious freedom. Together with the international community, the Embassy conveyed to Government officials the content of U.S. cosponsored resolutions on the country from the United Nations General Assembly and United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which noted the serious abuses of religious freedom and urged immediate action.

Embassy officers regularly met with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups to monitor their situation, receive reports of abuse, and discuss measures to raise their cases with the Government. These representatives have been much more willing to meet with Embassy officials in light of the reduced registration requirements and elimination of criminal penalties for religious activities.



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.