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. All groups must register in order to gain legal status with the Government. Until 2004 the only religions that were registered successfully were the government-controlled branch of Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity; by the end of the period covered by this report, nine minority religious groups had registered, the RomanCatholic Church's application was pending, and at least three groups had decided not to register. The March 2004amendments to the law on religious organizations and subsequent presidential decrees enabled the Ministry of Justice (MOJ)to facilitate registration of some religious congregations and 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. Often the Government's interpretation of the law is stricter in rural areas than in the capital, Ashgabat.
The status of Government respect for religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report. In March 2004, 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, the registrationprocess is onerous and additional requirements for minority congregations to register and operate exist and remain burdensome in practice. The President signed a decree in May 2004 disavowing harsh requirements in an unpublished regulation and eliminating criminal penalties for members of unregistered religious groups. In early June 2004, the President granted amnesty to six Jehovah's Witnesses serving prison sentences for conscientious objection to military service and four more were amnestied on April 16, 2005, on the eve of a meeting between President SaparmuratNiyazov and the U.S. Ambassador.
Although the level of harassment continued to decrease in the last year, most religious groups continued to experience the types of government harassment similar to years past, including detention, arrest, confiscation of religious literature and materials, pressure to abandon religious beliefs, and threats of eviction and job loss. Unlike previous years, there were no confirmed reports of torture for religious belief or observance, but there was at least one account of a beating experienced by a woman detained for questioning in connection with practicing her faith. Human rights observers widely reported that the Government replaced a number of Sunni Muslim imams, including twice replacing the Mufti with individuals believed to be less independent in their interpretations of Islam, to better facilitate government control of mosques.
There is no general societal discrimination or violence based on religion. The overwhelming majority of citizens identify themselves as Sunni Muslim, and ethnic Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert to other faiths are viewed with suspicion and sometimes ostracized, but the society historically has 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, many experts agree 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. The Government appears to view active participation in, or sponsorship of, both traditional and nontraditional religions, as a threat to its own stability.
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 Department of State officials raised specific cases of religious freedom abuses in meetings with government officials and urged greater support for religious freedom. The U.S. Ambassador, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom,the Department of State's Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, and the Counsel to the U.S. Helsinki Commission urged senior Government officials to cease minority religious group harassment, stop the demolition of mosques, and register minority groups. In addition, the U.S. Ambassador repeatedly conveyed messages urging the Government to make specific improvements with respect to religious freedom. Improving registration for nongovernmental groups, including religious organizations, and permitting them to meet regularly was a top U.S. priority. Embassy officers met with representatives of unregistered and registered minority religious groups on a continual basis and such groups have expressed an increased willingness to meet with the Government.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an 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 (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. The majority is Sunni Muslim, and the largest minority is Russian Orthodox Christian; however, the level of active religious observance is unknown.
There has been atightly controlled revival of Islam since independence. During the Soviet era, there were only 4 mosques operating; now there are approximately 350. Ethnic Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs are predominantly Sunni Muslim. There are small pockets of Shi'a Muslims, many of whom are ethnic Iranians, Azeris, or Kurds living along the border with Iran.
While the 1995 census showed that Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, subsequent emigration to Russia and elsewhere has reduced considerably this proportion. The majority of ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian. Practicing Russian Christians are generally 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 leads the ROC. He serves under the religious jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The president has appointed a different Orthodox priest to represent the Orthodox Church on the Government's Council for Religious Affairs. There are five Russian Orthodox priests, but no seminaries.
Russians and Armenians also comprise a significant percentage of members 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, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and several unaffiliated, nondenominational evangelical Christian groups. Small communities of Baha'is, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Hare Krishnas are registered with the Government. Two groups of Pentecostal Christians, the Greater Grace Church, Baptists, the Church of Christ, and the New Apostolic Church were able to register in May. For some, the process of registration took upwards of seven months. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Serakhs, are reportedly practicing Lutherans. Approximately 1,000 ethnic Poles live in Turkmenistan, though they have been largely absorbed into the Russian community and consider themselves Russian Orthodox. The Roman Catholic community in Ashgabat, which includes both citizens and foreigners, meets in the chapel of the Vatican Nunciature. Foreign missionaries, typically representing evangelical Protestant denominations, operate, although the extent of their activities is unknown.
Estimates show approximately 1,000 ethnic Jews living in the country. Most are members of families who came from Ukraine during World War II. There also are some Jewish families living in Turkmenabat, on the border with Uzbekistan, who are known as Bokharan Jews, referring to the city of Bokhara, Uzbekistan. There are no synagogues or rabbis and the Jewish community continues to dwindle as members emigrate to Israel, Russia, and Germany. The community gathers for religious observances but has not opted to register as a religious group, nor have there been reports of harassment.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, in practice the Government placed some restrictions on these rights. Moreover, the Turkmen Criminal Code protects individuals against violations of religious freedom or persecution by private actors; in practice it is not enforced. In November 2003, the Government implemented a law on religion to replace the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and its subsequent amendments in 1995 and 1996. Following the 1995 amendment, religious groups had to have 500 citizens at least 18 years of age in each locality in which they wished to register. This requirement made it impossible for religious communities other than Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians to register, a situation which was remedied in March 2004, when the Government published amendments to the religion law that reduced numerical thresholds for registration from 500 to 5, and made all minority groups eligible to register. The amendments also 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). The amendments leave significant gray areas of the law that permitted the Government to delay registration, sometimes up to nine months. In June, the President made a statement saying that all those trying to register would get a response from the MOJ in an expeditious manner. The new regulation remained untested at the end of the reporting period.
The November 2003 law, which replaced the 1991 law, required all religious organizations to register, made operation 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 2004, but the remaining law continues to allow the Government to control religious life and to restrict the activities of all religious groups.
The President signed a decree in January 2004 that strengthened the November 2003 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). In addition, the 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, 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 based on vaguely defined charges.
In March 2004, the Government adopted but did not publish an implementing regulation and recommended standard charter, which stipulated harsh requirements for religious groups wishing to register. The decree imposed financial and travel restrictions on registered religious organizations. After international pressure, these regulations were publicly disavowed in a decree in May 2004.
Until June 2004, governmental entities at all levels, including the courts, had interpreted the laws in such a way as to discriminate against those practicing any faith other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity, whose congregations represented the only two religions to successfully register. Now, members of nine other registered groups are legally allowed to practice their faith. In practice, government policies, including those at the city level such as zoning regulations on the use of private residences,have created difficulties for some of the groups to find places to hold worship services.
Since the repeal of the unpublished regulation in May 2004, nine new religious groups have registered: Evangelical Christian Baptist Church of Turkmenistan; Seventh-day Adventist Church of Turkmenistan; Baha'i Community of Turkmenistan; Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas); Full Gospel Christian Church of Turkmenistan (Pentecostals); Light of the East Church (Dashoguz Pentecostal Church); Greater Grace Church of Turkmenistan; Church of Christ; and New Apostolic Church of Turkmenistan. Shi'a Muslims were not registered by the end of the reporting period, and there were no reports that they tried to register since the May 2004 repeal, although they remain in contact with the Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) which the Government maintains to report to President Niyazov and ostensibly act as an intermediary between the Government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations.
Some groups remain either fearful of registering, citing the amount and type of information the Government requires, or refuse on principle to do so. Unregistered religious groups are forbidden to conduct religious activities, including gathering, disseminating religious materials, and proselytizing. Government authorities have disrupted meetings of unregistered religious groups at a less frequent rate than in previous years. According to the amended law, participants of those groupsare subject to fines and administrative (not criminal) arrest under the administrative code. Disruptions decreased significantly during the period covered by this report although intermittent incidents continued.
The Government has incorporatedsome aspects of Islamic tradition as part of its effort to redefine a national identity. For example, the Government builds large, monumental mosques, such as the ones in Ashgabat, Gok Depe, and Gypjak, and local communities support village mosques. Despite its embrace of certain aspects of Islamic culture, the Government is concerned about foreign Islamic influence.
The Chairman of the CRA, the Imam of the Gok Depe Mosque, serves with three deputy chairmen: the Mufti of Turkmenistan, a representative of the ROC, and a government representative. In practice, the CRA 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 forces, and it has no role in promoting interfaith dialogue. Although the Government does not officially favor any religion, it has provided financial and other support to the CRA for the construction of new mosques. The Government 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 books on culture and heritage, Rukhnama and Rukhnama II, by teaching them as religious texts and placing them next to the Qur'an in some mosques. Phrases from the Rukhnama were inscribed on the large mosque in President Niyazov's home village of Gypjak. In 2003, the former Mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, was replaced, secretly tried, and sentenced in March 2004 to 22 years in prison. Ibn Ibadullah's replacement, Kakageldi Wepayev, was subsequently placed under house arrest for "misbehavior"—allegedly including drinking and womanizing—and replaced in August 2004 by then 27-year-old recent seminary graduate Rowshen Allaberdiyev.
The Government recognizes only Sunni Muslim holidays as national holidays. These include Gurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), a three-day holiday commemorating the end of the Hajj, and Oraza-Bairam (Eid al-Fitr), commemorating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.
The Government does not offer alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors; individuals who want to refuse military service for religious reasons are offered noncombatant roles within the military. During the period covered by this report, four Jehovah's Witnesses were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the military; they were subsequently released.
There is no official religious instruction in public schools; however, the Government requires all public schools and institutes of higher learning to hold regular instruction on the Rukhnama. Beginning in 2002, the Ministry of Education required that each child bring a personal copy of the Rukhnama to school. In September 2004, Volume II of the Rukhnama was published and was integrated into the public school curriculum.
Article Six of the November 2004 law allows mosques to provide religious education to children after school for four hours a week with the approval of parents. People who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, (the law does not state if they must be Turkmen or international institutions) and who obtain CRA approval, may provide religious education. Citizens have the right to receive religious education individually or with other persons; however, providing religious education in private is prohibited, and those who do so are subject to punitive actions according to the law. Although some independent religious education exists, the Government has done nothing to promote religious education beyond the official version incorporating the Rukhnama. In anticipation of approval for religious education, someSunniMosques have begun regularly scheduled classes on the Qur'an.
The 2003 law prohibits the ROC from conducting religious education programs without CRA and presidential approval, and there were no reports that either the CRA or the President 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 the past, the Government sometimes actively disparaged minority religious groups. A 2003 issue of the state-owned newspaper "Adalat," published by the Ministry of Justice, published a vitriolic attack against Hare Krishnas and Jehovah's Witnesses, describing the groups as foreign and implying they were dangerous, but there were no such incidents reported during the reporting period.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Almost all religious minority groups in Turkmenistan reported fewer instances of harassment than in the previous reporting period. The Government officially has banned only extremist groups advocating violence. The activities of unregistered religious groups remain illegal with violators subject to fines and administrative arrest under the administrative code.
The Government restricts unregistered religious groups from establishing places of worship, and violations constitute an administrative offense. Registered groups also experienced difficulties establishing places of worship, although at the end of the reporting period some stated the largest remaining obstacle was the lack of funds to rent a public hall. Only five registered groups, three of which are minority religious groups, have established places of worship. The Government also forbids unregistered religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and can punish individuals or groups who violate these prohibitions. Some congregations continue to practice quietly, largely in private homes.
During the period covered by this report, the Government replaced a number of experiencedimams with younger imams who had attended government-approvedtraining, thus facilitating 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. In October 2004, six mosques were destroyed, some for no stated reason, others ostensibly for Ashgabat city "beautification" plans. At least seven mosques were destroyed during the reporting period. In 2004, a Sunni cemetery north of Ashgabat was leveled. Another cemetery in Ashgabat was being encroached upon by a high-rise development. Muslims in Bagyr reported they can no longer bury their family members in traditional cemeteries, but instead need to do so at a centralized location.
The Government restricts the number of mosques by requiring government permission for construction. Government policy is that every community should have one mosque; however, in March 2004, President Niyazov ordered that no more mosques were to be built and stated mosques would henceforth be led by state-appointed imams.
There are at least three Shi'a Muslim places of worship, two near Ashgabat and one in Turkmenbashy. Other Shi'a mosques still stand, but the Government does not permit imams to work in them. It continues to restrict their construction.
In 2005, the Government continued to limit participation in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), specifying that only 188 pilgrims 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 pilgrims was strengthened in 2003 by the re-imposition of an exit visa requirementthat was subsequently dropped following sustained international pressure.
The Government also controls access to Islamic education. The Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat was the only academic institution to conduct Islamic education, and the Government restricts private Islamic teaching. In late June, the President closed the theology faculty and made theology a part of the history curriculum. In April, the Government replaced the head of the Turkmen Turkish International University with a Turkmen national, stating the university was conducting unauthorized religious education. In 2002, the President imposed an annual limit of 10 to 20 clerical students. They are to attend five years of study in the country but with the final two years served as internships in local mosques. In April 2004, an Islamic secondary school operating under the auspices of the sole remaining theological faculty was closed, reportedly in part because school administrators and teachers refused to promote the Rukhnama as an orthodox Islamic text.
The Government monitors even peaceful minority religious groups, particularly those perceived to have connections with or support from a supranational hierarchy. The law prohibits foreign-missionary activity, although in practice both Christian and Muslim missionaries are present. Ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups who are accused of disseminating religious material reportedly receive harsher treatment than others, particularly if they have received financial support from foreign sources. In January 2004, President Niyazov warned the newly appointed Mufti (who was subsequently replaced) against accepting money from foreigners seeking to influence mosques to propagate a more fundamentalist message. The November 2003 Law on Religious Organizations stipulated that religious groups must report any financial or material assistance received from foreign sources. An amendment in March 2004 further required that they also register all assistance received from entities inside the country.
By decree, publishing religious literature is prohibited, limiting the availability of Qur'ans. There were periods in which it was difficult or impossible to find Qur'ans available for purchase.
The Government enforces the use of President Niyazov's spiritual book, the Rukhnama, in educational institutions, government buildings and mosques. Copies of the book are kept in some mosques, and authorities have pressured religious leaders to place it alongside the Qur'an and to preach Rukhnama in their services. In November 2003, the Ministry of National Security (MNB) closed down a mosque failing to place the Rukhnama on the same stand with the Qur'an for Friday prayer. In addition, according to unconfirmed reports, authorities have forced imams to begin sermons with praise for President Niyazov.
In 2002, the Government prohibited the import of all Russian-language newspapers and periodicals, including religious materials and the ROC's main journal, the "Journal of the Moscow Patriarch."
In practice the CRA must approve imported literature. Since the only members of the CRA are government officials, Sunni Muslims, and the ROC, this requirement restricted imported literature for minority religious groups.
The MNB and regional government officials harassed some members of minority religions for not sending their children to school on Saturdays, their day of worship. The Government reportedly threatened to revoke their registration if their children did not attend. Public school is held Monday through Saturday and by law children must go, although some estimate that only half of school children regularly attend school on Saturday.
In addition to occasionally restricting travel out of the country, there are reports that government officials denied entry visas based on religious affiliation. According to Forum 18, a Norwegian-based religious news organization covering Eurasia, in October 2004, a group of Seventh-day Adventists was denied entry visas, despite the fact that its invitation came from a registered church.
Jehovah's Witnesses, an unregistered group, were harassed repeatedly during 2004 and 2005. For example, on November 12, 2004, officials harassed a member in Ashgabat; and throughout the year, authorities confiscated Bibles at the border and from private homes. 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 school 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. These reports are similar to events reported in 2002 and in Adaban in 2003.
Before the lifting of the exit visa requirement, 48 Jehovah's Witnesses were denied visas to attend a religious convention in Tajikistan in 2003. In January 2004, the Government formally lifted the exit visa requirement, theoretically permitting travel by all those who wanted to participate in the Hajj or other travel for religious purposes; however, the Government maintains a "black list" of individuals, including believers, and continues to limit freedom of movement, although to a far lesser degree than previously. In January, an ethnic Russian pastor was stopped at a border crossing and was not allowed to enter Uzbekistan. After a day of waiting for approval to cross, he returned home. In March 2004, two Jehovah's Witnesses were prevented from boarding a flight to Kiev to attend a Jehovah's Witnesses conference because their names were on a "black list." They were told to apply to the Border Service Headquarters in Ashgabat for further explanation. In April 2004, Deutsche Welle Radio reported that five Jehovah's Witnesses were removed from a flight from Ashgabat to Moscow because they were blacklisted and forbidden to leave the country.
Members of unregistered religious groups continue to be denied entry visas. The head of the Bible Society from Uzbekistan reportedly was barred from visiting in September 2004. In recent years, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishnas have also been denied entry.
There was no progress in the restitution of the Armenian Apostolic church in Turkmenbashy.
Although there have been noreports of harassment of Pentecostals since 2002, according to Forum 18, in April, several Pentecostals were summonedfor questioningin Turkmenbashy. Ashgabat's Pentecostal church was seized in 2001 and has yet to be returned, leaving the group vulnerable to continuing harassment.
Several religious minority groups suspect that the Government monitors them by infiltrating their gatherings; nonetheless, communities continue to engage in regular activities. The level of harassment has continued to decrease over the past year; however, officers from the Sixth Police Department in Ashgabat, the division charged with fighting organized crime and terrorism, still occasionally question members of religious minorities.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
The serious mistreatment of some religious minority members, which began in 2003, continued and was extended to the Muslim community. In March 2004, Turkmenistan's popular and respected former Mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was secretly tried and sentenced to 22 years in prison, reportedly for his alleged role in a failed 2002 coup plot. Ibadullah had been dismissed as Mufti in 2003, reportedly in part for his refusal to teach the President's book, 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 for his release.
Muslim religious leader Hoja Ahmed Orazglychev remained isolated in internal exile in Tejen for alleged criminal activity. Some believe his refusal to publicly support the Niyazov regime and Orazglychev's strict religious beliefs contributed to his exile.
The Government threatened members of religious minority groups with fines, loss of employment and housing, and imprisonment because of their beliefs. There were also reports of a beating and raids.
During the period covered by this report, despite the President's initial announcementin June 2004that all imprisoned conscientious objectors should be released, four Jehovah's Witnesses were sentenced to prison because of their objection to military service. They were invited for an interview by the authorities but were immediately taken into custody and put in pretrial detention. After the trials, they were transferred to the Seydi penal colony. President Niyazov granted a general amnesty for conscientious objectors on April 16, which included the release of the four Jehovah Witnesses. In June 2004, six others had been granted amnesty by a Presidential decree and released. Another was released in January 2004. In April 2004, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative reported that three unnamed Baptists had gone into hiding to avoid arrest for refusing conscription on religious grounds.
On March 2, Jehovah's Witness Nazikgul Orazova was called to the Internal Affairs Ministry for questioning, where she was reportedly beaten during detention. Orazova was found guilty of proselytizing and was fined $50 (1,250,000 manat). When she stated that she could not pay, the court ordered police to confiscate the same value in possessions. A Forum 18 report indicated that one Jehovah's Witness was fined a large sum in April 2004. In September 2004, Jehovah's Witnesses Gulkamar Dzhumayeva and Gulsherin Babkuliyeva were arrested while holding a private discussion with citizens. Police officials hit Babkuliyeva on the head, sexually harassed her, and threatened to rape her. The women were held overnight without contact with their families and eventually released. In November 2004, based on her affiliation with the Witnesses, Bilbil Kulyyeva was forcibly evicted from a hostelby an Ashgabat official of the CRA. In 2003, police arrested a member of Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenabat and beat him during his 20-hour detention.
Two raids on meetings of members of Jehovah's Witnesses occurred in March 2004, one, according to a report from Forum 18 News Service, in a private home in Ashgabat the day after the March 2004 Presidential Decree pledging adherence to international standards for respect of religious freedom. A similar raid occurred in March 2004, and a woman was taken to a police station, forced to write a statement dictated by the police, and was sexually harassed by a district police officer.
In March 2004, authorities entered the home of a member of Jehovah's Witnesses and demanded he immediately pay a fine from 2001 that allegedly remained unpaid. Although 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 was released in 2003, after having served half of her prison sentence for a conviction the Jehovah's Witness community said was based on fabricated evidence. She is suffering from health problems due to harsh prison conditions. Though released, she remains under surveillance by the security agencies.
In March 2004, the CRA pressured a member of Jehovah's Witnesses in Ashgabat to renounce his faith and he 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 males were beaten, all were required to renounce their faith in writing, and their passports were confiscated until fines were paid.
There were no reports of authorities beating Hare Krishnas; however, in April, for violating a city ordinance, Ashgabat city officials threatened the Krishna Consciousness Society with the confiscation of their place of worship, a privately owned residence that was used as a temple. In 2003, according to Forum 18, authorities raided a meeting of the Krishna Consciousness Society in Ashgabat and beat one member during an interrogation. Authorities reportedly filmed the occupants of the home, confiscated all religious articles and literature, and fined the group. In June, a member of the Society returned after more than 3 years abroad. She was detained and threatened with arrest for illegally departing the country. A local lawyer said that due to the Statute of Limitations she could not be arrested for that crime. She remains in a psychiatric institution for observation.
Local officials occasionally continued to harass religious minorities, often because they were not aware of the March 2004 Presidential Decree. In April 2004, according to the Turkmenistan Helsinki Initiative (an opposition group operating out of Vienna), secret police officers, representatives of the city administration for religious affairs, and police officers raided a meeting of the Krishna Consciousness Society in a private home in Mary. After the group was questioned for 3 hours, a secret policeman threatened the members with fines, dismissal from work, and criminal charges before allowing them to return home. In 2003, Geldy Khudaikuliev, a Baptist congregation leader in Gok Depe, was detained without charge for 6 days. Khudaikuliev was released later the same month, as a result of international pressure. Baptists continued to be fined during the period covered by this report. In April, according to Forum 18, 5 members of a Baptist Church in Turkmenabat were fined approximately $60 (1,500,000 manat) for holding a small service.
According to a Forum 18, in 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 $10 fine (250,000 manat). The officials admitted to stealing $1.60 (4,000 manat) from the woman and not returning it. Forum 18 also reported that another deaf and mute Baptist woman was summoned to court in 2003. She was also threatened with 15 days imprisonment if she failed to pay a fine.
Individuals were also fined in 2003, when authorities raided a Baptist prayer meeting in Turkmenabat. That same year, police raided the meeting of an unregistered Christian group, confiscated its Bibles, and fined its leaders $12 (about 300,000 manat). Two court decisions supported the actions.
According to Forum 18, in May2004, a Hindu was forced by police officers to sign a statement renouncing his beliefs after being threatened with physical violence and criminal punishment.
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 intermittent accounts of authorities continuing to arbitrarily arrest and interrogate members of some minority religious groups while they worshipped, including the Baha'is, Hare Krishnas, Baptists, 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 May, a small group of Baha'is were detained and questioned for a brief period by local security officials. In 2003, officials detained Baha'is in Mary and Turkmenbashy.
During the reporting period, the Government notified religious groups attempting to meet for worship that they were subject to a number of financial penalties, although there have been no reports of enforcement since April 2004. In some cases officials notified the groups that the fines had been dropped. In April, a branch of a registered group had a fine imposed for an illegal meeting, prior to the enacting of regulations for affiliate registration, and the group began the process of contesting the fine in court.
Authorities threatened individual members of some religious minority groups with eviction without reassignmentor resettlement unless they immediately ceased holding or attending meetings. Eviction and resettlement are repressive tools sometimes used by the Government. For example, the home of former Mufti Ibadulla ibn Nasrullah was confiscated and assigned to a family whose house had beendemolished because of government construction projects.
In 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. Also in 2003, officers of the MNB and local police raided a meeting of five members of the same group in Abadan. In September 2004, a home was raided in Seydi.
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 the March 2004 Presidential decree amending registration requirements, nine religious minorities have registered: the Evangelical Christian Baptist Church of Turkmenistan; the Seventh-day Adventist Church of Turkmenistan; the Baha'i Community of Turkmenistan; the Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas); the Full Gospel Christian Church of Turkmenistan (Pentecostals); the Light of the East Church (Dashoguz Pentecostal Church); the Greater Grace Church of Turkmenistan; the Church of Christ; and the New Apostolic Church of Turkmenistan.
Unlike previous reporting periods, Russian Orthodox Christians did not report any abuses and were not prevented from practicing their faith.
In May, the Government stated it had introduced procedures for regional affiliates of religious groups to register. By the end of the reporting period, no minority religions had attempted to register such an affiliate.
Minority religious groups reported that harassment continued to lessen, and that conditions were much better than in 2004. Numerous representatives of minority religions stated the Ministry of Justice and security services have started to display a more helpful and positive attitude. Some minority religious leaders commented that the attitude of the CRA was somewhat more helpful. Several religious groups continue to search for places of worship; some stated financial difficulties rather than government interference was the major obstacle for their organization. In September 2004, police returned Bibles that had been confiscated from a Baptist group and apologized for their actions.
In response to international pressure, President Niyazov granted a pardon for conscientious objectors in June 2004 and again in April2005. Unlike in previous years, incarcerated Jehovah Witnesses were not singled out for abuse in prison and were permitted to pray and to have access to Bibles.
Despite recent registration, the Seventh-day Adventists have yet to receive compensation for their church that was razed by the Government in 1999. In March, they began renting a space for regular worship services, providing them with a legal place to meet.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
There were no reports of general societal discrimination or violence based on religion during the period covered by this report.
Restrictive government control, indigenous Islamic culture, and 70 years of Soviet rule have meant that traditional mosque-based Islam does not play a dominant role in society. Local 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 local Muslims' expression of Islam than regular prayer at mosques.
Many Muslims do not regularly attend mosques; however, the overwhelming majority of the population identify themselves as "Muslim," and national identity is linked to Islam. (Turkmen society considers an individual to be born into an ethno-religious group.) Departures from the pattern are rare and either receive little support or are criticized. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert from Islam to other faiths are viewed with suspicion and sometimes ostracized, and ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups accused of disseminating religious material receive harsher treatment than members of other ethnic groups, particularly if they received financial support from foreign sources.
Despite strong ties between Islam and national identity, the society historically has been tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. For example, in the early part of the 20th century, Ashgabat was a refuge for the Baha'i Faith escaping persecution in Iran, and a Baha'i temple was built in Ashgabat at that time. Government repression of minority religions does not reflect doctrinal or societal friction between the Muslim majority and minority religions. Rather, it reportedly 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. There is also a societal distrust of foreign-based religions and the belief that Islam from outside the country is "Wahhabist" -- extremist.
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 Department of State officials raised cases of religious freedom abuses in meetings with government officials and urged greater support for religious freedom. The Embassy conveyed to the Government specific steps necessary in order for the country to improve its standing in regards to respect for freedom of religion. A visit in October 2004 by staff of the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom, who met with Government officials and members of faith groups, underscored the importance of the issue to the U.S. Government. In early March, the Counsel of the U.S. Helsinki Commission delivered specific points of concernto the Foreign Minister and the Acting Minister of Justice that the Government needed to address. U.S. Embassy representatives continued to encourage the Government to explain to local authorities -- and encourage implementation of -- presidential decrees and the laws passed in March 2004.
The Ambassador and Embassy officers raised specific reports of abuse and urged greater respect for religious freedom in meetings with the Foreign Ministry, including the Foreign Minister himself, Ministry of Justice, and CRA. Embassy officials also requested that the Government assist registered religious groups in finding places to hold services.
In November 2004, during Ramadan, the Ambassador held an Iftar to promote religious tolerance; members of the CRA, including the Mufti, attended.
The Ambassador and Embassy officers met regularly with the staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Center in Ashgabat and other diplomatic missions in order to maximize cooperation in monitoring abuses of and promoting greater respect for religious freedom.
Embassy officers regularly met with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups to monitor their status, 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, another indication that, for some, the religious freedom situation is gradually improving.