There were reports of beatings, pressure to confess to holding an illegal meeting, searches, raids, seizure of private property, confiscation of religious materials, verbal abuse, heavy fines, arbitrary detention, threats of sexual assault, and torture. These acts most commonly occurred when the government suspected individuals of unauthorized or unregistered religious activity. Government authorities at times broke up meetings of registered and unregistered religious groups.
According to government figures, there were 121 registered religious organizations and seven registered religious groups operating in the country. Of these, 104 were Muslim organizations of which 99 were Sunni and 5 Shia; 13 were Russian Orthodox; and 11 represented other religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Bahais, Hare Krishnas, and Protestants.
In January the government replaced the chief mufti and all regional Muslim leaders, some of whom also sat on the Council of Religious Affairs. There was no reported public consultation on this change or the leaders installed, although in the past some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders.
Jehovah’s Witnesses often refused compulsory military service. There were reports of arbitrary detention, beatings, imprisonment, and torture of Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to comply with compulsory military service. One report also indicated that government officials threatened a relative of a Jehovah’s Witness with rape during detention after a raid on her home. Since 2010, the government imprisoned 15 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing military service, most recently in July. Courts issued suspended sentences and garnished the wages of five other Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing military service in 2012.
According to the nongovernmental organization Forum 18, in Dashoguz Jehovah’s Witness member Matkarim Aminov was resentenced in January and Jehovah’s Witness member Dovran Matyakubov was resentenced in December 2012 to a two-year prison term for conscientious objection to compulsory military service. They were first sentenced in December 2010 and released in June 2012 after completing an 18-month prison sentence. Two other Jehovah’s Witnesses received 18-month prison sentences for their conscientious objection. There was a report of government officials ordering inmates to beat a conscientious objector with the purpose of having him join a Muslim prayer. Forum 18 also reported that in January police detained, beat, tortured, and subsequently fined three people after a family member had joined a complaint to the UN Human Rights Commission relating to conscientious objection. One of the detainees was reportedly threatened with rape while in detention.
A Jehovah’s Witness member sentenced in 2012 by the Dashoguz City Court to four years in a labor camp on allegedly fabricated charges for disseminating pornographic materials remained in prison at year’s end.
In September the pastor of the unregistered Light of the World Church, his family members, and former members of his congregation were summoned for questioning by local authorities. The pastor had been sentenced in October 2010 to four years in prison on charges of extortion, and the government had granted him amnesty and released him in February 2012.
Some groups reported difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to carry out religious activities. As in the previous year, some groups reported that by routinely notifying the government of their gatherings and events and inviting government representatives to attend, they generally avoided government harassment. In June, however, authorities in the city of Mary raided and closed a children’s camp organized by a registered Protestant group even though authorities had been notified in advance of the camp’s establishment.
Legal and governmental obstacles hindered or prevented some religious groups from purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings; many segments of society experienced obstacles regarding the purchase and leasing of property. Registered groups also had difficulty renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, possibly due to concern about official disapproval. Some registered religious groups were denied permission to conduct church meetings such as study groups and seminars, although they were able to hold weekly services.
The government forbade unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and retained the option of punishing individuals or groups who violated these prohibitions. Some unregistered congregations continued to practice quietly, mostly in private homes, and were able to do so as long as the neighbors did not complain.
There was a report of a foreigner being deported and given a five-year ban from re-entry because of the person’s participation in a religious meeting in a private apartment.
The government did not encourage religious education and there was no official religious instruction in public schools. Authorities actively enforced existing restrictions on private religious education, and made at least one related arrest.
Members of the theology faculty in the history department at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat were the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. Reports indicated that candidates had to be vetted by the Ministry of National Security before gaining admittance to this program. There was no possibility of studying theology subjects other than the state-approved Islamic theology. Women were banned from the program.
Although the government did not officially restrict persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliation, it subjected ethnic Turkmen converts and members of unregistered religious groups to more scrutiny and questioning than non-ethnic Turkmen. It remained illegal to proselytize, although some registered groups proselytized in public without harassment.
Officers in the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Internal Affairs in divisions charged with fighting organized crime and terrorism monitored members of religious minorities, reportedly through telephone and undercover surveillance.
The government denied visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Some congregations seeking religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers reported the visas were often very short-term and required burdensome paperwork. Others were unable to obtain visas for foreign religious representatives. Some registered religious minority groups, however, obtained assistance from the CRA in obtaining entry visas for foreign members of their churches to give religious lectures to their congregations.
The government implemented new controls on civil society organizations, including religious organizations, that wished to receive grants from outside the country; those groups that obtained the necessary permission were subject to close and continuous scrutiny over the use of the funds.
Religious groups seldom received permission from the CRA to import religious literature. Minority religious groups stated they were disadvantaged in importing religious materials because they had no representation on the CRA. The government reportedly prohibited all religious groups from subscribing to foreign publications. The CRA required that its officials stamp all religious literature, including Bibles and Qurans, to authorize each copy of the text. While the Quran was practically unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, most homes had one copy in Arabic or a Russian translation. Few translations were available in Turkmen. Some citizens reported the seizure of personal Bibles at the airport upon arrival from foreign travel, even though the Bibles had been in their possession when they departed the country.
There were no reports of travel restrictions for religious study abroad or to attend religious conferences. There was one report that officials at Turkmenistan embassies held meetings with Turkmen students studying abroad, in which the officials threatened the students with expulsion from their studies if they continued to attend non-Muslim religious services. A government representative reportedly denied the claim.
In October the government sponsored 188 pilgrims to travel to Mecca for the Hajj. In contrast to previous years, self-funded pilgrims were also allowed to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj.