There were reports of beatings, imprisonment, arbitrary detention, threats of sexual assault, searches, confiscation of religious materials, and verbal abuse against religious minorities, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. 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.
On July 3, law enforcement officials in Dashoguz reportedly beat and threatened a Jehovah’s Witness with rape. The officials also reportedly detained the individual in a drug rehabilitation center for two days and subjected the individual to four injections of a substance designed to paralyze the limbs.
Jehovah’s Witnesses often refused compulsory military service. There were reports of torture, beatings, imprisonment, and arbitrary detention of Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to comply with compulsory military service. The government arrested six Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. Since 2010, the government arrested 28 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing military service, most recently in September. In October the government granted amnesty to eight of nine Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection and other charges and released them from prison. Courts issued suspended sentences for two Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. Since 2010, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been released for serving the bulk of their sentences, nine have been amnestied, seven have received suspended sentences, and one remained in prison at year’s end.
According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, in May a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to four years in prison on reportedly fabricated charges for disseminating pornography, but was amnestied in October. According to NGOs, since 2010 three Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned on charges of distributing pornography and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison. Two of these Jehovah’s Witnesses were amnestied this year, and one was amnestied in 2012.
According to Forum 18, on July 5, law enforcement authorities detained Jehovah’s Witness Bibi Rahmanova, her husband Vepa Tuvakov, and their four-year old son at the Dashoguz train station. The police reportedly used force with Rahmanova, beat Tuvakov, and confiscated their religious literature before releasing them on July 7. On August 7, Rahmanova was reportedly formally detained at the DZD-7 detention facility in Dashoguz. On August 18, she was convicted on charges of hooliganism and violence against a law enforcement officer, and she was sentenced to four years in prison. On September 2, an appeals court overturned the ruling, gave Rahmanova a suspended three-year sentence, and released her from prison.
In January the government informed the U.S. Ambassador that it was willing to engage on religious freedom by discussing civilian service alternatives to military service with a legal expert, meeting with representatives of registered religious groups, publishing information on registration procedures, and participating in training on international religious freedom. Subsequently, the government established a website that includes information on registration procedures, and government officials participated in religious freedom training conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The government used some aspects of Islamic tradition to define a national identity. Despite its embrace of certain aspects of Islamic culture, the government expressed concern about foreign Islamic influence and the interpretation of Islam by local believers. The government promoted an understanding of Islam based on local religious practices and national traditions. The government reportedly feared that Islam from outside the country was “Wahhabist” or “extremist.” The government’s stated policy was that it banned only extremist groups that advocated violence. However, it categorized some Muslim groups advocating theologically different but nonviolent interpretations of Islamic religious doctrine as “extremist” and continued to ban such groups.
Some groups reported difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to carry out religious activities such as Bible camps. Some groups stated that by routinely notifying the government of their gatherings and events and inviting government representatives to attend, they generally avoided government harassment. Nevertheless, in June authorities in the city of Mary attempted to close a children’s camp organized by a registered Protestant group, even though authorities had been notified in advance of the camp’s establishment.
Religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises hindered or prevented some of them from purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings; however, many segments of society experienced obstacles regarding the purchase and leasing of property. Registered religious groups also reported they 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 sometimes broke up such gatherings. 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 no official religious instruction in public schools. Authorities actively enforced existing restrictions on private religious education.
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 potential student candidates had to be vetted by the Ministry of National Security before gaining admission 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, representatives of religious minorities stated that ethnic Turkmen converts from Islam or who were members of unregistered religious groups were subjected to more scrutiny and questioning than non-ethnic Turkmen. Although it remained illegal to proselytize, some registered groups such as the Bahai community were able to speak about their faith 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 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. In November the government reported that during the year it had approved six visits by foreign members of religious congregations in Turkmenistan, including for Protestants, Hare Krishnas, Sunni Muslims, and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The government did not report the number of visa applications of foreign members that were denied.
The government approves the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics and requires senior clerics to report regularly to the CRA. Some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups are financed independently, and the government is not involved with the appointment of their leadership.
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 retained one copy in Arabic or a Russian translation from the Soviet-era. 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. In November the government reported that individuals do not need to obtain special permission for religious study abroad. There was one report that education officials threatened university students with expulsion if they attended services at mosques.
Although individuals and religious groups were fined for unauthorized religious practices, there were no reports of officials being fined for abusing religious freedom, and observers noted it was unlikely such fines would be levied against any agents of the state.
Authorities required some registered religious groups to obtain approval to carry out religious activities.
In May government officials approved and participated in a seminar on international religious freedom conducted by the OSCE. In November government officials participated in a study tour to Belgium on religious freedom conducted by the OSCE.
In September the MOJ launched a new website that made information on the Law on Religion more publicly available, including information on registration procedures for religious organizations.
In October the government sponsored 188 pilgrims to travel to Mecca for the Hajj. As was the case in 2013, self-funded pilgrims were reportedly allowed to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj. In November the government reported that there were no restrictions on who could participate in the Hajj.