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Turkmenistan: State Interfering In Religious Life Of Ethnic Uzbeks

  • Antoine Blua

An ethno-cultural region made up of mainly ethnic Uzbeks straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It is known as Khorezm on the Uzbek side, and Dashoguz on the Turkmen side. A state-enforced policy of "Turkmenization" and a visa regime are clamping down on religious activity among ethnic Uzbeks on both sides of the border.

Prague, 10 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The "Turkmenization" policy of the Turkmen government is targeting the education, employment, and religion of all of the country's non-Turkmen ethnic groups.

Igor Rotar is the Central Asian correspondent for Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

A copy of Niyazov's "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Soul," is featured prominently at the entrance of every mosque, and believers entering the building must pause to touch it with the reverence due to sacred objects.
He says that over the past year, the Turkmen government has replaced ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs, or mosque leaders, with ethnic Turkmens in all of the main mosques of the Dashoguz region -- even though ethnic Uzbeks make up more than half the local population.

"Historically, in the Soviet times for example, most imam-hatybs in this region were [Uzbeks]. But now most of [them] are Turkmen. This is a problem because local Uzbeks complained that Turkmen imams have no good education and prefer that imam-hatybs [are] Uzbeks," Rotar said.

Rotar notes that ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs have been sacked from their jobs in all three active mosques in the town of Dashoguz.

In the Kunya-Urgench district of Dashoguz, Uzbek imam-hatybs have been forbidden from serving at ancient sites and three cemeteries -- Ashig-Aidyn, Ibrahim-adam, and the so-called "cemetery of 3,360 saints" -- which are revered by Muslims.

Rotar says the sackings represent just a part of Ashgabat's interference in the lives of religious believers.

Authorities are also forcing imam-hatybs to place the Turkmen flag above mosque entrances. Every sermon must begin with a tribute to the country's president, Saparmurat Niyazov -- or Turkmenbashi, as he prefers to be called.

A copy of Niyazov's "Ruhnama," or "Book of the Soul," is featured prominently at the entrance of every mosque, and believers entering the building must pause to touch it with the reverence due to sacred objects.

Similar instructions have reportedly been given to other Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches. Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy are the only two confessions allowed in Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a visa regime in 1999 is also making it hard for Uzbek citizens to travel to sacred sites within Turkmenistan.

For people living in Uzbek districts bordering Turkmenistan, visas cost the equivalent of $6 -- one-fifth the average monthly wage there.

Rotar says the fee makes it almost impossible for Uzbek families to make pilgrimages to the many revered mosques and mazars, or graves of holy men, located on Turkmen territory.

"Some believers want to go to the holy places in Kunya-Urgench. Now it is not easy for Uzbeks from Uzbekistan to go to Kunya-Urgench or other holy places because at the border they have to pay $6 for a visa. For local people, it's big money," Rotar said.

The high cost of visas also causes problems for Uzbek families wishing to visit the graves of relatives buried in cemeteries on Turkmen land.

The Yakkalam cemetery serves the village of Avangard in the Karakalpakstan autonomous republic, in southwestern Uzbekistan. But the cemetery itself is on Turkmen territory, and is literally separated from Uzbek land by a barbed-wire fence.

One resident described the situation by saying, "During the [Islamic holidays of] Idi Qurban and Idi Ramazan, we go only up to the barbed-wire fence [at the border] and we do Tilawat [recitation] of the Quran there. We have no other choice. Because [Turkmens] don't let us go to cemetery."

Another added, "Thousands of people from [the cities of] Urgench, Gurlen, Nukus do the same. They go up to the barbed wire and cry and cry."

(Khurmat Babadjanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
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