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Turkmenistan: Survey Reports On Lack Of Religious Freedom

  • Antoine Blua

A new report on religion in Turkmenistan shows a complete lack of freedom to practice any faiths except for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity. All of the country's other religious communities are de facto banned and their activities punishable.

Prague, 7 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kurban Zakirov, a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, was sentenced in 1999 to one year in a minimum-security corrective labor colony in Turkmenistan for conscientious objection to military service.

The same year, Zakirov was granted a pardon but was not released because he refused to give an oath of loyalty to President Saparmurat Niyazov by placing his hand on the Koran. In 2000, after Zakirov had completed his sentence, he was still not released because he again refused to pledge the oath.

He was subsequently sentenced to eight years in a high-security corrective labor colony for allegedly attacking the security services, a charge the denomination says is politically motivated.

Gregory Olds is a legal representative at the headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses in New York. He described the condition of Zakirov's detention.

"We understand [Zakirov's] health is being ruined. We understand that Kurban now suffers from insomnia, which, of course, will accelerate his physical deterioration. We understand that he is kept in total isolation as a so-called 'dangerous criminal.' He is kept in a sealed cell. No visits. No parcels are allowed," Olds said.

Olds says five other Jehovah's Witnesses also are currently serving prison sentences in Turkmenistan for their religious activities or decisions about matters of conscience.

Zakirov's case is referred to in a new report by Forum 18 News Service, a Norway-based news agency covering religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. The agency recently issued a survey on religious freedom in Turkmenistan.

Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, is author of the survey. He says Turkmenistan has one of the worst records on the issue of religious freedom.

"The government [of Turkmenistan] makes no pretense of its decision to ignore internationally accepted standards of human rights on the question of religious freedom. It has allowed only two religious faiths to register any religious communities -- the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church. In effect, it has made all other religious activity illegal," Corley said.

A law passed in 1996 requires religious communities to have at least 500 adult members before gaining registration. But in practice, Corley points out, these 500 believers must all live in one district, which made it impossible for religious groups other than Sunni Muslim or Christian Orthodox to register during a compulsory re-registration drive in 1997.

The activities of Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran, and other Protestant churches, as well as Shi'a Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness, and Hare Krishna communities are, in effect, banned.

Corley says religious literature is no longer published in Turkmenistan and is routinely confiscated from members of unregistered religious minorities. Apart from Sunni Muslims, religious groups cannot maintain any kind of religious education.

But Corley says even Sunni Muslims are not free of harassment: "In January of this year, the president ousted the chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who is an ethnic Uzbek. And they replaced him with the young Kakageldy Vepaev, who was then only 35 and an ethnic Turkmen. And many people believe this was because Vepayev was far more pliant. He would do what the government wanted. Within the last few years, many of the older imams have been removed from their jobs in mosques and have been replaced with young people, many of whom had no or very little formal religious education."

Government tolerance of Sunni Islam has not extended to Sh'ia Islam, which is mainly professed by the ethnic Azeri and Iranian minorities in the west of the country. Corley says Shi'a mosques failed to gain re-registration in 1997.

Erika Dailey is the director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, based in Budapest. She says non-state-approved religious groups in Turkmenistan suffer varying degrees of harassment.

"The harassment has taken a variety of forms. In its most severe forms, it has resulted in the arbitrary -- we feel -- arrest of some leaders of the religious communities, particularly of those of the Evangelical order. But it really runs the entire gamut. There have been cases of torture reported of some believers. More broadly, religious gatherings, such as prayer groups and study groups, are often disrupted by local police. Groups are fined for holding any sort of religious activities. Their religious literature is often confiscated. Their places of worship are destroyed," Dailey said.

According to Dailey, the government is interested in promoting what it perceives as traditional Turkmen culture as the primary form of culture. As a result, the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church do not escape government control.

"The government controls religious activities inside the country through its Council for Religious Affairs. It's a state-appointed body, which has exclusive authority to hire, fire, promote, and pay any of the clerics operating inside of the country," Dailey said.

Many mosques lost their registrations and had to close down, as well as most Islamic schools. In the past, imams were educated in neighboring Uzbekistan, but that appears to have come to a halt.

(The survey is available at