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Turkmenistan: President Relaxes Registration Rules For Religious Groups

Under apparent pressure from the United States, Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov yesterday issued two decrees relaxing registration rules for religious organizations and exit restrictions on Turkmen citizens.

Prague, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Niyazov's decision came after a meeting between the Turkmen president and visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State B. Lynn Pascoe.

"We discussed issues such as the religion law and the registration of NGOs. And the president said he was going to be taking some very interesting steps in that regard," Pascoe said.

"This would be the first time since the mid-1990s that any religious community, apart from the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, will be able to practice their faith legally."
State television later announced that Niyazov had scrapped a requirement that religious groups have at least 500 members in order to be formally registered.

In the past, Turkmen authorities have insisted that the 500 members live in a single district -- a condition that virtually eliminated all religions other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodoxy.

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18, a Norwegian-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He says Niyazov's announcement comes as a surprise.

"It seems very odd, because it is not very long ago since Turkmenistan's religion law was tightened up sharply and for the first time specifically criminalized unregistered religious activity," Corley said.

That new law, which came into force in November 2003, formally outlaws all unregistered religious activity.

If Niyazov's new annulment is enacted, the Justice Ministry will theoretically be able to register a wide variety of religious communities in a country notorious for having the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet republics.

The decree goes into force today. However, it remains unclear when it will be implemented -- if ever. Corley says he is skeptical.

"This would be the first time since the mid-1990s that any religious community, apart from the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, will be able to practice their faith legally. All the minority communities have been declared illegal de facto," Corley said.

Turkmen citizens like Khalmyrat Gylychdurdyev, a film director living in the capital Ashgabat, appear to have similar doubts.

"I am surprised by such things. [The religion law] has only been formally annulled; I don't really believe [something substantive has happened. There are no religious freedoms here, and they're not going to come for a while. Not until 2020. What will happen next, I don't know," Gylychdurdyev said.

The state television announcement also said citizens will now be allowed to leave the country, even if they don't have entry visas for their intended country of destination. The change, like the religion decree, is effective immediately.

Turkmenistan re-introduced exit visas in March 2003, requiring citizens to receive official permission from the Foreign Ministry in order to leave the country. Last January, Niyazov abolished the requirement, but the government continues to keep a long "blacklist" of people it does not wish to leave the country.

Erika Dailey directs the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute in Budapest. She says that, with a near-total absence of rule of law in Turkmenistan, she is skeptical Niyazov's new decree will amount to any real change in religious rights and freedom of movement.

Furthermore, she says, there is nothing to indicate that Niyazov is softening his policy on human rights.

"There's been nothing but bad news in the last couple of weeks and that certainly seems to reflect a broader trend in the government. There's much more attention to cracking down [and] to controlling. That's yet another reason why I'm profoundly skeptical these two decrees will come to anything, because it would run counter to what they're already doing in practice," Dailey said.

But Mukhamet Kelemenov, a doctor in Ashgabat, says the announcement is a positive sign in itself.

"If it has convinced [Pascoe] and was announced on television nationwide, I think that there are already some positive changes," Kelemenov said.

Dailey says both decrees seem to be in response to threats that Turkmenistan may be subject to U.S. sanctions, and may even be stripped of its most favored nation trading status with the United States.

The Soviet-era U.S. Jackson-Vanik amendment imposes trade sanctions on countries that do not allow free movement of people.

There have also been calls for the U.S. State Department to designate Turkmenistan a "country of particular concern" regarding religious freedom -- something that can also lead to sanctions.

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