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Turkmenistan: U.S. Commission On Religious Freedom Says Progress Is Heard, But Not Seen

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (AFP) WASHINGTON, September 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A team from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that has just returned from a weeklong trip to Turkmenistan says it heard encouraging things from the government on how it will handle religious worshippers in the future. But commission members also heard from religious and human rights leaders that things have yet to change on the ground.

The commission is a bipartisan U.S. government agency, which gives policy recommendations to the White House, State Department, and Congress. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher interviewed the commission's chairman, Michael Cromartie, who says President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov's six-month-old government is saying the right thing but the approach hasn't "trickled down" to the policy level.

RFE/RL: Whom did you meet with during your week in Turkmenistan?

Michael Cromartie: Well, we met, first of all, with the president [Berdymukhammedov]. Our first meeting in Turkmenistan was with the president, and that was good because what that did was signal to the other ministries and government agencies that we were there and that the president had met with us so that the others should also. And so we met with the Culture Ministry and the Education Ministry -- we were in meetings the whole time. I mean, we hardly had time to get over jet lag. And you know, I think we must have met with seven or eight government agencies.

RFE/RL: So everyone you met with was part of the government?

Cromartie: Well, no, no. Then we met with NGOs and we met with religious leaders -- both registered and unregistered -- which was, you know, wonderfully helpful because you get one story from the government about what their plans are and their hopes are and their reforms are. And then you get with the people who are really living there and they give you a different story altogether. So it's a great check on any attempt by any government, wherever we visit, to keep them honest.

RFE/RL: In your meetings with human-rights and religious leaders, what did you learn? If you could have met with Berdymukhammedov again at the end of your trip, what would you have told him?

"Please keep pressure on our government, please make all the sounds and noises that you can -- that there are people here of religious faith who feel oppressed, harassed, and persecuted."

Cromartie: Well, we would have said for instance, "Mr. President, you have a religion law [from] 2003 in need of desperate reform and rewriting. And while we met with some people in your government who say that 'we are now going to expand religious freedoms to all faiths in Turkmenistan,' what we found in practice, sir, is that a lot of people still feel harassed, they still have their private worship services interrupted, they still are harassed by police and military agents who don't seem to appreciate people of other faiths, or of the nontraditional faiths, or minority faiths. And we, sir, without mentioning names, have met many of these people -- and they feel quite persecuted and constrained. And we need to let you know that no matter what you've done to the constitution, the word has not gotten down to others that this is the new policy in Turkmenistan."

RFE/RL: These groups you met with who gave you the ground-level, reality view of how their human rights and religious freedoms are still being abused, did they ask you specifically, or the United States, or the international community, to do anything to try and change the situation in Turkmenistan?

Cromartie: All they said was "We're so thrilled that you're here, we're delighted that you came, we want you to come back. Please keep pressure on our government, please make all the sounds and noises that you can -- that there are people here of religious faith who feel oppressed, harassed, and persecuted."

So you know, they didn't know quite what the U.S. government could do, but they said, "whatever you can do, please do it." So they said, "Let the word go out that there's not religious freedom in Turkmenistan and despite any promises that may be coming out from the top, the word hasn't gotten to the street yet."

RFE/RL: How far have those promises from the top actually made it? Did the officials you met with in the ministries give you any specifics about ways they had perhaps been instructed to change their existing policies on religious expression or human rights?

Cromartie: Almost every agency we met with wanted to brag about plans they had and things they were going to do and things that they had set in motion. For instance, there is a real attempt at reform in Turkmenistan at the educational level. In Turkmenistan, people used to go to school just through the ninth grade; now they've extended it through the 10th grade. There is more emphasis on education in Turkmenistan. They made a really strong effort to let us know that reforms like that across the board are beginning to occur. We often had to remind them that we are a religious freedom commission, and we were not there to talk education policy.

RFE/RL: How did they react when you brought the conversation back to religion?

Cromartie: The one positive thing I'll say about the government of Turkmenistan is that they received us warmly. There wasn't a meeting [which] they said, "You can't have [that meeting]." They were not particularly defensive; they were friendly and gracious.

But those weren't the only meetings we had. We met with a lot of people who were both in registered and unregistered churches who had a lot of complaints. In fact, I think one of the surprising things for me was to find oftentimes you go, and if you're able to meet with unregistered religious groups, they are stronger in their criticism than say, registered religious groups. What we found was in this case, the registered groups were just as critical as the unregistered. In fact they said, you know, we're registered but it took 10 years, or, we're registered but it still doesn't help us any.

RFE/RL: Where does Turkmenistan fall on the rankings of countries that restrict religious freedom?

Cromartie: Turkmenistan, I mean, is not Saudi Arabia. It's not North Korea. Those are countries that are -- in one case, North Korea, which is a totalitarian state, which squashes all freedoms, not just religious freedoms; Saudi Arabia, which wants to impose Shari'a law on everyone and in fact not only persecutes minority religions, but in Saudi Arabia you have Muslims persecuting other Muslims and it's very repressive.

In Turkmenistan, you still have a repressive situation, but you at least have some signals that the government is aware of that and wants to do better. But their feet have to be held to the fire and it must be measure over time -- that if those intentions are real, we'll see evidence of them. We heard the words, but we didn't see the evidence.

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