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Turkmenistan: Cleric Facing Internal Exile Over Criticism

A leading Turkmen Muslim cleric is now facing internal exile for life for having offended President Saparmurat Niyazov by criticizing the leader's celebration of the New Year -- which included the use of a Christmas tree. RFE/RL corespondent Bruce Pannier explores the tangled affair.

Prague, 10 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has well earned his reputation for dealing severely with all forms of opposition. Leading members of the country's political opposition are nearly all in jail or in exile abroad, and some religious groups have complained about harsh and arbitrary treatment at the hands of Turkmen authorities. But since the majority of Turkmenistan's people are Muslims, the government has usually tolerated and occasionally even promoted Islam -- while always keeping a careful eye on religious practices.

That tolerance has apparently ended. After one leading Muslim cleric -- Khoja Ahmed Orazgylych -- recently dared to contradict President Niyazov, it evoked an unusually harsh response from the president:

"Khoja Ahmed Orazgylych, together with the writer Atamyrat Atabayev, translated the sacred Koran into the Turkmen language. They translated it from Uzbek to Turkmen and as a result it lost any meaning. I have ordered that all [copies of] the new translation be collected and burned. This translation of the Koran is evil."

The history of the denounced Koran translation is instructive. Several years ago, the Turkmen government actually paid Orazgylych to translate the Koran. At the time, the religious scholar's credentials did not seem to be a problem. Turkmenistan's Qazi -- that is, supreme Islamic leader -- formally approved the translated holy book. But according to Niyazov, Orazgylych is not what he appears to be:

"[Orazgylych] has long been ... committed to evil deeds. He has been visited by childless women, given them talismans, courted them, sometimes committed offenses."

Niyazov only began criticizing Orazgylych a few months ago. At the end of last year, Turkmenistan held a so-called "National Forum" that concluded with parliamentary deputies naming Niyazov president for life. With the New Year days away, Niyazov invited the people of his country to celebrate. Children were asked to dance around a Christmas tree in the capital Ashgabat and chant a prayer to Niyazov that appears on the front page of every newspaper in Turkmenistan.

About the same time, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service spoke with Orazgylych and asked him about the recommendation to dance around the Christmas tree. Orazgylych gave an emotional answer:

"To speak about the relationship of Islam to the Christmas tree! .... I have been studying Islam for 24 years and from the first to the last writings of the Koran I have never come across anything about greeting the New Year with a Christmas tree. There is nothing about the New Year and a Christmas tree." Not long after Orazgylych made these comments, the cleric found himself facing criminal charges. Last month, after Orazgylych had been taken into custody, Niyazov publicly questioned his religious qualifications -- even though Orazgylych studied theology at the respected Mir Asrab medresseh (Islamic seminary) in Samarkand.

As for burning Orazgylych's translation of the Koran, Mullah Abdulkarim -- an Afghan Turkmen -- told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that it is sacrilege:

"According to religious principles, no one can burn the Koran. A translation of the Koran may be incorrect [in some places] and pages removed, but burning is prohibited. Anyone who burns the Koran will be condemned [and] cannot be considered a Muslim."

Nevertheless, a humiliated Orazgylych last week publicly confessed to wrongdoing -- perhaps under duress. He has now been freed from jail and, under a new law signed by Niyazov, he likely will go into internal exile. That means Orazgylych could live in some remote village for the rest of his life.

(Zarif Nazar, Khoudaiberdi Khallyev, and Guanch Gueraev of the Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)