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Turkmenistan: Authorities Repress Non-Traditional Religions

Like other basic rights, freedom of religion remains severely restricted in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan. Religious communities live under constant surveillance and have to abide by restrictive laws, while members of non-traditional congregations face routine harassment and imprisonment. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights organizations are expressing growing concern over persistent attacks on religious freedom in the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan.

Earlier this month, the London-based Amnesty International organization issued an alert that urged Turkmen authorities to release Baptist Christian Shagildy Atakov, who is being held in a labor camp in northeastern Turkmenistan.

A father of five, Atakov was fined $12,000 and sentenced to two years in a labor camp in March 1999 on charges of fraud connected with his automobile business. His sentence was later increased to four years.

But Amnesty International believes that the case was fabricated and that the real reason for Atakov's imprisonment is his religious affiliation. Atakov's wife and children have been placed under house arrest in a small village close to the Iranian border.

Anna Sunder-Plassman deals with South Caucasus and Central Asia affairs for Amnesty International. She says Atakov's health has substantially deteriorated in the past few weeks as a result of ill treatment:

"[Atakov] is believed to be in imminent danger of dying in custody. There are reports that he has bruises all over his body, that he was inappropriately treated with psychotropic drugs, and that he frequently loses consciousness. Recently his family visited him in the labor camp and he said that he didn't expect to live. He said goodbye to his wife."

Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal communities first appeared in Central Asia following persecutions ordered by Moscow against religious minorities in the early years of the Soviet regime and under Stalinism. Representatives of these groups settled down in the region after they were released from labor camps, where they had usually served long sentences.

Vitaly Ponomaryov chairs the Central Asia Program at the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group. He told RFE/RL that, of all religious communities in Turkmenistan, only Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians are not facing harassment and imprisonment.

"Turkmenistan is the only CIS country where all faiths other than Orthodoxy and Islam are banned. Moreover, the authorities have closed half of the country's mosques in 1997 and religious life is tightly controlled by the government. In any case, the activities [of religious communities] is entirely controlled by the presidential apparatus, which sees the existence of other religious tendencies in Turkmenistan as a threat to the unity of Turkmen society and, therefore, is reinforcing coercive measures [against them]."

Internal and external exile is another means used by Turkmen authorities in their attempts to stem the spread of banned religious communities. Ponomaryov says scores of religious activists have been deported in the past few years.

In November 1999, Turkmen authorities ordered the razing of a Seventh-Day Adventist church in the capital Ashgabat without prior notice. The decision followed a similar attack on a Hare Krishna temple.

Turkmenistan's Constitution provides for freedom of religion, but attacks on minority religious groups have been common practice since the country gained independence in 1991.

Under Turkmen law, religious organizations must prove that they have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as adherents to gain official recognition. In addition, all of the faithful must live in the same city or town. This double requirement has prevented all but Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians from attaining legal status. Ethnic Russians are estimated to comprise between 7 and 9 percent of the country's population.

Turkmen officials argue that the 500-strong quota is needed to keep Islamic fundamentalism at bay and to keep track of all religious communities. Authorities have repeatedly promised that provisions of the law on religion would be reconsidered, but the requirement of 500 signatures has remained unchanged. Religious communities without legal status are forbidden to hold meetings or to distribute religious literature. And because Turkmenistan has no law on alternative civilian service, young men who refuse to serve in the army out of religious conviction are sent to jail as deserters.

Memorial's Ponomaryov says he believes about 10 religious activists are currently serving jail sentences. But Sunder-Plassman of Amnesty says precise information is very difficult to come by.

"The government in Turkmenistan is extremely intolerant of dissent, and most members of the political opposition and human rights defenders are outside the country. Therefore, it is very, very difficult to obtain information about the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, and people inside the country are often afraid to pass on information because they fear persecution in case they are identified as a source. So it is very, very difficult to give any exact information on numbers of people who are in prison for their political or religious belief."

A modest revival of Islam has taken place in Turkmenistan since 1991. President Saparmurad Niyazov has ordered that basic principles of Islam be taught in schools, but the teaching of Islam remains under strict government control and has been totally banned from mosques.

Ponomaryov says only one Muslim theological seminary ("medrese") remains open in Turkmenistan and that authorities have forbidden the distribution of Islamic religious literature printed out of the country.

Last year, Turkmen authorities arrested Khodzha Ahmed Orazgylych, an Islamic cleric whose interpretation of the Koran had been questioned by Niyazov.

Members of the Shiite Muslim minority also face harassment and many of them have been deported from the country.

Ponomaryov says Turkmen authorities are trying to turn representatives of religious minorities into apostates or to force them into exile.

"Since approximately 1996, Turkmen authorities have exerted pressure on religious minorities by filing criminal cases against them. Today this is a rather widespread phenomenon, and it seems to me that the aim of the authorities is to 'break' the leaders of these religious minorities and force them to renounce their faith or to leave the country."

Amnesty International says Baptist Atakov should have been released in December under a presidential amnesty that marked the end of the Ramadan holy feast. Memorial believes he was not included in the amnesty because he had refused to renounce his faith and pledge allegiance to Niyazov.