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Turkmenistan: Leader Tightens His Grip On Unofficial Islam

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered the last independent Islamic religious school in the country to close down. Niyazov justified his decision in part by accusing the country's chief mufti of nepotism, but regional experts believe that the move is simply a new attempt to keep the teaching of Islam under strict government control. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports.

Prague, 28 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's authoritarian president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has taken a new step toward the repression of religious freedom by ordering the closing of the only independent Islamic religious school still officially functioning in the country.

On 26 June, the state's Russian-language "Neutral Turkmenistan" newspaper quoted Niyazov as saying that he believes education provided at the Muslim theology seminar, or madrassah, in the northern city of Tashauz is not satisfactory.

According to the newspaper, Niyazov said: "We don't have anything against spiritual education. We are against education that confuses children. There is no place in our country for such schools."

In comments broadcast on state television a day before (25 June), Niyazov provided a far more down-to-earth explanation for his decision. He criticized the country's chief mufti (religious leader), Nasrullah Ibn-Ibaddulah, for allegedly employing relatives in the Tashauz theological seminary. An ethnic Uzbek, Ibn-Ibbaddulah is a native of Tashauz.

"Nasrullah Ibn-Ibbadulah has a madrassah in Tashauz where some of his relatives are working. Last week, I summoned him and told him to close down his madrassah. I told him: 'If I don't order you to close it down, you will not do it. Even a mufti should not infringe laws or consider himself above the others. People are watching you. You must be an example. You must be humble and faithful.'"

Yagshimurad Atamuradov, the chairman of Turkmenistan's religious council -- the government body that oversees religious activity in the country -- said later that, in keeping with Niyazov's order, the Tashauz school would not admit young people this year. Atamuradov said religious students would instead attend a government-approved madrassah in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

Religious freedom and other basic rights have been progressively restricted in Turkmenistan over the past decade. Religious activists, notably representatives of Protestant confessions and adherents of other "non-traditional" faiths, have been imprisoned or deported from the country.

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.

For the past five years, to gain official recognition, religious organizations have had to prove they have at least 500 adult citizens over the age of 18 as adherents. In addition, all of them must live in the same district of a city or town. This double requirement has so far allowed only the majority Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians -- who are estimated to comprise between 7 and 9 percent of the country's population -- to attain legal status. All other religious groups that had been awarded that status before 1996 had it revoked.

Felix Corley is a researcher for the Oxford-based Keston Institute, a non-governmental organization which monitors religious freedom in communist and post-communist countries. In an interview with RFE/RL, Corley said both registered and unregistered communities fall victim to the Turkmen authorities' arbitrariness.

"The government says that unregistered religious activity is illegal. But that is not actually the case. There is no law that bans unregistered religious activity, but the government treats it as illegal. The law says [religious] communities need 500 adult citizen members, but there is nothing in the law that says that these 500 people must be in the same district of a town. But various people have been told that verbally by officials. And even groups that do meet the requirements often do not gain registration."

Despite its legal status, Sunni Islam has often suffered from government arbitrariness also, and has faced restrictions imposed by state bodies.

Vitaly Ponomaryov chairs the Central Asia Program at the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group. He told RFE/RL that the Turkmen authorities are progressively tightening their grip on unofficial -- that is, non-state-sponsored -- Islam.

"After the [500-member] requirement was adopted, more than half of Turkmenistan's mosques were unable to acquire registration. As far as I know, they continue to function in a large number of regions. The authorities are turning a blind eye to the fact that these mosques are functioning without proper registration. But one thing to stress is that the government's policy [toward unofficial Islam] is taking a tougher [turn]."

Since the mid-1990s, Niyazov has increasingly involved himself in Islamic affairs. He has banned the import of religious literature and imposed severe restrictions on private religious education. Analyst Corley says:

"[Niyazov] wants to abolish religious education. I think he needs a limited Muslim education just to keep mullahs [Islamic priests] functioning on the basic level. But he does not really want any serious religious study."

Last year, some 300 foreign Islamic preachers or individuals suspected of being involved in religious activities, mostly Iranians of the Shia Muslim faith, were deported from Turkmenistan. At the same time, the chief imam of the southern town of Mary was removed after being accused of committing unspecified economic crimes.

A few weeks before, Turkmen authorities had arrested Hoja Ahmed Orazgylych, an Islamic cleric whose translation of the Koran from the Uzbek to the Turkmen language had been called into question by Niyazov. All available copies of Orazgylych's translation, which Niyazov described as "evil" and inaccurate, were burned and two mosques associated with the cleric were razed.

Orazyglych -- who had strongly opposed Niyazov's instructions to Turkmen Muslims to celebrate New Year with a Christmas tree -- was later pardoned and sentenced to internal exile in his hometown of Tejen.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Niyazov suggested that he was committed to fighting what he described as the "unjustified expansion" of Islamic religious schools, especially in the region of Dashkhovuz near the Uzbek border.

About one-third of the population in Dashkhovuz -- a region that includes the city of Tashauz -- is made up of Uzbeks and other non-Turkmen ethnic groups.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year (20 April), Ponomaryov said regional authorities in Dashkhovuz had reportedly ordered all schoolgirls, regardless of nationality, to wear Turkmen national attire or be dismissed.

By ordering the Tashauz seminary closed down, Niyazov is perhaps trying to kill two birds with one stone. First, the move may be an attempt to exert greater control over the activity of the Muslim community. Second, it could also be the latest development in the policy of "Turkmenization" the Turkmen president launched recently in a effort to keep the country free of foreign influence.

(The Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)