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U.S.: Turkmenistan Among Worst Religious Freedom Violators

Prague, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) said today that Turkmenistan should be added to the State Department's list of what it calls "countries of particular concern" for their violations of religious freedom.

Commission spokesperson Lawrence Goodrich told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Washington that Turkmenistan systematically suppresses all religions other than Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church.

He said the suppression comes in the form of arrests, detention, imprisonment, fines, and harassment. Authorities have bulldozed churches and other places of worship, Goodrich said, and there have been credible reports of torture:

"We give a lot of credence to those [reports] because they are frequent, the come from various sources, and there's plenty of first-hand evidence that that's going on."

The commission was created by the U.S. Congress three years ago to monitor religious freedom in other countries and advise the president, secretary of state, and Congress on how best to promote it.

Goodrich said the CIRF, in a letter this week to Secretary of State Colin Powell, singled out Afghanistan as what it called "a particularly severe violator of religious freedom." He noted, in particular, massacres of Shiite Muslims, the official destruction of ancient Buddhist religious statues, and requirements initiated by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban that believers in minority religions wear identifying symbols.

The commission said its has not recommended Uzbekistan for designation as a country of particular concern but has asked the State Department to maintain a strict watch of religious-freedom developments there. Goodrich said in the interview that Uzbekistan is may eventually come under CIRF condemnation:

"We're also quite concerned about Uzbekistan, although we did not recommend it as a country of particular concern. But Uzbekistan is walking really close to the line, in the commission's view, and we have asked the State Department to keep a very close eye on events there. There have been round-ups of thousands of religious men on the pretext that they are somehow Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, just because they are outwardly religious."

The CIRF spokesperson said that the commission is not presently expressing concern about any of the nations in transition from communism in Central and Eastern Europe. In Russia, however, the commission has been following the application of a law requiring re-registration of religious organizations:

"We have been watching Russia for the last two years very carefully to see how the registration law is implemented there. And, of course, what we find in Russia is that the federal government appears for the most part to be trying to do the right thing, but that there are lots of problems with local and provincial officials who are violating the Russian Constitution and violating Russian law in harassing or refusing to register legitimate religious groups."

In its letter to the State Department, the commission recommended that 10 countries be placed or retained on a list of egregious religious freedom violators. In addition to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, these are Burma, China, Iran, Iraq, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.