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Turkmenistan: Niyazov Defensive As U.S. Commission Condemns Religious Repression

Prague, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is recommending for the third year in a row that the United States place Turkmenistan on a list of the world's most egregious violators of religious freedom.

RFE/RL's efforts today to reach Turkmen officials for comment on the USCIRF report were unsuccessful.

However, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, speaking yesterday to his cabinet, seemed to respond to the report indirectly. He said Turkmenistan's controls on religious activity are aimed, not at anyone's right to practice religion, but at foreigners trying to spread what he called "alien" faiths.

"Everyone can follow whatever faith he wants, but a foreigner has no right to spread an alien faith in our country. This is not freedom. Rather, this is inflicting harm upon our nation's religion."

Niyazov told his ministers to use the country's laws to suppress specific denominations.

"The foreigners who come and go, among them are those with a good will and [those] with an ill will. They come, and they tell a group of our people, 'Raise the religion. Turn religion into politics.' Or they bring with themselves, for example, Adventists, Baptists, the faiths or the books of faiths that are alien to our nation, that are not known. You should prevent this by using the laws."

USCIRF said in its report that Turkmenistan's Constitution provides that the country is a secular state guaranteeing freedom of religion. In fact, USCIRF says the Turkmen government adopted in 1997 a religion law that effectively bans all religious denominations apart from Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, and even strictly regulates those groups.

USCIRF spokesman Lawrence J. Goodrich said he does not know why the United States has failed to act on the commission's past recommendations to list Turkmenistan as "a country of particular concern" in relation to religious freedom. Countries already on the U.S. list include Myanmar (Burma), China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan. But Goodrich said his group is "pressing the issue."

"The Commission of International Religious Freedom has been studying the situation in Turkmenistan for some time now and has concluded that the respect for freedom of religion there is extremely poor, and it is getting worse fast."

The report urges the U.S. government to impose sanctions against Turkmenistan until the situation improves. These sanctions would include suspending all non-humanitarian aid, ceasing support for Turkmenistan's sale of natural gas on world markets and for the trans-Caspian gas pipeline, and ending bilateral state visits. The commission's recommendations would exclude any support that might be given to Turkmenistan to help in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

The U.S. Congress created USCIRF in 1988 with the International Religious Freedom Act. Its mandate is to make independent recommendations to the executive branch and Congress on religious freedom policies.