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Turkmenistan: Ashgabat Takes Further Steps To Suppress Religious Faiths

Turkmenistan's new law on religion, which came into force this week, formally outlaws all unregistered religious activity. Meanwhile, a new Criminal Code amendment makes life for religious minorities harder by prescribing penalties of up to a year of "corrective labor" for those breaking the law.

Prague, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL) � Turkmenistan's new law on religious freedom and religious organizations was signed last month by President Saparmurat Niyazov and came into force this week. This is the first time that the 1991 religion law, which has been revised several times, has been replaced entirely.

The new law specifically declares all unregistered religious activity illegal, while a new amendment to the Criminal Code prescribes penalties for breaking the law.

Aaron Rhodes is the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna. He notes that with the passage of the new law, Turkmenistan joins Uzbekistan and Belarus as the only former Soviet republics where unregistered religious activity is banned. "Turkmenistan is joining the 'club' of countries in the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE [region] that are illegally restricting the freedom of religion," he said. "Uzbekistan and Belarus also have such laws that ban unregistered religious activity."

Felix Corley is the editor of Forum 18, a Norway-based news agency covering religious-freedom issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. He notes that although the Turkmen authorities have treated unregistered activity as illegal in recent years, this is the first time that such a provision has been formally incorporated into law.

Corley says the ban on unregistered religious activity will have a massive impact on the country's minority religious groups, which include Baptists, Pentacostalists, Shia Muslims, Jews, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Hare Krishnas, among others.

"This is really the crucial factor. Because the government will only allow the Sunni Muslim communities and the Russian Orthodox Church to register, this means every other religious community is affected by this one single article of the law. This is more important than any other provision of this law. All the procedures that it lays out for religious communities to gain registration [are] of no importance for the vast majority of religious communities, which will never get registration," Corely said.

As before, registration of a given group requires that 500 adult followers live inside the country. However, in practice these 500 believers must all live in one district, which has made it impossible for religious groups other than the majority Sunni Muslim or Orthodox Christian to register.

Meanwhile a new amendment to the Criminal Code, which also took effect this week, makes unregistered religious activity punishable by up to one year of "corrective labor" or fines of up to 30 average monthly wages and other penalties.

Until now, unregistered religious activities such as holding religious services or privately conducting religious instruction have been punished under the code of administrative offenses.

Given that Turkmen authorities have already moved to "crush" all minority faiths, Corley said, it is unclear why they would seek to tighten controls on religious activity any further. "Perhaps the very reason is that, despite these draconian controls, unregistered religious communities continue to meet to worship in secret," he said. "And the government knows this and perhaps they're moving even further to destroy them completely, which would leave the country with only two official religions: one Muslim denomination and one Christian denomination."

Rhodes suggests that authorities are "hiding" behind the war on terrorism to gain even more control over the population. "My speculation would be that in the context of the war against terrorism the government feels that it can take these steps which give it more control over its population," he said. "It can take these steps and try to justify them on the basis of security."

Speaking on television earlier this month, Murad Karryev, deputy head of Turkmenistan's state Council for Religious Affairs, warned that there are "certain people" who are trying to spread their ideas in Turkmen society after receiving underground education in foreign countries.

This followed an earlier statement from Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev, claiming that tighter control of religious groups and public organizations was needed to address security concerns. Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project based in Budapest, points out that the new law and amendment are consistent with a larger government effort to bring Turkmen society even further under its control.

"It's worth noting that this new revised law on religion and religious organizations in Turkmenistan was signed into law at exactly the same time that a parallel law on NGOs, on nongovernmental organizations, was also signed into law. And the spirit of both new laws is very similar. It is to provide administrative oversight headed by the president himself of nongovernmental activities, whether they be religious or civic in nature," Dailey told RFE/RL.

Dailey adds that this likely not a coincidence that the laws came into force in the days preceding the first anniversary of the 25 November alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov.