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22 July 2005

TURKMENISTAN: "Virtual catastrophe" for Muslim Theological Faculty

President Niyazov has ordered "a virtual catastrophe" for Turkmenistan's only official institution for training Muslim imams, a local staff member has told Forum 18 News Service. All Turkish staff members must return to Turkey, 20 students are being expelled, and the Muslim Theological Faculty's status is to be downgraded. Forum 18 has been told that "many staff don't want to work with the new teachers and would rather leave the university." The move is possibly part of an overall government attempt to tighten the already harsh controls over the country's officially registered religious communities, as there have recently been attempts to increase Turkmen state control over the Russian Orthodox Church and isolate the church. Other officially registered religious communities, such as the Baptists, Seventh day Adventists, Pentecostals and Hare Krishna devotees, also face strong official pressure and restrictions, as do the unregistered - and de facto illegal - communities.

11 July 2005

TURKMENISTAN: President attempts to meddle in Orthodox structures

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II has politely sidelined Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's attempt to split the dozen or so Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan away from the Central Asian diocese, and subordinate them directly to the Patriarch. A Moscow-based priest familiar with the situation, who preferred not to be identified, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the Church itself has to make such decisions, not the state. The priest told Forum 18 that he believes President Niyazov "wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in his hand, just as he has done with Islam." Stressing that the Moscow Patriarchate is keen to see an end to the tensions between the Church and the Turkmen government, the priest deplored the denial of visas to three or four priests who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan, and the refusal of the Turkmen government so far to re-register Russian Orthodox parishes.

10 June 2005

TURKMENISTAN: "Same repressive measures" include bans on worship

Annamurad Meredov, the religious affairs official who led a ten-strong raiding party on a Baptist service in the town of Mary on 9 June has insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the service was "illegal", although the Church has registration at the national level. "The church's pastor asked them to explain the legal basis for the visit and to identify themselves, but this was ignored," local Baptists told Forum 18. "All those present were subjected to interrogation one by one and were recorded on video-camera." Meredov denied Baptist claims that he banned the church from meeting but refused to say what will happen the next time the Mary congregation meets for worship. "As before, the authorities continue to use the same methods against Christians, including recording personal details and places of work, demanding that they show their identity papers and banning them from meeting," Baptists complain.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

13 May 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: "Draconian amendments" approved by Majilis

"The ban on the activity of unregistered religious associations and the draconian amendments to the administrative code significantly limit believers' rights," Aleksandr Klyushev, of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK) told Forum 18 News Service after 12 May Majilis parliamentary approval of sweeping "national security" amendments to eleven laws. The parliamentary debate had been expected on 18 May, but was suddenly brought forward. Klyushev said to Forum 18 that "deputies discovered that the discussion of the draft would take place on 11 May only on the day of the session. I believe this was done deliberately to prevent deputies from preparing for the consideration of the draft and from submitting amendments." Communist party deputy Yerasyl Abylkasymov told Forum 18 that "in the time of Genghis Khan such ideological saboteurs were hung, drawn and quartered. Alas it is now unfortunately not possible to do this and so we have to defend ourselves by means of laws." Having been approved by the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, the amendments now go to the upper house, the Senate, for approval.

25 April 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Major Hare Krishna festival banned

Banned since the spring from meeting in the house it rented for use as a temple in the wake of February and March police and secret police raids, the Hare Krishna community in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] was warned by officials not to hold celebrations on 17 and 18 April for Rama Navami, one of the most important Hare Krishna festivals of the year. "Our community can't meet at all now," Hare Krishna sources complained to Forum 18 News Service, "neither in the house, nor at the legal address. This is critical as religious communities can't meet in private homes and local authorities are afraid of renting property they own to religious communities as they don't want problems. So what can the community do?"

22 April 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Will registration end harassment of religious communities?

Amid continuing international pressure, five Protestant Churches are being granted registration, though no Armenian Apostolic, Lutheran, Jewish, Yezidi or Jehovah's Witness activity is yet allowed (all unregistered religious activity remains illegal). Pastor Viktor Makrousov of the Full Gospel Church told Forum 18 News Service he still has to go to 20 offices to complete the registration process. He will work to regain his confiscated church. He hopes harassment – such as threats to Pentecostals in early April – will come to an end. Meanwhile all four imprisoned Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors were freed by presidential decree in mid-April, but not former chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, serving a 22-year sentence.

31 March 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Heavy fines for registered but "illegal" Baptist worship

Despite being members of their nationally-registered Church, five Baptists in the eastern city of Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou) were fined two months' average wages in late March to punish them for holding a small service which the secret police claim was "illegal". If they fail to pay by 10 April, the fines will be doubled, Protestants have told Forum 18 News Service. When the service was raided, officers insulted one Baptist, asking her why she was a Christian and insisting that it would be better for the Baptists to follow the Islamic faith of their forebears. "The security police don't even know the new religion law which allows us to meet," one Protestant complained to Forum 18. "They just wanted to make fun of the Baptists."

16 March 2005

COMMENTARY: No religious freedom without democracy: a lesson from "Orange Ukraine"

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's surprise announcement last month of the abolition of the State Committee for Religious Affairs is a powerful signal to the rest of the region that governments should end their meddling in religious life, argues former Soviet political prisoner Professor Myroslav Marynovych, who is now vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University http://www.ucu.edu.ua in Lviv, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. He regards the feeling in Ukraine that the communist model of controlling religion is now dead as the greatest gain of the "Orange Revolution" in the sphere of religion. Yet Professor Marynovych warns that other countries will find it hard to learn from the proclaimed end of Ukrainian government interference in religious matters without wider respect for human rights and accountable government. Without democratic change – which should bring in its wake greater freedom for religious communities from state control and meddling - it is unlikely that religious communities will escape from government efforts to control them.

1 March 2005

TURKMENISTAN: President's personality cult imposed on religious communities

Amongst pressures on religious communities is a government-enforced cult of President Niyazov's personality. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that Muslims face mounting pressure to venerate the president's two volume ideological book, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), while Russian Orthodox churches must have a minimum of two copies of the Ruhnama. One government minister claimed that the Ruhnama would make up for shortcomings in both the Bible and the Koran, neither of which were, he claimed, fully adequate for the spiritual needs of Turkmens. The personality cult includes a massive mosque decorated with quotations from the Ruhnama, a gold statue in Ashgabad that revolves to follow the sun and a monument to the Ruhnama. Also important in the President's cult are his books of poetry, and Muslim clerics were last month told that "it was a priority task for clergymen to disseminate the lofty ideas in our great leader's sacred books on the duties of parents and children."

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