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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."

28 February 2005

TURKMENISTAN: "What's the point of registering?"

Religious communities with state registration - Seventh-day Adventists, some Baptists, Bahais, Hare Krishna and Muslims - have recently seen some improvement in their freedom to meet for worship, but almost all complain of being unable to worship outside approved places and of the ban on printing or importing religious literature. Russian Orthodox parishes are expecting registration in March. The leader of one religious community, which has decided not to register, complained to Forum 18 News Service that "even if you get registration there are so many things you can't do." Harassment of unregistered religious communities, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, continues. Turkmen President Niyazov has reportedly stated of unregistered religious communities that, if they are good and agree to cooperate with the SSM secret police, there is no reason not to register them. Questioned by Forum 18 about why the government is secretive about its policy, an official insisted that the policy is not secret – but would not give any information.

17 February 2005

TURKMENISTAN: More religious prisoners of conscience jailed

Turkmenistan has increased the number of religious prisoners of conscience it has jailed, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, by imprisoning two further Jehovah's Witnesses, Atamurat Suvkhanov and Begench Shakhmuradov, for refusing on religious grounds to serve in the armed forces. There are now five known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan, four of them Jehovah's Witnesses and one Muslim, the former chief mufti. In addition, some imams are believed to be in internal exile. Religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan have been harshly treated, being regularly beaten, threatened with homosexual rape, and in one case apparently treated with psychotropic (mind-altering) drugs. Suvkhanov, who is now 18, is currently being held in the women's labour camp in the eastern town of Seydi, and the whereabouts of Shakhmuradov, who is 26, are unknown. Commenting on the fact that Shakhmuradov is older than most military conscripts, Jehovah's Witness sources told Forum 18 that "we still don't know why someone that age was called up."

15 February 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

31 January 2005

TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses interrogated and mosques demolished

Raids and other pressures against Jehovah's Witnesses are continuing, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, including the sudden detention and interrogation "in a verbally abusive manner" of Altyn Jorayeva and her three children, aged 8 years, 6 years, and 7 months old. Forum 18 has also learnt of further demolitions of mosques the authorities do not approve of.

4 January 2005

TURKMENISTAN: 2004, the year of demolished mosques

Like the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Hare Krishna community, Muslims in Turkmenistan have also suffered from having their places of worship demolished by the government, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In 2004 President Niyazov inaugurated "the largest mosque in Central Asia," but at least seven mosques were demolished by the authorities, Muslim and non-Muslim sources inside Turkmenistan have told Forum 18. The Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the capital Ashgabad were confiscated in 2001, leaving both communities with nowhere to worship. The Adventist church in Ashgabad and two Hare Krishna temples were bulldozed in 1999. Although both communities gained official registration in 2004, neither community has been allowed to meet publicly for worship. Also, the authorities have neither paid compensation for bulldozing their places of worship, nor allowed them to be rebuilt.

22 November 2004

TURKMENISTAN: Why did Turkmenistan lie to the UN?

In a failed bid to head off a United Nations (UN) resolution, sponsored by the European Union and the USA, and supported by Brazil, expressing grave concern at Turkmenistan's human rights record, Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov has falsely claimed that there were "no cases of arrest or conviction on political grounds or for religious beliefs". Three religious prisoners are known to Forum 18 News Service to be held, and arrests continue to be made. On the day of the debate he claimed that there was "no truth to the allegations of limits on the rights to belief, conscience or religion," despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and the UN's two previous resolutions critical of the country's human rights record. Turkmen officials and President Niyazov have a record of making such false claims, but the country's diplomats have refused to discuss the issue of false claims with Forum 18. Countries speaking in support of Turkmenistan in the debate were Algeria, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

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