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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

TURKMENISTAN: Finding Nemo, hunting Adventists

Just three days after a Baptist service in a private home was raided in Abadan, across the country in Turkmenabad [Chärjew] police raided an Adventist home on 7 August. The family's children and guests were watching a video of Finding Nemo, but police confiscated all the literature they could find, confiscated the owners' identity documents and pressured the husband to sign a statement that an "illegal" religious service was underway. The Adventist pastor in the capital Ashgabad has complained that his congregation cannot hold public worship as it cannot rent premises for worship, despite having state registration. "All hall managers turn us down as soon as they learn that we are looking for premises for a Church," Pastor Pavel Fedotov told Forum 18 News Service. "Even though we have registration we can't do anything."

TURKMENISTAN: Why register when persecution continues?

Despite gaining state registration under the much-trumpeted "liberalisation" of the religion law, secret police raids and threats against a Baptist congregation in Turkmenistan have not stopped, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Last Wednesday (4 August), NSM secret police raided a meeting for prayer and bible study, arrested participants for three hours, confiscated bibles and hymn books, and threatened a "big problem" if meetings continued. Another state registered community, the Hare Krishnas, have been told by state officials that they do not know whether the community should be allowed to operate. A wide range of religious communities have either been unsuccessful with registration applications, or do not want to apply because of the harsh controls they would be subjected to. Asked about making a registration application, one Jehovah's Witness said to Forum 18 "Why should we when persecution continues?"

TURKMENISTAN: "Only two faiths are allowed, Islam and Orthodoxy" says deputy police chief

Abadan's deputy police chief has told Baptist Svetlana Gurkina that "in Turkmenistan only two faiths are allowed, Islam and Orthodoxy, while the rest are banned", local Baptists have told Forum 18 News Service. She was also subjected to crude remarks and threats to imprison her and confiscate her flat, if she continues to meet her fellow-Christians. Although criminal penalties for unregistered religious activity were formally lifted in May, unregistered Baptist communities have been hard-hit by the government's continued refusal to lift the ban on unregistered religious activity. Baptists in the capital Ashgabad have appealed to President Saparmurat Niyazov and government agencies to halt the ongoing persecution of Svetlana Gurkina.

TURKMENISTAN: Police control of believers set to continue

In an apparent sign that they intend to keep tight control of religious communities, officers of the police sixth department, which fights organised crime and terrorism, summoned at least four religious leaders in early June. Officers demanded full information about current and planned activities, and names and addresses of all members, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Intermittent raids on religious communities continue as unregistered religious activity remains illegal. One Protestant told Forum 18 of serious threats in repeated raids on a church in Dashoguz in May. A Jehovah's Witness elder said five local officials confiscated two Bibles in a 10 June raid on a private home, adding that it is too early for them to apply for registration. "Can we apply when some of our lads are still in prison? We won't lodge an application until our community can function freely." Only four minority communities – the Adventists, the Baha'is, the Baptists and the Hare Krishnas – have gained registration since March.

TURKMENISTAN: Six religious prisoners of conscience free, but three remain

Six Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience have been freed this month, however, two other Jehovah's Witness prisoners of conscience, arrested in May, and the former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, serving a twenty-two year prison sentence on charges the Turkmen authorities have refused to reveal, are known by Forum 18 News Service to be still in jail. The freed prisoners were routinely beaten during their imprisonment and pressured to renounce their faith, and in April two were threatened with death. It is believed that prisoners, including the former chief mufti, were beaten up by a special department of the Interior Ministry, in order to intimidate the prisoners before a visit by OSCE ambassadors in mid-May. Religious minorities have told Forum 18 of continuing low-level police harassment, including raids, threats and confiscations of literature.

TURKMENISTAN: Adventists get state registration, Baha'is may be next

Seventh Day Adventists have confirmed that, on Monday 1 June, they were given state registration, the first religious group to be registered under the new state registration rules, and Baha'is are likely to be confirmed later today (3 June) as the next group to be registered. Other religious groups have expressed cautious optimism that they too may be registered, however, the state registration changes do not affect groups which refuse registration on principle, such as the "initsiativniki" Baptists. Unregistered religious activity remains, against international law, a de facto criminal offence, and it remains unclear how far newly-registered religious groups will be permitted to operate without being persecuted, or without the imposition of the heavy state control imposed on Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, the only groups to be state registered before 1 June.

TURKMENISTAN: Unregistered religious activity still illegal

Unregistered religious activity remains illegal, an official of the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry has confirmed, despite a presidential decree abolishing criminal penalties for worshipping without state approval. "If people act without registration they will be fined," Murat Muradov, a specialist at the ministry, told Forum 18 News Service. The ban on unregistered activity in the religion law has not been amended and Article 205 of the Administrative Code, which spells out fines of up to ten times the minimum monthly wage for leading or even taking part in unregistered worship services, remains in force. Muradov denied any harassment of believers in Turkmenistan, describing those who had told Forum 18 of such harassment as "sick". More than ten weeks after the president reduced the number of members required to register a community from 500 to five, no new communities have yet been able to register.

TURKMENISTAN: Jehovah's Witness prisoners threatened with death

Two of the five Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in labour camp in the town of Seydi have been threatened with death, reportedly in the second half of April, with the full knowledge of the camp administration, Jehovah's Witnesses report. "We take these threats seriously," one told Forum 18 News Service. They plead for international attention, fearing for the safety of the five - Aleksandr Matveyev, Rinat Babadjanov, Shohrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov and Rozymamed Satlykov. Jehovah's Witnesses say the five are regularly beaten, pressured to renounce their faith and adopt Islam, take the oath of allegiance to the president and to agree to do compulsory military service. Family and friends have been unable to visit their prisoners since early April.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution's latest disguises

In his latest attempt to disguise Turkmenistan's de facto criminalisation of religious belief, President Saparmurat Niyazov has today (13 May) revoked the de jure criminalisation of unregistered religious activity. Believers were, before the de jure criminalization, treated as de facto criminals and fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or deported in retaliation for unregistered religious activity. Niyazov has also cancelled a secret decree requiring registered religious communities to subject themselves to tight financial regulation by the state – but has imposed tight financial regulation in a different way, through an official model statute for religious communities. Forum 18 News Service has obtained a copy of this, and religious leaders in Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 that they find these restrictions unacceptable. Many prefer to continue to exist in the underground.

TURKMENISTAN: Is state registration disguised persecution?

As well as continuing to harshly persecute religious believers, Turkmenistan is also refusing to allow religious communities to see requirements the authorities insist communities must follow to be registered. Forum 18 News Service has found that amongst harsh new requirements to be imposed will be: a requirement that any worship service or other event has the prior permission of the Gengeshi (the state body controlling religion); a requirement that the full names of any financial donors be given to the Gengeshi; and a requirement that all non-Muslim religious communities pay 20 per cent of their income to the Gengeshi. Many religious communities are too frightened to lodge applications for state registration. "The last time we applied for registration was five years ago, and they went round persecuting all the people who had signed the registration application," one believer told Forum 18. "We are not prepared to go through this again."

TURKMENISTAN: Religious persecution continues

There is no slackening of religious persecution in Turkmenistan. In the last two months the authorities have, amongst other things, fired a Jehovah's Witness from his job, forced a Hindu to sign a statement renouncing his beliefs, raided religious meetings, confiscated the personal property of Baptists, fined Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses large sums of money, and the police have sexually harassed one female Jehovah's Witness. She has complained to the OSCE office in Ashgabad about the police assault on her.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious prisoners of conscience

Although it is difficult because of the level of persecution to be precise, all the religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan known to Forum 18 News Service are from the Jehovah's Witness and Islamic faiths. Some Baptists are currently in hiding from the danger of imprisonment for their faith as, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, they have refused on religious grounds to perform military service. The most high profile current prisoner is the former chief mufti, and Baptists have in the recent past also been imprisoned for their faith. It is also reliably believed that several other muftis have been sent into internal exile without trial.