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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.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious communities theoretically permitted, but attacked in practice?

Despite Turkmenistan now theoretically allowing minority religious communities to get state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that in practice attacks have been renewed against the Jehovah's Witness and Baha'i minority communities. President Saparmurat Niyazov announced the changes on 11 March, the same day that a Jehovah's Witness was arrested and pressured by officials, including a Mullah, to renounce his faith and then fired from his job. There have also been at least three raids on Jehovah's Witnesses in the capital Ashgabad and reported raids in other towns. Also, a Baha'i has had his home raided and been pressured to renounce his faith. Believers from the country's banned minority faiths – including Catholics, a variety of Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, Jews, Adventists, Pentecostal and Armenian Apostolic Christians, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'i – are unsure whether it is apply for state registration. Although some Protestants are optimistic about the situation improving, the NSM secret police told an arrested Baha'i that the new law "applies only to Sunni Islam and the Orthodox Church, while such dubious groups as yours will be thoroughly checked out with the aim of preventing any possible conflicts." And on 29 March President Niyazov banned Muslims from registering new mosques.

TURKMENISTAN: Muslims barred from opening new mosques

Turkmenistan's largest religious community, the Muslims, appear to have been barred from benefiting from the promised easing of the harsh registration restrictions that have prevented most of the country's religious communities from registering since 1997. "Do not build any more mosques," President Saparmurat Niyazov told officials of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs on 29 March, insisting that its officials must continue to appoint all mullahs and control mosque funds. More than half the 250 registered mosques were stripped of their legal status in 1997, and only 140 have registration today. Shia mosques appear likely to remain banned. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the only other current legal faith, the Russian Orthodox Church, is planning to try to register new parishes in the wake of this month's presidential decree and amendments to the religion law easing the restrictions.

TURKMENISTAN: "Shall we trust the president?" religious groups ask

Doubts have been expressed about the genuineness of this month's surprise presidential lifting of harsh restrictions on registering religious communities. But five groups – the Church of Christ, the Adventists, the New Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Baha'i faith - have since the decree sought information about how to apply for registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Other religious communities remain wary. At present only Russian Orthodox and some Muslim communities have registration, and these communities must now reregister. Unregistered religious activity is – contrary to international law – a criminal offence. The presidential decree will not affect the unregistered Baptists, who are persecuted for refusing on principle to seek state registration. Meanwhile the former chief mufti remains on a 22 years jail sentence, apparently for opposing tight presidential control of the Muslim community, and at least six Jehovah's Witnesses are in jail for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

TURKMENISTAN: Scepticism and optimism greet surprise presidential decree

Despite a surprise 11 March decree from President Saparmurat Niyazov lifting the requirement that a religious community must have 500 adult citizen members before it can register, officials have insisted that unregistered religious activity remains illegal. Bibi Tagieva of the Adalat (Justice) Ministry told Forum 18 that the decree does not mean that unregistered religious communities can start to meet freely in private homes. Some believers are optimistic that the decree might be a signal of a relaxation of Turkmenistan's harsh restrictions on religious communities – which have seen all Protestant, Armenian Apostolic, Shia Muslim, Jewish, Hare Krishna, Baha'i and Jehovah's Witness communities banned. "The authorities have tried up till now to use repressive measures and have understood this is unsuccessful," one Protestant told Forum 18. "They seem now to be trying to bring religious communities under state control – perhaps a cleverer policy."

TURKMENISTAN: Why was former chief mufti given long jail term?

Reliable sources in Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 News Service that they believe the country's former Sunni Muslim chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was sentenced to a long jail term for his opposition to tight presidential control over the Muslim community. Government prosecutors claimed he was part of an assassination attempt against the president. Although previously known for his obedience, Ibadullah began to oppose the cult of personality around the president by reportedly obstructing the use in mosques of the president's moral code Ruhnama (Book of the Soul). Imams are forced to display this book prominently in mosques and quote approvingly from it in sermons, as are Russian Orthodox priests in their churches. Ibadullah is also believed to have been targeted as an ethnic Uzbek, Forum 18 having noted the government removing ethnic Uzbek imams to replace them with ethnic Turkmens.

TURKMENISTAN: State interference with Islamic religious life in the north east

The Turkmen government has been replacing ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs (mosque leaders) with ethnic Turkmens, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The authorities are also forcing imam-hatybs to place the Turkmen flag above mosque entrances, to begin every sermon by praising "Turkmenbashi", "Father of the Turkmens", as President Saparmurat Niyazov insists on being called. Also, a copy of Niyazov's book, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), must be placed at the entrance to every mosque and Muslims must touch it as if it were a sacred object. Similar instructions have reportedly been given to other Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox Churches. These are the only two confessions allowed some limited freedom to operate in Turkmenistan.

TURKMENISTAN: Carpet seized to pay illegal Baptist fine

Forum 18 News Service has learnt that officials have seized property from Baptists, in order to pay a fine imposed last year for unregistered worship in a private flat. The prosecution is illegal under international law and breaks the human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed. The Baptists, Yelena and Vladimir Lemeshko, believe they are innocent of any offence. The local court has refused to give them a copy of the order confiscating their property and officials have refused to talk to Forum 18.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards Muslims in Central Asia

In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.

TURKMENISTAN: Six Jehovah's Witnesses jailed for their faith

Six Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison for their faith, Forum 18 News Service has confirmed. These are the only known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan, as against other kinds of prisoners of conscience. Forum 18 has also heard reliable reports of several Imams being held in internal exile. Five prisoners are being held for refusing compulsory military service (Turkmenistan has no alternative service provision), while the sixth - Kurban Zakirov, the longest-serving prisoner for his beliefs – has from 2000 been serving an eight year sentence. At least one prisoner has been raped homosexually, Forum 18 has learnt, and all the others have been threatened with this. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities, Forum 18 knows of Jehovah's Witnesses being subject to harsh persecution, being regularly fined for meeting in private flats, and a family having its flat confiscated. Some have lost their jobs when their faith became known.