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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: Will Sunni mosques and Orthodox churches be criminalised?

All currently registered religious communities – i.e. only Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches - will now have to re-register under new detailed procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Forum 18 notes that Shia Muslim mosques, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Adventist and all other Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witness kingdom halls, Baha'i and Hare Krishna temples and Jewish synagogues will continue not being able to register, and under the new religion law all their activity is now a criminal offence – a clear breach of Turkmenistan's human rights commitments. It is very unclear why highly detailed regulations to register religious communities have been drawn up, as only a very restricted number of religious communities have ever been permitted to register. So far Forum 18 has not yet learnt of attempts to de-register existing Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox communities. However, after the previous 1996 religion law was brought in, Forum 18 learned of many Sunni Muslim communities being de-registered, as well as all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox Church communities.

UZBEKISTAN: Police arrest, insult & threaten to rape female Jehovah's Witnesses

Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police break up Muslim commemoration of dead Azeri president

Turkmen secret police have raided a mosque to break up a Shia Muslim commemoration for the dead former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev. Forum 18 notes that the government has de facto banned Shia Islamic practice, although some Shias continue to practise their faith in defiance of the authorities.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards religious minorities in Central Asia

State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

TURKMENISTAN: Secrecy surrounds content of new religion decree

Not even the government's Council for Religious Affairs knows how religious organisations gain state registration under new regulations, Forum 18 News Service has found. Only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities have so far gained registration; all other religious communities are de facto barred from registering and so are illegal, thus breaching international human rights agreements. However, Forum 18 has been able to establish that, in the unlikely event of other religious communities being registered, they will have to pay a fee of about 10 times the basic monthly wage unlike the previous fee of 1-3 times the basic wage. Forum 18 knows of believers having been very harshly punished for unregistered religious activity. Despite this, a government official insisted to Forum 18 that "Believers have complete freedom of conscience in Turkmenistan. You can pray at home, whether to God or the devil. But if you meet for services, then you must register as a religious organisation."

TURKMENISTAN: Heavy fines on Balkanabad Baptists

In the first case known to Forum 18 News Service of penalties imposed on believers for meeting for worship since Turkmenistan's harsh new law on religion came into force last November, twelve members of a Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad were given fines of 75 US dollars each, more than one month's wages. The fines followed a police raid on the unregistered church during Sunday worship in late November and came on top of earlier fines last year. A 7 January statement from the Baptists reaching Forum 18 reported that officials "also warned the brothers and sisters that in the event of a repeated violation, the size of the fine would be much higher, while for a third violation they would be responsible under the criminal code".

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed after international pressure

Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev was freed on 20 December from the secret police headquarters in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabad, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Sources who did not wish to be named have told Forum 18 that he has now returned to his family and is very grateful to everyone who helped to secure his release, which they attribute to Forum 18's coverage of his case. However, as unregistered religious activity is seen as criminal activity by the Turkmen authorities, the situation of Baptists and of other religious communities continues to cause international concern.

TURKMENISTAN: Fears grow for imprisoned Baptist

It is feared that detained Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev may not be released as promised by Turkmen secret police officers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, and concerns are growing that he may have criminal charges laid against him and be being tortured. The family has been told that he is being held at the main headquarters of the National Security Ministry in the capital Ashgabad, and access to him is not being permitted. Khudaikuliev leads a small Baptist community in the town of Geok-Tepe, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Ashgabad. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and all non-Russian Orthodox communities it does not have state registration and the government treats all its activity as illegal. He had travelled to Ashgabad to collect money that had been transferred to him, and was then detained by the National Security Ministry, which has declined to discuss his case with Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptists threatened as harsh new law used to bite

In the first instance known to Forum 18 News Service of the use against believers of Turkmenistan's harsh new religion law, which came into force in November, police raided a Baptist Sunday service and took everyone present, including children, to a police station. Forum 18 has learnt that everyone present was accused of breaking the new religion law by worshipping without state registration, warned they would be fined 10 times the minimum wage for the first two such cases in a year, and then face criminal charges. One women was threatened that her children would be taken from her and then put in a children's home. Turkmenistan only allows Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities to have state registration.

TURKMENISTAN: Continuing concern at criminalisation of religious belief and practice

Reliable sources have told Forum 18 News Service that officials don't yet know how harshly to implement Turkenistan's new religion law, which breaches international human rights agreements the country has signed. It is believed that instructions may be given for harsh implementation. International pressure on Turkmenistan is growing the UN human rights committee passing a European Union sponsored resolution calling for an end to "serious and continuing human rights violations", as well as criticism by the US Helsinki Commission. US Secretary of State Colin Powell told this month's OSCE ministerial meeting that "Turkmenistan's persecution of political opponents and religious minorities violates the letter and the spirit of the Helsinki Act." Religious minorities inside Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 of their continuing concerns about how the new law may be used to criminalise religious belief and practice. However a Baptist told Forum 18 that "The rulers of Turkmenistan are not in charge, God is still in his place."

TURKMENISTAN: President falsely claims no religious prisoners

Under pressure from a draft UN resolution sponsored by the EU and US, the Turkmen president, Saparmurat Niyazov, has defended his record with the claim that Turkmenistan has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies. However, Forum 18 News Service knows of Jehovah's Witness prisoners and an imam in internal exile. Also imprisoned for his faith was Baptist Shagildy Atakov. Turkmenistan has both consistently failed to cooperate with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and other UN human rights agencies and also has this month introduced a harsh new religion law outlawing all unregistered religious activity, which defies international human rights agreements it has signed.

TAJIKISTAN: Religious freedom survey, November 2003

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Tajikistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the confusion that leads to officials wrongly insisting that registration of religious communities is compulsory. Unregistered religious communities do encounter difficulties with the authorities, but Forum 18 has been told that excesses "are not as a rule state policy, but simply the arbitrary actions of local officials." Compared to neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan generally follows a more lenient policy towards unregistered religious communities. This may be because Tajikistan, after a civil war, is not able to exert such harsh controls as Uzbekistan can. The Tajik authorities are most concerned with controlling Muslim life, because Muslims make up more than 90 per cent of the country's population, and because of the aftermath of the civil war. The possibility exists that government pressure on believers may intensify in the near future, under a proposed new law on religion.