7 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.
26 March 2004
Tashkent-based lawyer Nail Gabdullin believes he has had his licence to practice stripped from him in retaliation for his work defending religious believers. "There is no other reason," he told Forum 18 News Service. Among those Gabdullin has defended are Pentecostals, Baptists and Adventists, and he is working to regain the registration stripped from the Urgench Baptist Church in February. But a specialist at the Tashkent city justice administration familiar with his case denied he has been punished for his work. "Defending believers has nothing to do with it," Svetlana Zhuraeva insisted to Forum 18, though she refused to give what she claims is the reason. Only a handful of Tashkent's 2,000 lawyers are disbarred each year.
18 March 2004
The Protestant Greater Grace Church in Samarkand has repeatedly had attempts to get state registration, without which under Uzbek law it would be forbidden, turned down, its Pastor Artur Karimov has told Forum 18 News Service. Other Protestant churches in Samarkand have also had difficulties with the authorities. Officials of the regional justice department have told Forum 18 that are trying to ensure that the number of mosques "does not exceed reasonable levels," and to also limit the number of Christian churches under this policy. The officials also said that Muslims became very upset about the spread of Christianity in the region, and stressed their displeasure at the continued activity of Matti Sirvio, a Finnish missionary who founded the Greater Grace Church.
16 March 2004
In the first such case since 2002, a Jehovah's Witness from Samarkand, Vladimir Kushchevoy, has been sentenced under the criminal law for "failing to observe the prescribed manner of communicating religious doctrine" to three years "corrective labour" and 20 per cent of his wages are to be confiscated by the state, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. His Bible, New Testament, and other religious literature were ordered by the court to be destroyed. No proof was produced that Kushchevoy was actually giving religious instruction, Forum 18 was told. This sentence appears to be part of a growing trend to destroy religious literature, as well as to target both Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestant Christians. However, since 2002, the authorities had not been using the criminal law against these religious minorities, using other means of attacking them instead.
8 March 2004
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.
8 March 2004
Claiming without evidence that Hare Krishna followers were terrorists, had tried to stage a putsch in Russia and are now trying to stage a coup d'etat in Uzbekistan, Razumbai Ischanov, dean of Urgench University's Natural Sciences Faculty, has reportedly said he will expel all students who are Hare Krishna followers. Since the speech by the Dean, which had the support of University authorities, rumours have been spread that female Hare Krishna students are prostitutes, causing several planned weddings to be cancelled, and a lecturer in the natural sciences faculty forced a student Krishna devotee, against their religion, to eat meat and drink vodka. The NSS secret police have also started monitoring Hare Krishna students since the speech.
4 March 2004
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.
4 March 2004
On 27 February, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the authorities in Khorezm region decided to close the Urgench Baptist Church. The only other church in the region is the Protestant Korean Church. It was decided to close the church as it had been working with children and would not revise its statute. Statute revision requires church re-registration, which the authorities have denied to other churches making them illegal. The authorities claim that children's work was taking place without parental consent, but parents had given their consent – only to have the NSS secret police pressure them into denying this. Those parents have now asked the church's forgiveness, Forum 18 has been told. Article 3 of Uzbekistan's law on religion forbids "the enticement of underage children into religious organisations, as well as the religious instruction of children against their or their parents' will". Unregistered religious communities are illegal and banned from operating, which provision is against international law.
24 February 2004
Just hours before US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was due to arrive in the Uzbek capital Tashkent, Forum 18 News Service has learnt that an appeals court today (24 February) commuted a six-year sentence of hard labour imposed on a 62-year-old Muslim grandmother, Fatima Mukhadirova, to a fine roughly equivalent to 2/3rds the average annual salary. She is the mother of Muzafar Avazov, a religious prisoner tortured to death in August 2002. It has been suggested by Human Rights Watch that the authorities prosecuted Mukhadirova to take revenge, primarily because she tried to get a genuine investigation into the murder of her son and because she is an "independent Muslim woman". Her lawyer, Alisher Ergashev, told Forum 18 that "She is free now, but the court has not declared her innocent, so I am not satisfied with the ruling."
18 February 2004
Although believers are frequently tried and fined for conducting unregistered religious activity, which Uzbekistan has criminalised, Forum 18 News Service has discovered that, unseen by outsiders, the National Security Service (NSS, the former KGB) also often engages in "preventative work" with members of religious minorities. NSS officers indicate to believers that they know a lot about them and their community, and interrogate them further about the community's activity and plans in an apparent bid to intimidate and threaten them. Vadim Negreyev - an officer from the NSS national headquarters in the capital Tashkent cited by a number of believers for his role in investigating minority faiths – declined to discuss his work with Forum 18. The NSS engages differently with members of the majority Muslim faith – unregistered communities are immediately closed down as soon as they are discovered.