UZBEKISTAN: Harsh border cuts Muslims off from Turkmen holy sites
High Turkmen visa fees make it prohibitively expensive for many Uzbek Muslims living close to the western border with Turkmenistan from crossing over to visit family graveyards and places of pilgrimage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt in the Khorezm region of western Uzbekistan. "We can see our forebears' graves through the barbed wire, but if we want to reach them and perform religious rituals, we have to pay money to the Turkmens," the imam of Manak village, Nodyr Formanov, told Forum 18. "The visa regime between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan clearly encroaches on believers' rights," complained Vladimir Artemyev, director of the Uzbek branch of a UNESCO project for the preservation of ancient monuments.
Nearby Manak village – half-way from Shavat to the border with Turkmenistan - is in Uzbekistan, but the village cemetery is on the other side of the border. The imam of the local mosque, Nodyr Formanov, describes the situation as "quite ridiculous". "We can see our forebears' graves through the barbed wire, but if we want to reach them and perform religious rituals, we have to pay money to the Turkmens," he told Forum 18 in Manak on 13 July.
"In February 2001 Turkmenistan unilaterally introduced a visa regime with Uzbekistan," Babakhan Islamov, head of the Shavat district administration, told Forum 18 on 12 July in Shavat, which is half way between the Uzbek city of Urgench and the Turkmen city of Tashauz. To cross the border, Uzbek citizens have to obtain a visa at the Turkmen embassy in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. However, the Turkmen government introduced a slight concession for residents in the border regions, who can buy a visa costing six US dollars at the border itself.
"We don't ask for any money from Turkmen citizens travelling here, but the Turkmen side makes them buy an exit visa costing around two dollars," Islamov pointed out.
Vladimir Artemyev, director of the Uzbek branch of a UNESCO project for the preservation of ancient monuments, explains that when the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan was drawn in 1924 it divided a single ethno-cultural region - the former territory of the Khorezm state. He says a number of holy places honoured by Uzbek Muslims and the Uzbek people ended up in Turkmenistan. Even the capital of the Khorezm state - now the city of Konya-Urgench, where many holy places honoured by Muslims have been preserved - ended up in Turkmenistan.
"So long as the border remained just a formal line on the map, this division had virtually no impact on people's lives," Artemyev told Forum 18 in the Uzbek capital Tashkent on 14 July. "But since becoming a state border, the 'landmine planted by cartographers in Moscow' has become a serious problem in relations between the two independent states."
Uzbeks form the second largest ethnic minority in Turkmenistan, representing around 10 per cent of the population. In districts across the border from Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan autonomous republic and Khorezm region, ethnic Uzbeks make up as much as half the population.
The introduction of a visa regime for people living in the border regions has led to bloody clashes. When a crowd of Uzbeks tried to reach their ancestors' cemetery across the border without obtaining visas in December 2001, Turkmen border guards opened fire and wounded several people.
"The introduction of a visa regime is making it hard for Khorezm Uzbeks to carry out religious rituals," Artemyev told Forum 18. He said in particular the mosques in Konya-Urgench are places of pilgrimage for Muslims which were traditionally visited by Uzbek residents. Another site revered by Muslims is the ancient Klavlyuiya cemetery, 60 kilometres (35 miles) north of Tashauz. He also cited many lesser-known cemeteries in the border districts of Turkmenistan where Uzbek relatives are buried. "The visa regime between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan clearly encroaches on believers' rights," Artemyev declared.
Uzbek officials are wary about speaking of such a delicate issue. "I'm not going to deny that there is a problem for believers in the regions bordering Turkmenistan," the chairman of the Uzbek government's committee for religious affairs, Shoazim Minovarov, told Forum 18 on 15 July in Tashkent. "But we are not empowered to set policy, and so I will not make any comment."
16 July 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Uzbekistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the government's wide-ranging defiance of its international religious freedom commitments. Unregistered religious activity is illegal and believers are routinely punished even for religious meetings in private homes. Missionary work is banned. Religious literature is censored, while foreign Islamic websites are blocked. Virtually all religious communities are subject to harsh government control, especially Islam. The leadership of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims is virtually an agency of state authority. The government tries to prevent the spread of Protestant, Jehovah's Witness, Hare Krishna and other religions regarded as non-traditional.
15 July 2003
Interrogated for four hours by an officer of the National Security Service (the former KGB), a member of the Asia Protestant church in Tashkent, Nelya Denisova, was told not to report the interrogation. "Just don't publish an article about our conversation on the Internet," NSS officer Vadim Negreyev told Denisova at the end of the interrogation. "No-one here tortured or raped you! We just had a friendly chat." Vladimir Zhikhar, coordinator of the 27-strong Association of Independent Churches, to which the Asia Church belongs, told Forum 18 News Service members of his church are often called in by the secret police.
10 July 2003
Their Sabbath meeting raided by the secret police on 8 February and fined 23 US dollars each in April, a group of Adventists in Nukus have been summoned to appear again at the city court on 20 July. Deputy procurator Sultan Ibragimov refused to tell Forum 18 News Service why they were being brought to court again. Religious affairs official Nurula Jamalov admitted to Forum 18 that he had told the procuracy that Adventist leaflets confiscated during the raid "should not be distributed in Uzbekistan" but denied that he had banned the Bible, eight copies of which seized.