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.
In Kunya-Urgench [Köneürgench] district (60 kilometres [37 miles] north of Dashoguz) Uzbek imam-hatybs have been sacked as leaders of mosques on ancient sites and at the cemeteries Ashig-Aidyn, Ibrahim-adam and "the cemetery of 3,360 saints", which are revered by Muslims. The "Turkmenicisation" of the mosques is far from being the sole example of state interference in the lives of believers. The authorities have appropriated a third of the land owned by the Shalikyar mosque in Dashoguz and have placed a drugs dispensary there. The authorities are forcing imam-hatybs to place the Turkmen flag above mosque entrances. Every sermon delivered by imam-hatybs has to begin with a eulogy to "Turkmenbashi", "Father of the Turkmens", as President Saparmurat Niyazov insists on being called. A copy of Niyazov's book Ruhnama (Book of the Soul) is placed prominently at the entrance to every mosque and believers have to 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 legal confessions in Turkmenistan.
Muslim believers from the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan, which borders Turkmenistan, are also suffering from the actions of the Turkmen authorities. Residents in the districts of Uzbekistan that border Turkmenistan have to pay 6 US Dollars (equivalent to 43 Norwegian Kroner, 5 Euros, or 6,080 Uzbek Soms) for a Turkmen visa at the border. (Residents of districts of Uzbekistan that do not border with Turkmenistan have to obtain a Turkmen visa at the Turkmen embassy in Tashkent). Given that the average monthly wage in Khorezm region is less than 30 US Dollars (equivalent to less then 213 Norwegian Kroner, 25 Euros, or 30,400 Uzbek Soms), this is a large sum of money for local residents. Moreover, the graves of relatives of the Khorezm Uzbeks are often situated on Turkmen land. According to Muslim tradition, the whole family has to visit the graves of relatives. Given that Uzbek families have several children, a head of family has to hand over between 30 and 40 US Dollars to cross the border with the members of his household. This sum is so large that about two years ago a crowd of Uzbeks tried to use force to break through the border to visit the graves of their relatives.
The new visa regime also causes problems for people burying relatives and making religious pilgrimages. For example, the Karakapy bobo cemetery that serves the village of Yangiabad (in north western Uzbekistan, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the regional centre, Urgench [Urganch]) is on Turkmen territory, but since the introduction of the visa regime local residents prefer to bury their compatriots on Uzbek territory. There are also many mazars (graves of holy men) and ancient mosques on Turkmen land that are revered by local Muslims. For example, local belief holds that three pilgrimages to the "cemetery of 3,360 saints" in the town of Kunya-Urgench are equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca.
Dashoguz region, in Turkmenistan, and Khorezm region, in Uzbekistan, constitute together a single ethnic region known as Khorezm which is now divided by a state border. The territory of this region is associated with the 3,000-year-old history of the Khorezm civilisation which traces its roots to the culture of Mesopotamia and Ancient China, and the States of the Great Kush. When Islam became established in the region, the Khorezmshah state existed here, which became a world power for a short period (between the 12th and 13th centuries) and also after the collapse of the Timur empire of the Khiva Khanate which occurred before Russia colonised the region. Until 1598 the capital of Khorezmshah and of the Khiva Khanate was the city of Kunya-Urgench, which is situated in today's Turkmenistan.
For more background see Forum 18's report on the new religion law at
and Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at
A printer-friendly map of Uzbekistan is available at
26 February 2004
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.
16 February 2004
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.
9 February 2004
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.