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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: "It is our duty to check up on religious organisations"

Some ten officials from the local Religious Affairs Department, the police, secret police, Justice Ministry and Tax Ministry raided a Bible class held by the Greater Grace Protestant church in a private flat in the capital Ashgabad on 11 April. Asked the reason for the check-up, Murad Aksakov of the local administration told Forum 18 News Service they wanted to find out how many people attended the classes, who those people were, and whether everything was in order with the church's documents. Pastor Vladimir Tolmachev told Forum 18 he was warned that the church was not allowed to teach its own members without permission from the government's Religious Affairs Committee, even though its officially-recognised Charter allows this. Officials told Tolmachev he would receive an official warning. Further such warnings could lead to the church's registration being stripped from it, rendering all its activities illegal. In an illustration of the problems even registered religious communities face, the church has no building of its own and has already had to move its services ten times this year.

TURKMENISTAN: What needs to change, the Religion Law or government actions?

Turkmenistan has promised to amend its Religion Law, but work on this has not started, Forum 18 News Service has found. Shirin Akhmedova, Director of the state National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, claimed the process of amending the Law would be "transparent" and would involve "international experts." However, she said that the views of local people would be listened to only after Forum 18 specifically asked about this. She refused to say what parts of the Law are likely to be amended, when a draft Law may be produced, or if there would be public discussion. She insisted that the country has a "new government" and denied that religious believers face any problems in practising their faith. Religious believers have told Forum 18 that no fundamental changes in religious policy have yet taken place. Many have stated that restrictions they face include not being able to: build or open places of worship; publish or import religious literature; travel abroad (including on the haj pilgrimage to Mecca); share their beliefs; or – for communities the authorities particularly dislike - gain legal status.

TURKMENISTAN: Another conscientious objector sentenced, another police raid

Ashirgeldy Taganov is the sixth conscientious objector to be sentenced in Turkmenistan in recent months for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. His fellow Jehovah's Witnesses complain that the court procedure was "hasty" and "careless" and that Taganov could not present his case in full. He was sentenced to an 18 month suspended sentence, which imposes harsh restrictions. Offenders cannot leave Ashgabad and must be back home each evening by 8 pm. They must also find work. "This is very difficult as there is no work available," another religious conscientious objector told Forum 18. Meanwhile, a Baptist congregation has been raided by police, who confiscated hymn books, a Bible concordance, books of poetry and 47 CD recordings of sermons and hymns. The Deputy Chair of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs conceded to Forum 18 that any such raid would be "unpleasant", but said he had heard nothing about it. He then put the phone down.

TURKMENISTAN: Haj pilgrimage promises still not honoured

Very senior officials in Turkmenistan have claimed that Muslim pilgrims wishing to undertake the haj would be free to do so. However, Turkmenistan continues to only permit one government-controlled aircraft of pilgrims – 188 people - to travel, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The pilgrims include members of the MSS secret police and other officials. Pilgrims are selected "under complete government control", one source told Forum 18, and need the approval of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs and of their local Khyakimliks (administrations). Saudi Arabia, which sets haj pilgrimage numbers, would be prepared to allow 5,000 people to make the pilgrimage from Turkmenistan, and Iran has offered the opportunity for pilgrims to travel by bus. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov himself earlier this year made the umra ("minor pilgrimage") to Mecca, but has not yet honoured promises to allow anyone to make the pilgrimage. Serious violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief continue against people of all faiths.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist forced to leave homeland, mullah still held in psychiatric hospital?

Freed from prison in November, Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky – a Ukrainian citizen - has failed in his attempt to remain with his wife, children and his congregation in his native town of Turkmenbashi. He is due to leave on a flight to Moscow on 11 December. Officials refused to explain their denial of a visa. "But of course it is linked to my activity as a believer," he told Forum 18 News Service. "Everything that has happened to me since 2001 is related to that." His congregation has no other pastor. Meanwhile, former enforced psychiatric hospital detainee Kakabai Tejenov told Forum 18 that among the fellow detainees was a mullah, who arrived at the closed hospital in Lebap Region in late 2006. Forum 18 has been unable to find out the mullah's name or if he is still being held. "If he is still being detained, I want him to be freed," Tejenov declared. Also, 18-year-old Jehovah's Witness Ashirgeldy Taganov still awaits possible trial for refusing compulsory military service.

TURKMENISTAN: "Prayer without state registration violates the Religion Law"

Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been warned not to meet for worship with his fellow believers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Officials summoned me for what they said was a conversation, but at the end presented me with a pre-written statement saying that I agreed not to meet with my fellow-believers," he told Forum 18. Although Kalataevsky's congregation does not oppose state registration on principle, officials kept telling him that his congregation does not have enough adult citizen members to apply for registration. They added that unregistered religious activity, including people meeting together for worship in homes, is banned. "I asked them to show me what part of the law bans unregistered worship and they were unable to do so," Kalataevsky told Forum 18. Throughout Turkmenistan, Protestants, Muslims and people from other faiths have been this autumn stopped from exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

TURKMENISTAN: Did government order Orthodox diocese to split?

The Deputy Chair of Turkmenistan's Committee for Religious Affairs has refused to say whether the government pressured the Orthodox Church to split the Church's Central Asian Diocese by putting its Turkmen Deanery under the Patriarch. "I'm not authorised to respond to you," Nurmukhamed Gurbanov told Forum 18 News Service when asked about the split. However, Gurbanov was willing to discuss other matters, claiming for example that Orthodox parishes in the country face no restrictions. Fr Georgi Ryabykh of the Moscow Patriarchate told Forum 18 that they hope the decision will make pastoral oversight easier. "For years the bishop in Tashkent didn't visit this part of the Diocese, and that isn't normal church life." Deceased President Niyazov had asked for the split in 2005, sparking complaints from another priest that Niyazov was trying to build an independent Orthodox Church just as he had done with Islam. Fr Ryabykh, however, said that "It couldn't just be a response or reaction to a demand by a president, as if the president demands and the Church obeys." He added that "some time was necessary to understand the situation and make a decision."

TAJIKISTAN: Jehovah's Witnesses banned

Tajikistan's Jehovah Witnesses have been banned throughout the entire country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Culture Ministry officials handed the community a banning order stripping it of legal status and "just said we were banned and should stop all our activity. They didn't say much," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18. Commenting on the ban, which Forum 18 has seen, a Culture Ministry official stated that the authorities' main complaint was that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse military service. "There is no alternative service in Tajikistan yet, so everyone ought to obey Tajik laws," he told Forum 18. The official then added that they also propagate their faith in public places, "which directly contradicts the Law". The ban follows a check-up by Prosecutor's Office and Religious Affairs officials on all Tajik religious communities. It is not known if the ban is related to the check-up, which resulted in some mosques being closed. Jehovah's Witnesses intend to appeal against the ban.

TURKMENISTAN: Four prisoners amnestied, one to be deported?

Four of the six religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan have been amnestied, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, one of the four – Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky - remains in custody and may be deported. "We're worried as there is only a small hope that he will be allowed to stay here," members of Kalataevsky's family told Forum 18. "The family and the Church want him to stay – and he wants to stay." They say the Ukrainian embassy has also appealed to the Turkmen authorities for Kalataevsky – a Ukrainian citizen - to be allowed to remain with his family in Turkmenistan. The three other amnestied religious prisoners are all Jehovah's Witnesses who were serving suspended sentences for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. But not freed under amnesty were Jehovah's Witnesses Bayram Ashirgeldyyev and Begench Shakhmuradov. They are respectively serving 18 month and two year suspended sentences, which place limitations on their activities.

TURKMENISTAN: Fifth Jehovah's Witness sentenced in three months

Jehovah's Witness Begench Shakhmuradov has rejected the two year suspended sentence handed down yesterday (12 September) by an Ashgabad court for his refusal to perform compulsory military service. "I believe I have the right to freedom of thought and religion and the court should have respected this," he told Forum 18. Shakhmuradov does not yet know the conditions to be imposed on him, but he is likely to have to report regularly to the police and to need permission to leave Ashgabad. Suleiman Udaev, one of the four other Jehovah's Witnesses sentenced in the past three months, has had his 18-month prison term commuted to a two-year suspended sentence with compulsory labour and was allowed home on 12 September. Meanwhile, the wife of imprisoned Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky told Forum 18 she does not know if he will be included in October's mass prisoner amnesty. Nurmukhamed Gurbanov of the government's Religious Affairs Committee refused to discuss any of these cases with Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Fifth conscientious objector to be prosecuted?

Begench Shakhmuradov could become the fifth Jehovah's Witness to be sentenced this summer for refusing compulsory military service on grounds of religious conscience. "He was called up in May and the military commission deemed him fit for service although he still suffers from tuberculosis he contracted in prison while serving an earlier sentence for refusing military service," Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service from Ashgabad. His case is with the Prosecutor's Office. Shirin Akhmedova, head of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, put the phone down as soon as Forum 18 asked why religious believers are still being prosecuted. A planned 24-hour family visit with imprisoned Baptist Vyacheslav Kalataevsky was cut without explanation to just 40 minutes, his family complained to Forum 18. "Of course we all cried and were all upset," his family told Forum 18. Meanwhile, Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant from Dashoguz banned from leaving Turkmenistan since January, has been able to leave to rejoin his wife and their daughter he had never seen.