29 March 2006
Two recent reports based on testimony from North Korean refugees – one by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom - have confirmed earlier findings that religious freedom does not exist in North Korea, that local people are aware of state-sponsored acts of religious persecution and that the only state-approved religion is Juche, or self-reliance, which is closely allied to the cult of the deceased leader Kim Il-Sung. Some interviewees claimed they had witnessed or heard of extreme punishments, even death, meted out to religious believers, others recounted how some religious believers were spared such punishments. Christian organisation Open Doors has noted that North Koreans arriving in China are usually very opposed to religion in general and Christianity in particular as a result of the long-term and regular state indoctrination to which they had been subjected. Visitors to Pyongyang have told Forum 18 News Service that no regular worship takes place at the three official Christian churches in the city and that Buddhist monasteries elsewhere are neglected cultural relics.
22 March 2006
Tajikistan's parliament is to debate a proposed Law on Religion which, if passed, would be the most repressive of all the Central Asian religion laws. The draft was prepared by the state Committee for Religious Affairs. Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Jehovah's Witness leaders have all told Forum 18 News Service of their deep concerns over many aspects of the draft Law. Amongst the violations of international human rights standards that the Law proposes are: a ban on unregistered religious activity; the highest threshold in the CIS for numbers of citizens to register a religious community; restricting the numbers of mosques; banning evangelism or proselytism; banning the teaching of religion to all children under 7; state control over who can teach religion within religious communities and their education; state control of organising Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca; and a ban on foreigners – such as Catholic priests – leading religious communities.
13 March 2006
Pulat Nurov, the Islamic affairs specialist of the state Religious Affairs Committee, has told Forum 18 News Service that, in a planned new religion law, "it will clearly be stated that registration of religious organisations is compulsory." If this proves to be the case, Tajikistan will join Belarus, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in breaking international human rights obligations by making state registration compulsory. Nurov was speaking to Forum 18 about "inconsistencies" in the current 1994 Religion Law in relation to the continued closure of an Islamic religious school in northern Tajikistan. This madrasa is being barred from operation by the authorities, even though there is no legal basis for the government to do this. Nurov admitted to Forum 18 that registration of the madrasa is not compulsory and that no existing state agency can control the teaching of Islam. "These are the annoying defects of the Religion Law adopted back in 1994," he complained.
17 February 2006
The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.
16 February 2006
"Outsiders sometimes think that freedom of conscience exists in our country," writes a Turkmen Protestant, anonymous to avoid state persecution, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. But the writer sees "constant specific violations of religious freedom" and "cannot see any improvement" in Turkmenistan's human rights. When religious believers "demand that officials follow the laws and the Constitution, these officials are in shock." "We have yet to meet an official who refused to act against religious believers, and chose instead to follow the laws and the Constitution." The writer pleads for the international community to act and "publicly and clearly tell our government to do what the Constitution proclaims and respect human rights," as this "would help it keep its promises." The writer states that "religious communities are not calling for any special privileges. We simply want the Constitution to be obeyed. Let us have the rights we are promised - we are going to use them anyway."
10 February 2006
Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova has failed in her bid to have her seven-year jail sentence overturned, Forum 18 News Service has learned, and her exact whereabouts remain unknown, as are the exact charges she was jailed on. It is believed within Turkmenistan that her jailing was at the behest of the MSS secret police, to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. However, Forum 18 has learnt that Jehovah's Witness Aga Soyegov, who was confined to a psychiatric hospital after refusing military service last November, has now been released. Forum 18 does not know of any other current cases of religious believers in jail for conscientious objection to military service, but there is no alternative service possibility offered to young men. Meanwhile, the second Russian Orthodox church in the eastern town of Turkmenabad has finally gained state registration, and hence state permission to exist, six years after it applied for registration.
25 January 2006
Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.
19 January 2006
Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan have complained to Forum 18 News Service about continuing official "religious hatred" towards followers of non-Islamic faiths. "Christians are disturbed that officials try to pressure people to turn away from the faith they have chosen," one Ashgabad-based Protestant told Forum 18. "Such officials are inciting interreligious hatred and this should end." The most recent such incident known to Forum 18 is official pressure by a 12-strong commission of officials and the local Muslim imam to force a convert to Christianity to renounce their faith. Officers of the Police and the Interior Ministry 6th Department – responsible for anti-terrorism and the fight against organised crime and religious activity – took part in the attacks. Members of minority faiths remain concerned that, while official policy proclaims interethnic and interreligious harmony, the reality is different, with hostility, threats and pressure to convert "back" to Islam.
5 January 2006
Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.
19 December 2005
A Jehovah's Witness, Aga Soyegov, is being held in a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan because of his refusal on religious grounds to undertake military service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Two other religious prisoners – a Hare Krishna devotee and the former Chief Mufti – are also known to Forum 18. Soyegov has been diagnosed as being healthy, but is still being held in the psychiatric hospital. Raids are continuing against Baptists in Turkmenistan, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses. On Saturday 17 December, a prayer meeting of a Turkmen-speaking registered Baptist church in Deynau was raided by the MSS secret police, the ordinary police, a Public Prosecutor and a local Imam. Officials then searched the house without a search warrant – which is illegal in Turkmenistan – for religious literature, as well as threatening and detaining those present. Two Christians had their personal Bibles confiscated and the church in Deynau continues to be put "under strong pressure."
9 December 2005
After four weeks of holding services in a rented hall in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], the registered Greater Grace Protestant church has been banned from holding meetings in state-owned premises, it is thought on the initiative of the MSS secret police. "This was the first time we could meet together as a church for many years," church members told Forum 18 News Service. "Now we've had to try to find a private venue." Many difficulties now face the church in overcoming this problem. At a state-sponsored meeting for religious communities, officials – included the Deputy Foreign Minister, the Deputy Justice Minister and the deputy head of the state Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs – made it clear that registered religious communities cannot either rent publicly-owned premises or meet in private homes. Some religious communities are able to meet, but Forum 18 has been told that, outside the capital, "local authorities in other towns just do what they like."
5 December 2005
The second known religious prisoner of conscience in Turkmenistan, Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova, is to be moved to the country's only women's prison, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "This is a long way from her home in Ashgabad and will make it difficult for people to visit her," Forum 18 was told. "Besides, it is in a closed border zone and anyone wanting to visit will need a special permit." Annaniyazova was sentenced in November to seven years in jail on three charges, one of which was not made public. The extra sentence imposed in the wake of the accusation was likewise not made public. The judge in Annaniyazova's case refused to give her lawyer a copy of the written verdict, or even to let the lawyer see it, which one source told Forum 18 may have been a deliberate attempt to prevent a legal appeal. It is thought within Turkmenistan that the seven year jail sentence was imposed to intimidate the Hare Krishna community.