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TURKMENISTAN: Muslims barred from opening new mosques

Turkmenistan's largest religious community, the Muslims, appear to have been barred from benefiting from the promised easing of the harsh registration restrictions that have prevented most of the country's religious communities from registering since 1997. "Do not build any more mosques," President Saparmurat Niyazov told officials of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs on 29 March, insisting that its officials must continue to appoint all mullahs and control mosque funds. More than half the 250 registered mosques were stripped of their legal status in 1997, and only 140 have registration today. Shia mosques appear likely to remain banned. Forum 18 News Service has learnt that the only other current legal faith, the Russian Orthodox Church, is planning to try to register new parishes in the wake of this month's presidential decree and amendments to the religion law easing the restrictions.

TURKMENISTAN: "Shall we trust the president?" religious groups ask

Doubts have been expressed about the genuineness of this month's surprise presidential lifting of harsh restrictions on registering religious communities. But five groups – the Church of Christ, the Adventists, the New Apostolic Church, the Catholic Church and the Baha'i faith - have since the decree sought information about how to apply for registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Other religious communities remain wary. At present only Russian Orthodox and some Muslim communities have registration, and these communities must now reregister. Unregistered religious activity is – contrary to international law – a criminal offence. The presidential decree will not affect the unregistered Baptists, who are persecuted for refusing on principle to seek state registration. Meanwhile the former chief mufti remains on a 22 years jail sentence, apparently for opposing tight presidential control of the Muslim community, and at least six Jehovah's Witnesses are in jail for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

TURKMENISTAN: Scepticism and optimism greet surprise presidential decree

Despite a surprise 11 March decree from President Saparmurat Niyazov lifting the requirement that a religious community must have 500 adult citizen members before it can register, officials have insisted that unregistered religious activity remains illegal. Bibi Tagieva of the Adalat (Justice) Ministry told Forum 18 that the decree does not mean that unregistered religious communities can start to meet freely in private homes. Some believers are optimistic that the decree might be a signal of a relaxation of Turkmenistan's harsh restrictions on religious communities – which have seen all Protestant, Armenian Apostolic, Shia Muslim, Jewish, Hare Krishna, Baha'i and Jehovah's Witness communities banned. "The authorities have tried up till now to use repressive measures and have understood this is unsuccessful," one Protestant told Forum 18. "They seem now to be trying to bring religious communities under state control – perhaps a cleverer policy."

TURKMENISTAN: Why was former chief mufti given long jail term?

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.

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Carpet seized to pay illegal Baptist fine

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.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards Muslims in Central Asia

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Six Jehovah's Witnesses jailed for their faith

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.

TURKMENISTAN: Will Sunni mosques and Orthodox churches be criminalised?

All currently registered religious communities – i.e. only Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches - will now have to re-register under new detailed procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Forum 18 notes that Shia Muslim mosques, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Adventist and all other Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witness kingdom halls, Baha'i and Hare Krishna temples and Jewish synagogues will continue not being able to register, and under the new religion law all their activity is now a criminal offence – a clear breach of Turkmenistan's human rights commitments. It is very unclear why highly detailed regulations to register religious communities have been drawn up, as only a very restricted number of religious communities have ever been permitted to register. So far Forum 18 has not yet learnt of attempts to de-register existing Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox communities. However, after the previous 1996 religion law was brought in, Forum 18 learned of many Sunni Muslim communities being de-registered, as well as all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox Church communities.

UZBEKISTAN: Police arrest, insult & threaten to rape female Jehovah's Witnesses

Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police break up Muslim commemoration of dead Azeri president

Turkmen secret police have raided a mosque to break up a Shia Muslim commemoration for the dead former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev. Forum 18 notes that the government has de facto banned Shia Islamic practice, although some Shias continue to practise their faith in defiance of the authorities.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards religious minorities in Central Asia

State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.