Section I. Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government imposes restrictions on some religious groups.
There is no state religion, but a modest revival of Islam has occurred since independence, and the Government has incorporated some aspects of Muslim tradition into its efforts to define a Turkmen identity. The Government gives some financial support for the construction of new mosques, which are nearly empty except during Ramadan. It also provides financial and other support to the Council on Religious Affairs, which plays an intermediary role between the government bureaucracy and religious organizations.
Religious congregations are required to register with the Government. Registered religions can hold gatherings, disseminate religious materials and publications, and proselytize. Although it reaffirms certain religious freedoms, the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which was amended in 1995 and again in 1996, also provides for significant government control of religion. For example, the requirement that religious organizations must have at least 500 Turkmen citizens over the age of 18 as adherents to be registered legally prevented all but Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians from setting up legal religious organizations. Moreover, the Government applies the 500-member standard on a local/regional basis. For example, a representative of a major Christian religious group was told that the group would have to have 500 adherents in Ashgabat to be registered, and another 500 in the city of Turkmenbashi to be registered there. This restriction also has caused problems for a number of minority religions, especially the Baha'i Faith, which was registered with the Government in 1994 and then deregistered in 1997 when the threshold was raised to 500 adherents. The Baha'is have been prevented from conducting services since 1997 and have been questioned by Interior Ministry authorities for holding private prayer meetings in their homes. The local Baha'i community in Ashgabat was able to open its center for a single day to celebrate the Faith's Nowruz (spring) holiday in March 1998 and again in March 1999.
Reliable statistics on religious affiliation are not available, but ethnic Turkmen (77 percent of the population), ethnic Uzbeks (9 percent), and ethnic Kazakhs (2 percent) are nominally Muslim. However, Islam does not play a dominant role in society, in part due to the 70 years of Soviet rule. Religious believers among ethnic Russians, who make up 7 percent of the population, are most likely to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but their devoutness varies by household.
In January 1999, adherents of the Gregorian Armenian faith in Turkmenbashi appealed to local authorities to use a church appropriated during Soviet times as a cultural center pending their registration as a religious organization, but they have not yet received a reply. Jehovah's Witnesses filed an application for registration in January 1997 but remain unregistered, pending correction of mistakes in their application.
According to Jehovah's Witnesses sources, in August 1997 the city prosecutor of the town of Seidy ordered members to stop their activity until official registration. Their subsequent efforts to worship by meeting in the homes of believers resulted in many fines and the seizure of religious materials.
While protected by law, proselytizing by "foreign" (that is, other than Russian Orthodox or Sunni Muslim) religious groups can incur official displeasure. Government permission is required for any mass meetings or demonstrations for religious purposes. Small prayer groups meet in informal settings, although recently government law enforcement officials have begun to harass those who conduct religious services in their private homes.
Islamic religious literature is distributed through mosques. Russian Orthodox churches are permitted to offer religious literature.
The Government's Council on Religious Affairs does not actively promote interfaith dialog although its representatives attended the opening for a single day of the local Baha'i center in Ashgabat in March 1999.
There is no formal missionary activity in the country.
There has been no change in the Government's respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Government harassment of unregistered Christian (including Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, and Pentecostal) congregations continued.
Religions other than those officially approved by the Government face harassment. In June 1999, the Government began to tighten its control over meetings of unregistered groups. Government officials (including representatives from the Ashgabat city mayor's office and the Committee for State Security) harassed congregations of Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals, seized religious materials, and instructed the groups to stop their activities in the country. During 1998 diplomats received reports of raids and seizures of religious materials at Protestant churches in various parts of the country. Bibles shipped by the Seventh-Day Adventists from neighboring Uzbekistan in October 1998 were confiscated at the border. In June 1999, as part of the Government's attempt to control the activities of unregistered groups, Ministry of Interior and Justice representatives also visited the Baha'i center in Ashgabat and warned its members not to distribute religious material.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners. In December 1998, however, a member of an evangelical Christian congregation in Turkmenbashi was arrested on swindling charges after he was reportedly warned by law enforcement officials to give up his religion. In March 1999, he was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment. The prosecutor in the case protested the leniency of the decision. The brother of the accused was arrested in April 1999 and detained for a day, and police confiscated all of his belongings, including several Bibles.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
There is little or no tension among the various religions.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
In August 1998, embassy officers met with the head of the President's Institute for Democracy and Human Rights to discuss the onerous registration requirements for minority religions and the possibility of reducing the number of adherents necessary for registration for certain historical religions. In February 1999, embassy officers also met with the head of the Institute to discuss the harassment of adherents of the Baha'i Faith by authorities from the internal security services.
In May 1999, the Special Adviser to the Secretary for the New Independent States, Steven Sestanovich, and the Ambassador jointly raised the issue of religious freedom with President Niyazov. The President promised to permit registration of almost all religious groups, but to date no action has been taken by the Government.
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