|2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, the Government severely restricts all religious expression except for the two registered groups, Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians. Unregistered groups are discouraged from holding gatherings, disseminating religious materials or proselytizing, although some unregistered congregations exist.
There was a decline in the Government's overall respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government became more intolerant of religious minorities and increased its interference with their religious observances. However, new procedures ordered by President Saparmurat Niyazov in April 2000, sent to the legislature in May and passed by the Parliament in June limited house searches by Government authorities. Coincident with the proposal and subsequent enactment of the new legislation, reported harassment of religious believers declined.
Beginning in May 1999, the Government began a crackdown on local Christian churches. During the period covered by this report, noncitizen believers were deported, and the Government refused to renew visas for approximately 20 foreigners it accused of being involved in missionary activities. In November 1999, the Government razed a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Ashgabat. In April 2000, the President ordered the implementation of new procedures restricting searches of private homes. The measures were formally incorporated into a draft law in May, and approved by the legislature in June 2000. In parallel, measures were enacted into law restricting the ability of law enforcement authorities to institute criminal proceedings against Turkmen citizens, by requiring permission to do so from commissions formed of local officials and social organizations. The period following these measures reportedly saw a significant reduction of police harassment of some religious believers in their private homes and a reduction of confiscation of religious property. There were reports of several religious detainees and prisoners. There is little or no overt tension among adherents of the various religious groups.
On numerous occasions, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Ashgabat and Washington pressed the Government to expand religious freedom, in particular to reduce its burdensome registration requirements for minority religions. The Ambassador offered his residence for use as a place of worship by a Protestant prayer group composed of expatriates who previously used the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government imposes severe restrictions on minority religious groups. There is no state religion, but a modest revival of Islam has occurred since independence. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Muslim tradition into its efforts to define a Turkmen identity, and gives some financial and other support for the construction of new mosques to the Council on Religious Affairs. This body plays an intermediary role between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations, but does not promote actively interfaith dialog. The Government pays the salaries of Muslim clerics and during the period covered by this report provided free transportation for as many as 300 citizens to undertake the Hajj to Mecca.
While it affirms a number of important 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 over religion. Religious congregations are required to register with the Government and must have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as adherents to be registered. Moreover, the Government applies this 500-member standard on a local and regional basis. For example, a Catholic representative was told in 1998 that his congregation would have to have 500 adherents in Ashgabat to be registered there and another 500 in the city of Turkmenbashi to be registered there. Moreover, since Turkmen names are routinely deleted from lists to prevent discrimination against congregations trying to register ethnic Turkmen, it has proven almost impossible for groups to find 500 non-Turkmen names to register. These stringent registration requirements have prevented all but Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians from setting up legal religious organizations. Although only registered religious congregations legally can hold gatherings, disseminate religious materials, and proselytize, some congregations, including Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses do manage to meet, and since April 2000 have done so without harassment.
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 70 years of Soviet rule and in part because of the pre-Soviet cultural history of the region. Russians constitute about 7 percent of the population, and the remaining 5 percent consist of Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups. Religious believers among the Russians are most likely to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but their level of religious observance is uncertain. Some Russians are also Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Baptists. A small community of Baha'is exists. Roman Catholicism is practiced by a small number of persons, predominantly foreigners.
Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides that each person has the right to express and disseminate religious beliefs. However, proselytizing by unregistered (that is, other than Russian Orthodox or Sunni Muslim) religious groups incurs a negative official reaction. Government permission is required for any mass meetings or demonstrations for religious purposes.
Islamic religious literature is available from mosques. Russian Orthodox Churches offer Christian religious literature. State-controlled broadcast media do not allow religious broadcasting. Unregistered religious groups face government harassment if they attempt to meet or distribute religious literature. Some minority Christian religious groups in Ashgabat said that since the April 2000 presidential decree restricting searches of private homes, law enforcement officials had not visited the meetings they hold in private homes nor confiscated any of their religious literature.
The Government's restrictive policies toward minority religions have caused problems for a number of them, including the Baha'i Faith, which was registered by the Government in 1994 only to be deregistered in 1997 when the threshold was raised to 500 adherents. Members of the Baha'i Faith have been prevented from conducting services since 1997. The local Baha'i community in Ashgabat was able to conduct a memorial service at a local restaurant in January 2000. In January 1999, the local Armenian community in Turkmenbashi applied to local authorities to use a church appropriated during the Soviet era as a cultural center pending registration as a religious organization, but it did not receive a reply during the period covered by this report. In May 1999, President Niyazov promised to permit registration of almost all remaining religious groups by September 1999; however, the Government did not take any action during the period covered by this report. No new religious groups were registered and the Halk Mahslahaty (People's Council) did not reduce the 500-person threshold during its December 1999 meeting despite indications by senior officials that it would do so.
There is no formal missionary activity in the country. Beginning in May 1999, the Government began a crackdown on local Christian churches. According to the Brussels-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Without Frontiers, in May 1999 government authorities questioned more than 100 citizens about their contacts with foreign-nationality Christians residing in the country. In June 1999, representatives of internal security organizations also visited the Baha'i center and warned its members not to distribute religious materials. In June, July, and August 1999, law enforcement officials harassed congregations of Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Pentecostals, seized religious materials, and instructed the groups to stop their activities in the country. Credible press reports indicate that another series of efforts to intimidate Baptist congregations throughout the country took place in early 2000, including raids of homes and confiscation of religious materials. In March 2000, border officials confiscated religious materials in bulk being brought into the country by a visiting group affiliated with an evangelical Christian organization.
Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom
There were reports of religious detainees and prisoners, and there were some credible reports that some law enforcement officials beat religious detainees or prisoners. In March 1999, Shageldi Atakov, a member of the Baptist faith, was sentenced to 2 years in prison for an alleged illegal transfer of automobiles in 1994. The prosecutor in the case protested the leniency of the decision and in August 1999, Atakov was resentenced to 4 years in prison and fined $12,000. Atakov denied the charges and claimed that he was being imprisoned because of his religious beliefs. Atakov reportedly was beaten severely by a law enforcement officer while in prison. According to a foreign evangelical organization, authorities sought to pressure Atakov's wife to convert to Islam. On February 3, 2000, the local Committee of National Security (KNB) chief reportedly expelled Shageldy's wife and children from Mary to Kaakha where they were told not to leave the town. On March 3, 2000, the Government arrested Shageldy's brother Chariyar on unknown charges.
Jehovah's Witnesses living in Gizylarbat also reported that they were beaten severely while in government custody. In June 1999, Yazmammed Annamammedov was arrested and charged with insulting a policeman. While he was being interrogated, local representatives of the KNB beat him. He was tried and sentenced to 12 days' imprisonment. On July 23, 1999, he again was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment. In October 1999, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment. Upon his release on October 19 he again was asked to renounce his religious beliefs and beaten. According to Jehovah's Witnesses sources, Annamammedov is now serving a 4-year sentence at a prison work camp in Bezmein.
In September 1999, local police and KNB officers in Geokdepe reportedly arrested two Jehovah's Witnesses for discussing the Bible with fellow citizens. After 3 days of interrogation, which reportedly included beatings, the two were sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment. Upon their release, they were told to renounce their faith and warned not to tell human rights organizations about their treatment while in Government custody.
Rahim Tashov, the pastor of an unregistered Baptist congregation in the city of Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou) was arrested twice in October 1999 and fined for holding meetings of an unregistered religious group. He reportedly was beaten while in police custody. Since his arrest the entire congregation has not been able to meet together in one place. Members of the Baha'i Faith have been questioned by internal security representatives for holding private prayer meetings in their homes.
The Government also harassed Pentecostals. On February 4, 2000, law enforcement authorities reportedly beat up the Pastor and confiscated religious materials at a facility in Tejen. On February 6, agents from the KNB broke up a service at a Pentecostal house of worship in Ashgabat and recorded the names of all those present.
During the December 16-17 visit of a Helsinki Commission staff delegation, police arrested two Baptist pastors and orchestrated raids on Baptist churches in Chardjou, Mary, Turkmenbashi, and Ashgabat. In April 2000, President Niyazov ordered that Muslim madrassahs and other religious schools be closed and that only two or three such schools, functioning under the auspices of the government-controlled Muftiyat, be allowed. In March 2000, the Government arrested religious leader Hoja Ahmed Orazgylychev and tore down an unregistered mosque and religious school run by him and his followers. Orazgylychev subsequently was released and sentenced to internal exile. He earlier had criticized President Niyazov for directing that Turkmen children dance around a Christmas tree during New Year's celebrations.
In December 1999, the Government began deporting foreigners suspected of carrying out missionary activities. In November 1999, the Government arrested Ramil Galimov, a member of a Jehovah's Witnesses group in Gizylarbat who has dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship. After imprisoning him for 2 weeks, it forced him to board a train to Russia in December 1999 but retained his Turkmen passport. The Government also deported Baptist pastors Vladimir Chernov to Ukraine and Aleksandr Yefremov to Russia in December 1999. Baptist leader Anatoliy Belyaev was arrested in February 2000, and he and his family also were deported to Russia. In March 2000, Yuriy Senkin, Vyacheslav Shulgin, and their families also reportedly were deported. In January 2000, the Government began to refuse to renew residence permits for some 20 westerners that it believed were engaging in proselytizing. This action was a severe blow to the expatriate Ashgabat International Fellowship, and the group now only meets informally in the homes of the remaining members.
In August 1999, the Government demolished a Hare Krishna temple in Mary and deported the director of the Ashgabat temple. In September 1999, representatives of internal security organs, including the KNB, attempted to break up a religious service of the Seventh-Day Adventist congregation in Ashgabat. The congregation later paid a fine for meeting illegally. On November 13, 1999, a demolition team, sent by the Ashgabat mayor's office, began tearing down the recently completed church during a prayer meeting. The building's destruction was part of a government plan to build a new road through the neighborhood, but to date the Seventh-Day Adventist church is the only building in the neighborhood that has been destroyed. The congregation has requested compensation, but the Government, following initial discussions, had not acted on the request by mid-2000.
The Government also restricts the travel of clergy or members of religious groups to the country, although in March 2000, representatives from the Baptist Union in Uzbekistan reportedly were able to visit with Baptist congregations in Ashgabat, Balkanabad (formerly Nebit Dag), Mary, and Turkmenbashi.
In April 2000, President Niyazov appeared on television to announce that he had received numerous complaints from the public about abusive law enforcement practices in people's homes and the confiscation of people's possessions. He is reported to have singled out the names of officials whose offices were responsible for the behavior. Also in April 2000, the President ordered the implementation of new procedures restricting searches of private homes. The measures were formally incorporated into a draft law in May, and approved by the legislature in June 2000. In parallel, measures were enacted into law restricting the ability of law enforcement authorities to institute criminal proceedings against Turkmen citizens, by requiring permission to do so from commissions formed of local officials and social organizations. The period following these measures reportedly saw a significant reduction of police harassment of some religious believers in their private homes and a reduction of confiscation of religious property.
However, despite this positive development, there was a decline in the Government's overall respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government became more intolerant of religious minorities and increased its interference with their religious observances.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
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 overt tension among adherents of the various religions present in the country. However, there are reports that clerics from the registered religious are sometimes resentful of inroads made by those proselytizing for other, unregistered religions. The government-controlled press has run articles against proselytizing by groups that the authorities perceive as cult-like, such as Jehovah's Witnesses.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
In July 1999, an embassy officer attempted to attend the trial of Shageldy Atakov but was not allowed into the courtroom. In September and December 1999, embassy officers met with the head of President Niyazov's Institute for Democracy and Human Rights and members of the Council on Religious Affairs to press for reducing the burdensome registration requirements for minority religions. In the course of a discussion with the Foreign Minister on bilateral relations in December 1999, an embassy official raised the issue of religious freedom and prisoners and urged that the latter be included in an upcoming presidential amnesty. U.S. officials repeatedly raised these issues with President Niyazov.
In November 1999, the Ambassador and other officials went to the site of the destruction of the Seventh-Day Adventist church to criticize the Government's decision to tear down the church. They assisted the congregation in removing some of its religious materials from the church for storage elsewhere.
In February 2,000, officials from the U.S. Department of State visited the country and raised issues about religious freedom with government officials. In May 2000, the U.S. Ambassador also raised the burdensome registration requirement with the Deputy Chairman of the Council on Religious Affairs. Also in May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Robert Seiple, visited Ashgabat with a staff member and met with members of the religious community and with government officials to discuss religious freedom issues, such as promised changes in the registration law, amnesty of religious prisoners, and recent deportations.
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