Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Faith Groups Under Pressure in Turkmenistan

Authorities remain unrelentingly suspicious of religious practice.
By Dovlet Ovezov, Inga Sikorskaya

Despite hopes that new legislation will ease repression on faith groups in Turkmenistan, there are few signs of the government letting up on the pressure.

New legislation on religious organisations currently being debated in Turkmenistan’s parliament appears to set out a clearer process for applying for official registration, which is mandatory for all religious organisations wishing to operate within the law.

A lawyer who works for an international organisation based in the country said he hoped the law would ease the process, since at the moment, “the principle of freedom and equality for religions is not observed in our country”.

However, judging from past legislative changes, the chances of liberalisation seem slim.

Since 2003, when the first major changes to the law covering religious groups were made, the trend has been towards greater restriction. First, the number of people required to set up a “religious community” was raised to 500, and in 2006, the rules were changed so that approval was needed from regional-level local government as well as the justice ministry.

Turkmenistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of confession, but the authorities retain a Soviet-style suspicion of overt religious activity, particularly when this involves smaller faith groups.

A member of one Protestant Christian group said officials routinely ignored the rights set out in the constitution.

“They say they have their own unwritten laws. They don’t care about the constitution,” he said.

Government figures presented in a report to the United Nations in January showed there were 123 religious organisations which had gained official registration – around 100 of them Muslim, 13 Russian Orthodox and the rest including Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Hare Krishnas and Bahais.

Turkmenistan’s Roman Catholics were registered as a community only in March.

Four more groups including the Jehovah Witnesses have applications pending, but the religious rights watchdog Forum 18 reports that some have already been turned down.

“I can’t understand why they don’t want to register us,” a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses told IWPR. “There are a lot of us and we are law-abiding.”

Lack of registration leaves faith groups without even the formal protection of the law, and their meetings are obstructed, members are detained, and religious literature is seized.

A member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said constant surveillance and pressure had curtailed their prayer gatherings.

“Over the last six months, we’ve stopped meeting in groups and have advised our people not to gather in groups of more than ten, because we are constantly under the watchful eye of the police and secret service,” he said. “On many occasions when we’ve been celebrating a holiday or birthday, the police have turned up and ordered us to leave.”

Human rights defenders say five Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently serving prison terms for refusing to be conscripted into the military on conscientious grounds. A sixth man is awaiting trial in the town of Seydi, in the eastern Lebap region.

“All of them have been subjected to mistreatment and beatings, and one of them has kidney damage,” an Ashagabat-based rights defender told IWPR. “Requests and appeals from relatives and members of the [Jehovah’s Witness] community have failed to prompt an investigation into the use of torture in prison.”

In practice, official registration offers a faith group very limited freedom to operate if the authorities decide to clamp down on it anyway.

In early August, police raided a Christian youth camp near Ashgabat, detaining 47 people. Forum 18, which reported the incident, said police accused the camp’s organisers of failing to inform the authorities of the planned event. Church representatives insisted their group was registered, and that no special permission was therefore needed for the gathering.

A representative of the Krishna Consciousness movement in Ashgabat told IWPR that despite having the necessary registration, its members were kept under surveillance whenever they gathered for meetings.

“We constantly sense that they’re watching us,” he said.

Although Sunni Islam is the traditional religion of the ethnic Turkmen majority and other groups like the Uzbeks, open expressions of this faith are also discouraged.

As a police officer told IWPR, participation in Muslim rites is frowned on among government officials and public servants.

He recalled how he arranged the traditional circumcision ceremony for his son. “I didn’t want to have problems at work so I agreed with my wife that I’d go off on a work trip, and my relatives would call in a Muslim priest and do it all in secret, supposedly without my knowledge,” he said, adding that many of his colleagues had done the same.

Hayitboy Yoqubov heads Najot, a human rights group in Uzbekistan’s Khorezm province which is adjacent to Turkmenistan, says his contacts in the country tell him the Turkmen government is working on new measures to tighten up on faith groups for fear of religious extremism.

“The plans include setting up a database of believers, people who practice their religion across Turkmenistan, installing video cameras in all mosques, and identifying everyone’s attitude to religion and establish how religious they are,” he said.

Tajigul Begmedova, who heads the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a rights group based in Bulgaria, argues that little has changed since President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov succeeded the late Saparmurat Niazov in 2007.

“There’s been no serious renunciation of the old ways of dictatorial rule,” she said. “Turkmenistan hasn’t yet decided which way it should go. Sometimes it pays homage to the democratic community, and sometimes it tightens the controls, in this case over religious believers.”

Dovlet Ovezov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Ashgabat. Inga Sikorskaya is IWPR’s senior editor for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, based in Bishkek.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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