Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Turkmen Turn to Catholicism
Turkmenistan’s tiny Roman Catholic community is turning away dozens of potential converts over concerns that they want to join the church for reasons other than religious conviction.
As many as a hundred children have apparently been turned away from Ashgabat’s Catholic church after rumours that their parents only wanted to take advantage of the group’s regular visits to the Vatican and other European sites.
The bulk of the unregistered 5,000-strong community is descended from ethnic Germans and Poles from Russia who were sent east after the upheaval of the 1917 revolution or during Stalin’s repressive polices in the mid-Thirties.
The community still has links with Berlin, and the European pilgrimages it conducts are arranged with the help of the German embassy in Ashgabat.
The pilgrimage attracts large numbers of mostly young people who hope to briefly experience a different way of life. However, a number of visitors have applied for political asylum in Europe – irritating the authorities and drawing attention to the church’s programmes as a possible way out of the country.
Recently, an increasing number of Muslim Turkmen and ethnic Azerbaijanis and Orthodox ethnic Russians have been presenting their children for baptism in the Catholic faith.
One member of the parish clergy, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that parents’ desire to send their children abroad - even for a short period of time - had led to an increase in interest in the Catholic church.
“Russians, Azeris, Turkmen and other Muslims bring their children to be baptised here,” she said.
“While religion does not care about nationality, the real reason why these people have approached us can be seen at once.”
But one mother, who was refused permission for her daughter to be baptised into the Catholic church, rejected this interpretation.
“The path to God is not always paved with selfish intentions and it is the church’s duty to reach out a hand to everyone who is suffering and wishes to seek comfort in faith,” said the Ashgabat woman, who gave her name only as Elena.
“Perhaps we have been turned away because the church has had difficulty in registering with the authorities, which have also spread rumours that people are only interested in becoming Catholic so that they can leave the country.”
Analysts believe that the Catholic community, which is not officially recognised, is turning such people away out of fear that the city authorities will crack down on their activities and leave them in an even more vulnerable position.
Regular churchgoers claim that the authorities are systematically persecuting the Catholic community by accusing them of creating religious discord and preaching sectarianism, and allege that the national security ministry regularly disrupts Catholic services and gatherings.
Strict laws on the registration of religious groups, which were implemented in October 2003, have already created a number of difficulties for the community.
One church activist, who did not want to be named, said that the Catholic community had applied for registration several times to no avail.
“In my opinion, Turkmenistan has the harshest policies of all post-Soviet nations towards religious freedoms,” he said. “Apart from the official Muslim Council and the Russian Orthodox Church, it is very hard for any other religion to operate legally.
“We have been forced over and over again to submit documents for registration with no result – we are still waiting. However, some relatively new religious groups that have only been operating in Turkmenistan since independence were able to register, albeit with some difficulty.”
However, the authorities flatly deny that Turkmenistan has a Catholic community to oppress.
One Ashgabat official stated openly that there was no point in granting registration to the community or make provision for Catholic education facilities as “there is not a single Catholic in Turkmenistan”.
The authorities also take a dim view of foreign visits for any of its citizens, especially the young, stating that travel “has a pernicious influence on the minds of Turkmen youth and corrupts them morally”.
President Saparmurat Niazov’s regime discourages study at foreign universities and makes it extremely difficult for people to travel overseas – even if citizens can afford to do so.
Ethnic Azerbaijani woman Rukhiya told IWPR that one of her daughters, who recently converted to Catholicism, has already made the pilgrimage to Rome to visit the Vatican.
“My daughter made friends with girls from the Polish and German communities and began to take an interest in the Catholic faith. I don’t see anything wrong with a child choosing a different religion to that of its parents,” she said.
“When she had such a wonderful opportunity to visit Rome, we were beside ourselves with happiness because this may be her only chance to go to Europe and see another world. We could never afford to send her there ourselves, so we are grateful to the parish for the opportunity that it gives to our children.”
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