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Turkmenistan's Religious Minorities Under Pressure

Despite small signs of greater tolerance, the official attitude towards religious minorities in Turkmenistan remains oppressive, NBCentralAsia say observers.

Hopes of improvement were raised when the head of the Eurasia division of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Arthur Stele, was allowed into Turkmenistan to meet members of the faith group.

The opposition site Gundogar reports that Stele and his wife were able to meet government officials as well as to give sermons and attend the baptism of eight new members of the church.

John Graz, director of the church’s public affairs department, said observance of freedom of conscience had improved markedly in this Central Asian state.

“We hope they take further steps,” he said of the Turkmen authorities. “We are going to build churches there and move into this country.”

There are no official statistics for the number of faith groups registered in Turkmenistan, but NBCentralAsia sources say that besides the two major groups – Muslim and Russian Orthodox – there are Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostalists, and representatives of the International Churches of Christ and the New Apostolic Church, the Bahai faith, and the Krishna Consciousness Society.

Members of such groups say most people in Turkmenistan take a tolerant view of them. But even when they win the official registration that allows them to operate legally in the country, they are still unable to perform religious services openly. This makes them sceptical about the prospects for more liberal policies from the authorities.

“We need a hall for the dances our rite requires, but the authorities won’t allow to have one,” said a Krishna movement member in the capital Ashgabat.

A member of the Bahai community said that although it has a meeting house, it has negotiate with officials constantly and inform them of plans to hold events and gatherings.

“We don’t feel confident,” he said. “We are always waiting for official decisions to see whether they’ll approve or not approve, grant permission or not.”

Commentators say fear of persecution drives many faith groups to operate very circumspectly. This applies especially to those which do not have official registration, since they are liable to prosecution.

Stricter regulations governing the registration process were introduced in 2006, requiring faith groups to apply for endorsement from the local authorities – a near-impossible task – over and above the permit they must seek from the ministry of justice.

A law governing freedom of conscience and the creation of religious organisations, dating from 2003, stipulates that 500 citizens are needed to set up an officially-recognised faith group. Many faith groups are much smaller than this – some have under 100 members – so they fail to pass this hurdle.

Sometimes such smaller groups write to the government asking to be granted registration anyway, but without success.

An observer in Ashgabat recalled how a small Ukrainian faith group wrote to the authorities asking permission to build a church. Appeals to international organisations did not advance their cause.

Members of a different, still unregistered religious group described how they were afraid to gather even in private homes.

“On several occasions the police have stormed into our homes and arrested everybody,” said one member.

A Krishna Consciousness Movement follower in the city of Mary in southwestern Turkmenistan said that with only 50 members, the local groups was unable to get registration. They were advised by an official from the Council for Religious Affairs that they ask the local imam for a recommendation and for permission to operate.

“Why should Muslims decide who gets permission and who doesn’t?” asked the Krishna movement follower.

Turkmenistan has a small Roman Catholic community, but because it is led by a foreign national, registration has been denied to it and the congregation has to worship in a chapel inside the Vatican State’s embassy.

“These premises were of course built for embassy staff,” said the chapel’s priest. “But we let everybody in since we understand these people need a space in which to pray. The last Catholic cathedral in Turkmenistan was destroyed more than a hundred years ago. ”

Another reason by faith groups try to stay under the radar is that members are regularly arrested and jailed of various religious groups for their faith.

In 2007, the authorities imprisoned four Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused on religious grounds to perform military service. The human rights watchdog Amnesty International designated one of the four, Suleiman Udaev, a prisoner of conscience.

The same year, Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, a Baptist minister preaching in Turkmenistan was jailed. The authorities forbade Kalataevsky, who is a Ukrainian citizen, to meet his congregation and persecuted followers.

A member of a faith group who did not want to be identified said that fear of arrest deters many from attending prayer meetings, in case the police turn up.

“Believers are trying to remain unobtrusive so as to avoid trouble,” he said.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

Туркменистан: религиозные меньшинства не чувствуют особой свободы