TURKMENISTAN: Secrecy surrounds content of new religion decree
Not even the government's Council for Religious Affairs knows how religious organisations gain state registration under new regulations, Forum 18 News Service has found. Only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities have so far gained registration; all other religious communities are de facto barred from registering and so are illegal, thus breaching international human rights agreements. However, Forum 18 has been able to establish that, in the unlikely event of other religious communities being registered, they will have to pay a fee of about 10 times the basic monthly wage unlike the previous fee of 1-3 times the basic wage. Forum 18 knows of believers having been very harshly punished for unregistered religious activity. Despite this, a government official insisted to Forum 18 that "Believers have complete freedom of conscience in Turkmenistan. You can pray at home, whether to God or the devil. But if you meet for services, then you must register as a religious organisation."
"We ourselves still do not know the details of the decree, or even how much registration will cost," the deputy chairman of the Gengeshi, Murad Karriyev, told Forum 18 from the capital Ashgabad on 19 January. "The fact is, this decree was formulated by the justice ministry and the documents from there have not yet reached us. The only thing I can say is that the decree follows on logically from the recently-passed law on religion."
The new decree, entitled "On the registration of religious organisations", was issued to amplify the new religion law, adopted last October, the Turkmen media reported on 14 January. Media reports said the decree confirmed the rules on the registration of religious organisations and established new registration fees. "The registration fees will be allocated to the income section of the state budget in the prescribed manner," the media reported.
Forum 18's attempts to find out any information from the Fairness Ministry – where religious groups have to register - were rebuffed. "We refuse to give out any information," the head of the department for international legal relations and registration of public organisations, Shiriya Tuichiyeva, told Forum 18 from Ashgabad on 19 January. "Submit an official enquiry to our foreign affairs ministry. They will consider it and then if they judge it necessary, they will hand it on to us."
Only a Fairness Ministry official, Bibi Tagieva, told Forum 18 that the fee for registration was equivalent to ten times the basic monthly wage. She declined to give any other information. Under the 1996 registration decree, religious organisations had to pay between one and three times the basic monthly wage.
In Turkmenistan there is no set minimum wage, only a basic monthly wage which workers must be paid by presidential decree. This is currently 500,000 manats (692 Norwegian Kroner, 80 Euros or 101 US Dollars at the official exchange rate, or 23 US Dollars [158 Norwegian Kroner or 18 Euros] at the street exchange rate). A company may pay staff more than the basic wage, but only from their own funds.
Turkmenistan's harsh hew religion law, which was signed by President Niyazov on 21 October 2003, came into force at the time of its publication in the official press on 10 November. It specifically declared illegal all unregistered religious activity, breaching international human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed, while a new amendment to the criminal code prescribed penalties for breaking the law of up to one year of "corrective labour". The new crackdown on religion went hand-in-hand with a new legal crackdown on non-governmental organisations. (see F18News, 11 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=180 )
Although the authorities have in recent years treated unregistered religious activity as illegal, the new religion law formally incorporated this provision into law for the first time. With only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities de facto able to achieve registration, the move marked a considerable further move to repress minority faiths. Forum 18 knows of religious believers having been fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote part of the country or being deported for unregistered religious activity.
Despite this, Karriyev of the Gengeshi insisted to Forum 18 that "Believers have complete freedom of conscience in Turkmenistan. You can pray at home, whether to God or the devil. But if you meet for services, then you must register as a religious organisation."
For more background see Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at
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9 January 2004
In the first case known to Forum 18 News Service of penalties imposed on believers for meeting for worship since Turkmenistan's harsh new law on religion came into force last November, twelve members of a Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad were given fines of 75 US dollars each, more than one month's wages. The fines followed a police raid on the unregistered church during Sunday worship in late November and came on top of earlier fines last year. A 7 January statement from the Baptists reaching Forum 18 reported that officials "also warned the brothers and sisters that in the event of a repeated violation, the size of the fine would be much higher, while for a third violation they would be responsible under the criminal code".
22 December 2003
Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev was freed on 20 December from the secret police headquarters in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabad, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Sources who did not wish to be named have told Forum 18 that he has now returned to his family and is very grateful to everyone who helped to secure his release, which they attribute to Forum 18's coverage of his case. However, as unregistered religious activity is seen as criminal activity by the Turkmen authorities, the situation of Baptists and of other religious communities continues to cause international concern.
19 December 2003
It is feared that detained Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev may not be released as promised by Turkmen secret police officers, Forum 18 News Service has learnt, and concerns are growing that he may have criminal charges laid against him and be being tortured. The family has been told that he is being held at the main headquarters of the National Security Ministry in the capital Ashgabad, and access to him is not being permitted. Khudaikuliev leads a small Baptist community in the town of Geok-Tepe, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Ashgabad. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and all non-Russian Orthodox communities it does not have state registration and the government treats all its activity as illegal. He had travelled to Ashgabad to collect money that had been transferred to him, and was then detained by the National Security Ministry, which has declined to discuss his case with Forum 18.