TURKMENISTAN: Adventists get state registration, Baha'is may be next
Seventh Day Adventists have confirmed that, on Monday 1 June, they were given state registration, the first religious group to be registered under the new state registration rules, and Baha'is are likely to be confirmed later today (3 June) as the next group to be registered. Other religious groups have expressed cautious optimism that they too may be registered, however, the state registration changes do not affect groups which refuse registration on principle, such as the "initsiativniki" Baptists. Unregistered religious activity remains, against international law, a de facto criminal offence, and it remains unclear how far newly-registered religious groups will be permitted to operate without being persecuted, or without the imposition of the heavy state control imposed on Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, the only groups to be state registered before 1 June.
The relaxation of state registration rules does not affect groups like the so-called "initsiativniki" Baptists, who have refused since 1961 to apply for state registration in any country formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Officials insist – against international law - that unregistered religious activity remains a de facto criminal offence, despite a presidential decree formally revoking this criminalisation, (see F18News 24 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=326). In the light of this contradiction and state religious persecution continuing while relaxations were announced (see F18News 1 April 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=293), attention is focused on what the reality of religious life for state registered religious groups will be like, and whether harsh restrictions announced for state-registered groups, including a requirement that any worship service or other event needs prior state permission, will be enforced (see F18News 10 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=317).
Both the previously registered religious groups, the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, remain heavily controlled by the state. For example, imams and priests are forced in sermons to quote approvingly from the Ruhnama ("Book of the Soul"), President Niyazov's book of "spiritual writings".
It also remains unclear whether, despite the easing of registration restrictions, Muslims will be permitted to build new mosques in the light of President Niyazov's recent ban on this (see F18News 30 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=291), and whether Adventists will be permitted to rebuild their church in the capital Ashgabad, which the authorities demolished in 1999 at one week's notice, for a "road-widening" scheme which never took place. (See Forum 18's full 2001 report http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/relfreerep/forum18.pdf for extensive documentation of the demolition.) Several Hare Krishna temples were also demolished in 1999.
Closely questioned by Forum 18 on 24 May about whether places of worship can be rebuilt or will be demolished, Murat Muradov, an official of the Adalat ("Fairness") Ministry stated that "something like that might have happened in 1999, but not now." However, Muradov also in that conversation dismissed reports of persecution with laughter, describing persecuted believers Forum 18 has spoken to as "sick" (see F18News 24 May 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=326). Adventist Pastor Pavel Fedotov, speaking to Adventist News Network, says that the legally registered address of his church is his home, but the church has permission to hold meetings in other places.
For more background see Forum 18's latest religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=296.
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme
24 May 2004
Unregistered religious activity remains illegal, an official of the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry has confirmed, despite a presidential decree abolishing criminal penalties for worshipping without state approval. "If people act without registration they will be fined," Murat Muradov, a specialist at the ministry, told Forum 18 News Service. The ban on unregistered activity in the religion law has not been amended and Article 205 of the Administrative Code, which spells out fines of up to ten times the minimum monthly wage for leading or even taking part in unregistered worship services, remains in force. Muradov denied any harassment of believers in Turkmenistan, describing those who had told Forum 18 of such harassment as "sick". More than ten weeks after the president reduced the number of members required to register a community from 500 to five, no new communities have yet been able to register.
19 May 2004
Two of the five Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned in labour camp in the town of Seydi have been threatened with death, reportedly in the second half of April, with the full knowledge of the camp administration, Jehovah's Witnesses report. "We take these threats seriously," one told Forum 18 News Service. They plead for international attention, fearing for the safety of the five - Aleksandr Matveyev, Rinat Babadjanov, Shohrat Mitogorov, Ruslan Nasyrov and Rozymamed Satlykov. Jehovah's Witnesses say the five are regularly beaten, pressured to renounce their faith and adopt Islam, take the oath of allegiance to the president and to agree to do compulsory military service. Family and friends have been unable to visit their prisoners since early April.
13 May 2004
In his latest attempt to disguise Turkmenistan's de facto criminalisation of religious belief, President Saparmurat Niyazov has today (13 May) revoked the de jure criminalisation of unregistered religious activity. Believers were, before the de jure criminalization, treated as de facto criminals and fined, detained, beaten, threatened, sacked from their jobs, had their homes confiscated, banished to remote parts of the country or deported in retaliation for unregistered religious activity. Niyazov has also cancelled a secret decree requiring registered religious communities to subject themselves to tight financial regulation by the state – but has imposed tight financial regulation in a different way, through an official model statute for religious communities. Forum 18 News Service has obtained a copy of this, and religious leaders in Turkmenistan have told Forum 18 that they find these restrictions unacceptable. Many prefer to continue to exist in the underground.