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The right to change one’s belief or religion
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KYRGYZSTAN: Intolerance against Christians highlighted by murder

The recent murder of an ethnic Kyrgyz convert to Christianity, Saktinbai Usmanov, was the culmination of a long series of intolerant incidents, Forum 18 News Service has found. Usmanov was the only Christian in his village. The intolerance was encouraged by the village Mullah, Nurlan Asangojaev, although most of the attackers were themselves drunk, which is forbidden in Islam. Asangojaev arranged for Usmanov to be banned from community events after his conversion, which is very painful for the traditionally community-centred Kyrgyz. He has also barred Usmanov from being buried in the village cemetery. Mullah Asangojaev has since Usmanov's murder told Forum 18 and others that "I can't offer any convincing proof, but I am sure that Saktinbai was killed by Protestants because he wanted to return to Islam." This is strongly denied by Saktinbai Usmanov's son, Protestant Pastor Ruslan Usmanov, who told Forum 18 that this is a "monstrous slander." There are numerous incidents of intolerance, including official hostility, towards Christian converts from Muslim backgrounds throughout Central Asia, Forum 18 has found.

COMMENTARY: Turkmenistan's fictitious religious freedom

"Outsiders sometimes think that freedom of conscience exists in our country," writes a Turkmen Protestant, anonymous to avoid state persecution, in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. But the writer sees "constant specific violations of religious freedom" and "cannot see any improvement" in Turkmenistan's human rights. When religious believers "demand that officials follow the laws and the Constitution, these officials are in shock." "We have yet to meet an official who refused to act against religious believers, and chose instead to follow the laws and the Constitution." The writer pleads for the international community to act and "publicly and clearly tell our government to do what the Constitution proclaims and respect human rights," as this "would help it keep its promises." The writer states that "religious communities are not calling for any special privileges. We simply want the Constitution to be obeyed. Let us have the rights we are promised - we are going to use them anyway."

TURKMENISTAN: Jailed Krishna devotee's appeal fails, but Jehovah's Witness freed

Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova has failed in her bid to have her seven-year jail sentence overturned, Forum 18 News Service has learned, and her exact whereabouts remain unknown, as are the exact charges she was jailed on. It is believed within Turkmenistan that her jailing was at the behest of the MSS secret police, to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. However, Forum 18 has learnt that Jehovah's Witness Aga Soyegov, who was confined to a psychiatric hospital after refusing military service last November, has now been released. Forum 18 does not know of any other current cases of religious believers in jail for conscientious objection to military service, but there is no alternative service possibility offered to young men. Meanwhile, the second Russian Orthodox church in the eastern town of Turkmenabad has finally gained state registration, and hence state permission to exist, six years after it applied for registration.

CENTRAL ASIA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan close doors to UN Special Rapporteur

Officials of neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan have been able to explain to Forum 18 News Service why requests by Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, to visit both countries have gone unmet. Turkmenistan's Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov told Forum 18 through an aide that he was "too busy" to reply to the question. Jahangir - a Pakistani lawyer who is at the forefront of the struggle for human rights in her own country - has called for a new mechanism to be created to deal with countries where there is serious concern for religious freedom, but which fail to cooperate with her requests to visit them. Although agreeing in principle to a visit, Russia has not set a date for one. Jahangir's next visit is due to be to Azerbaijan from 26 February to 6 March.

TURKMENISTAN: Official "religious hatred" towards non-Muslim faiths

Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan have complained to Forum 18 News Service about continuing official "religious hatred" towards followers of non-Islamic faiths. "Christians are disturbed that officials try to pressure people to turn away from the faith they have chosen," one Ashgabad-based Protestant told Forum 18. "Such officials are inciting interreligious hatred and this should end." The most recent such incident known to Forum 18 is official pressure by a 12-strong commission of officials and the local Muslim imam to force a convert to Christianity to renounce their faith. Officers of the Police and the Interior Ministry 6th Department – responsible for anti-terrorism and the fight against organised crime and religious activity – took part in the attacks. Members of minority faiths remain concerned that, while official policy proclaims interethnic and interreligious harmony, the reality is different, with hostility, threats and pressure to convert "back" to Islam.

TURKMENISTAN: Government severely restricts Haj numbers

Turkmenistan continues to limit haj pilgrimage numbers to fewer than five per cent of the potential pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has found, despite the requirement in Islam for able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so to make the pilgrimage. This year, the Government is only allowing 188 pilgrims, despite an apparent quota from the Saudi authorities of more than 4,500 pilgrims. Forum 18 has been unable to find out from either the Turkmen Government or the Saudi authorities why the number of haj pilgrims is restricted. But Forum 18 has been told that "all those allowed to go are first checked out, presumably by the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State Security secret police." At least one law-enforcement officer is said to accompany Turkmen pilgrims to Mecca. Unlike both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose government also imposes restrictions, other countries in the region do not restrict pilgrim numbers, but local Muslims often complain about the way the selection process operates.

TURKMENISTAN: JW held in psychiatric hospital and Baptists raided by Imam with officials

A Jehovah's Witness, Aga Soyegov, is being held in a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan because of his refusal on religious grounds to undertake military service, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Two other religious prisoners – a Hare Krishna devotee and the former Chief Mufti – are also known to Forum 18. Soyegov has been diagnosed as being healthy, but is still being held in the psychiatric hospital. Raids are continuing against Baptists in Turkmenistan, as well as Jehovah's Witnesses. On Saturday 17 December, a prayer meeting of a Turkmen-speaking registered Baptist church in Deynau was raided by the MSS secret police, the ordinary police, a Public Prosecutor and a local Imam. Officials then searched the house without a search warrant – which is illegal in Turkmenistan – for religious literature, as well as threatening and detaining those present. Two Christians had their personal Bibles confiscated and the church in Deynau continues to be put "under strong pressure."

TURKMENISTAN: Secret police ban church renting hall?

After four weeks of holding services in a rented hall in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], the registered Greater Grace Protestant church has been banned from holding meetings in state-owned premises, it is thought on the initiative of the MSS secret police. "This was the first time we could meet together as a church for many years," church members told Forum 18 News Service. "Now we've had to try to find a private venue." Many difficulties now face the church in overcoming this problem. At a state-sponsored meeting for religious communities, officials – included the Deputy Foreign Minister, the Deputy Justice Minister and the deputy head of the state Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs – made it clear that registered religious communities cannot either rent publicly-owned premises or meet in private homes. Some religious communities are able to meet, but Forum 18 has been told that, outside the capital, "local authorities in other towns just do what they like."

TURKMENISTAN: Hare Krishna prisoner of conscience to be moved

The second known religious prisoner of conscience in Turkmenistan, Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova, is to be moved to the country's only women's prison, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "This is a long way from her home in Ashgabad and will make it difficult for people to visit her," Forum 18 was told. "Besides, it is in a closed border zone and anyone wanting to visit will need a special permit." Annaniyazova was sentenced in November to seven years in jail on three charges, one of which was not made public. The extra sentence imposed in the wake of the accusation was likewise not made public. The judge in Annaniyazova's case refused to give her lawyer a copy of the written verdict, or even to let the lawyer see it, which one source told Forum 18 may have been a deliberate attempt to prevent a legal appeal. It is thought within Turkmenistan that the seven year jail sentence was imposed to intimidate the Hare Krishna community.

TURKMENISTAN: "Rape these women," police chief orders

Violence by officials against religious minorities appears to be routine in Turkmenistan. Two of the most recent cases known to Forum 18 News Service are assaults on two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Durdygul Ereshova and Annajemal Tuyliyeva, who were beaten by a police chief in the capital, Ashgabad, and threatened with rape. Although they were not raped, they were maltreated for several days before being freed, Tuyliyeva having a ring stolen by police, whilst Ereshova had her passport confiscated and is being threatened with internal deportation to a remote part of Turkmenistan. The duty officer at the police station where these assaults happened – who would not give his name - merely laughed at Forum 18's questions about the maltreatment and put the phone down. As Jehovah's Witnesses commented to Forum 18, "these officers are tolerated and even supported by higher authorities, such as judges, prosecutor's offices, duty police officers, district police officers, and city administration officials."

TURKMENISTAN: Hare Krishna devotee jailed for seven years

Turkmenistan has today [17 November] jailed a Hare Krishna devotee, Cheper Annaniyazova, for seven years on charges of illegally leaving the country, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Before being sentenced, she was compulsorily detained in a psychiatric hospital. "Cheper tried to get an exit visa to go to Kazakhstan to stay in the temple in Almaty, but was refused," a source close to the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18. "She went anyway, crossing the border to Uzbekistan." Despite a claimed abolition of exit visas, Turkmenistan is to Forum 18's knowledge preventing three religious believers - two Protestants and a Hare Krishna devotee – from leaving the country. Forum 18's source insists that the heavy sentence was imposed at the behest of the MSS secret police to intimidate the Hare Krishna community. Turkmenistan also has the religious prisoner of conscience with the longest jail sentence in the former Soviet Union, former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah who is on a 22 year jail sentence.

TURKMENISTAN: Border guards ban believers from leaving

Despite the claimed abolition of a requirement for permission to leave Turkmenistan, religious believers are still being denied permission to travel from the country. The latest cases known to Forum 18 News Service are two Protestants and one Hare Krishna devotee, who are being persistenly denied permission to travel. The Protestants were not on the official exit ban list, one source told Forum 18, but were stopped after border guards asked why they were travelling abroad and they said they were going to study the Bible in a neighbouring country. The Hare Krishna devotee, who was intending to visit a temple in Russia and meet fellow devotees, "doesn't know why he's on the ban list", another source told Forum 18. Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, Asma Jahangir, has this year again requested the Turkmen government to be allowed to visit the country – so far in vain. In situ visits are a "crucial aspect of the mandate on freedom of religion and belief", she insisted, expressing concern at Turkmenistan's failure to respond.