4 March 2004
The Turkmen government has been replacing ethnic Uzbek imam-hatybs (mosque leaders) with ethnic Turkmens, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The authorities are also forcing imam-hatybs to place the Turkmen flag above mosque entrances, to begin every sermon by praising "Turkmenbashi", "Father of the Turkmens", as President Saparmurat Niyazov insists on being called. Also, a copy of Niyazov's book, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), must be placed at the entrance to every mosque and Muslims must touch it as if it were a sacred object. Similar instructions have reportedly been given to other Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox Churches. These are the only two confessions allowed some limited freedom to operate in Turkmenistan.
26 February 2004
Forum 18 News Service has learnt that officials have seized property from Baptists, in order to pay a fine imposed last year for unregistered worship in a private flat. The prosecution is illegal under international law and breaks the human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed. The Baptists, Yelena and Vladimir Lemeshko, believe they are innocent of any offence. The local court has refused to give them a copy of the order confiscating their property and officials have refused to talk to Forum 18.
16 February 2004
In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.
9 February 2004
Six Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison for their faith, Forum 18 News Service has confirmed. These are the only known religious prisoners of conscience in Turkmenistan, as against other kinds of prisoners of conscience. Forum 18 has also heard reliable reports of several Imams being held in internal exile. Five prisoners are being held for refusing compulsory military service (Turkmenistan has no alternative service provision), while the sixth - Kurban Zakirov, the longest-serving prisoner for his beliefs – has from 2000 been serving an eight year sentence. At least one prisoner has been raped homosexually, Forum 18 has learnt, and all the others have been threatened with this. Like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities, Forum 18 knows of Jehovah's Witnesses being subject to harsh persecution, being regularly fined for meeting in private flats, and a family having its flat confiscated. Some have lost their jobs when their faith became known.
5 February 2004
All currently registered religious communities – i.e. only Sunni Muslim mosques and Russian Orthodox churches - will now have to re-register under new detailed procedures, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. However, Forum 18 notes that Shia Muslim mosques, Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Adventist and all other Protestant churches, Jehovah's Witness kingdom halls, Baha'i and Hare Krishna temples and Jewish synagogues will continue not being able to register, and under the new religion law all their activity is now a criminal offence – a clear breach of Turkmenistan's human rights commitments. It is very unclear why highly detailed regulations to register religious communities have been drawn up, as only a very restricted number of religious communities have ever been permitted to register. So far Forum 18 has not yet learnt of attempts to de-register existing Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox communities. However, after the previous 1996 religion law was brought in, Forum 18 learned of many Sunni Muslim communities being de-registered, as well as all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox Church communities.
28 January 2004
Two female Jehovah's Witnesses, Gulya Boikova and Parakhat Narmanova, have been arrested, insulted and threatened with rape by police in Karshi (Qarshi), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 22 January a pending court case against the women was adjourned by Judge Abdukadyr Boibilov, while police gather more evidence. This is one example of the continuing persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses in Uzbekistan, who are the religious minority most frequently victimised by the authorities. Witnesses have been subjected to vicious beatings by police, and a Jehovah's Witness is the only member of a religious minorities to have been sentenced to jail for his religious beliefs. (There are about 6,500 prisoners of conscience from the majority religion, Islam.) The persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is probably explained by their being the most active religious minority in trying to spread their beliefs, and the Uzbek religion law banning "actions aimed at proselytism".
21 January 2004
Turkmen secret police have raided a mosque to break up a Shia Muslim commemoration for the dead former Azerbaijani president Heydar Aliyev. Forum 18 notes that the government has de facto banned Shia Islamic practice, although some Shias continue to practise their faith in defiance of the authorities.
21 January 2004
State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
20 January 2004
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."
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.