International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and does not establish a state religion; however, in practice the Government continues to restrict all forms of religious expression. A law on religious organizations requires that religious groups must have at least 500 members in each locality in which they wish to register in order to gain legal status with the Government. The only religions that have registered successfully under the law are Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the Government. The law has prevented all other religious groups, of which there are many, from registering. The Government severely limits the activities of nonregistered religious congregations by prohibiting them from gathering publicly, proselytizing, and disseminating religious materials. The Government's interpretation of the law severely restricts their freedom to meet and worship in private.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; however, government harassment of some unregistered religious groups lessened. Harassment of nonregistered religious congregations continued and included arrest and seizure of property. However, there were no reported incidents of torture, Shageldy Atakov a well known religious prisoner was released, and the Government conducted a widespread internal investigation and prosecution of police and intelligence authorities that led to widespread dismissals and high-level prosecutions, including for human rights abuses.

There is no general, notable societal discrimination or violence based on religion in the country. Turkmen society historically has been tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. The Government's restrictions on nontraditional religions apparently do not stem from doctrinal differences or societal friction between the majority Muslim population and non-Muslim communities. Rather, some observers have speculated that official restrictions on religious freedom, a holdover from the Soviet era, reflect the Government's concern that liberal religious policies could lead to political dissent, including in particular the introduction of Islamic extremist movements into the country. The Government appears to view participation in or sponsorship of nontraditional religions as a threat to the stability and the neutrality of the State.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. During the period covered by this report, Embassy representatives met frequently with the Government to appeal for greater support for religious freedom. The Ambassador met with high-level government officials urging them to rescind legislation on registration of religious groups and hosted several public events to promote religious freedom in the country. Improving registration for nongovernmental groups, including religious organizations was a top U.S. priority in the country. Embassy officers visited with representatives of unregistered religious groups on a regular basis.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 188,407 square miles, and its population is approximately 5 million. Statistics regarding religious affiliation are not available. According to the most recent figures from the Government's 1995 census, ethnic Turkmen constituted 77 percent of the population. Minority populations included ethnic Uzbeks (9.2 percent), ethnic Russians (6.7 percent), and ethnic Kazakhs (2 percent). The remaining 5 percent of the population consisted of Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and the largest minority is Russian Orthodox Christian. The level of religious observance was unknown for both religions.

Ethnic Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs are predominantly Sunni Muslim. There are small pockets of Shi'a Muslims in the country, many of whom are ethnic Iranians living along the border with Iran. There has been a modest, government-sponsored and tightly controlled revival of Islam since independence. During the Soviet era, there were only 4 mosques operating; now there are an estimated 318. Nevertheless, mosque-based Islam does not play a dominant role in society, in part due to 70 years of Soviet rule, restrictions imposed by the Government, and because of the country's indigenous religious culture. Traditionally Turkmen express Islam more through rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death, and through pilgrimage to the tombs of saints, rather than through regular attendance at a mosque.

While the 1995 census showed that Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, emigration to Russia and elsewhere has reduced this proportion considerably. The majority of ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian. Practicing Russian Christians are most likely to be members of the Russian Orthodox Church. There are 11 Russian Orthodox churches in the main cities, 3 of which are in Ashgabat. A priest resident in Ashgabat, who also is a Deputy Chairman of the Government's Council on Religious Affairs, leads the Russian Orthodox Church. He serves under the religious jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There are five Russian Orthodox priests, but no seminaries. There have been plans to build a Russian Orthodox cathedral in Ashgabat since at least 2000, but no date had been set to begin construction by the end of the period covered by this report. The Armenian Apostolic Church has a small congregation but is considered an unregistered religious group. There are no Armenian Apostolic churches.

Russians and Armenians also tend to represent a significant percentage of the members of nonregistered religious congregations, although there are groups of ethnic Turkmen represented as well. There are small communities of Roman Catholics, Pentecostal Christians, Protestant Word of Life Church members, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is, Hare Krishna, and Jews. None of these groups is registered or maintains churches. The Seventh-Day Adventist church was demolished by the Government in November 1999, and the Baptist church was seized by the Government in April 2001. The Roman Catholic community in Ashgabat meets in the chapel of the Vatican Nunciate. It includes both citizens and foreigners. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Serakhs, reportedly practices the Lutheran faith.

It is estimated that less than 1,000 ethnic Jews live in the country. Most are descendants from families that came to the country during World War II from Ukraine, but there also are some Jewish families living in Turkmenabat, on the border with Uzbekistan, who are members of the community known as Bokharski Jews, referring to the city of Bokhara, Uzbekistan. There were no complaints from this community although virtually all Jews in the country are reportedly nonpracticing. There are no synagogues or rabbis in the country. The size of the Jewish community continues to dwindle as members emigrate to Israel, Germany, and the United States.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, as does the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations, which was amended in 1995 and 1996; however, in practice the Government does not protect these rights. The law has been interpreted to control religious life tightly and to restrict severely the activities of all religions. There are no safeguards in the legal system that provide for remedy against violation of religious freedom or persecution by private actors.

According to the law on religious organizations, all congregations are required to register with the Government.

However, in order to register, a congregation must have 500 citizens of at least 18 years of age in each locality in which it wishes to register (i.e., it is not sufficient to have at least 500 members in the country as a whole). These requirements have made it impossible for religious communities other than Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox Christians to register. The situation is exacerbated because ethnic Turkmen members of Christian groups are hesitant to sign their names to a public document that shows that they have converted. Ethnic Turkmen who have converted to Christianity have been subjected to official harassment and mistreatment.

There is no state religion, but the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim. An individual is considered to be born into an ethnicity and religion at the same time. Departures from the pattern are rare and do not receive much support in society. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Islamic tradition into its effort to redefine a national identity. However, the Government is concerned about foreign Islamic movements spreading into the country.

The Government maintains tight control over the practice of Islam in several ways. It pays the salaries of all Muslim clerics. It approves the appointment of all senior clerics and requires them to report to the Council on Religious Affairs. In 1997 the Government began prohibiting mosque-based imams from gathering pupils and teaching about Islam. Following President Niyazov's closure of a mosque in Dashoguz in 2001, the Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat became the only academic institution to conduct Islamic education. The Government has declared further restrictions on Islamic education. In January 2002, the President declared that clerical students would be limited to 15-20 a year and would spend a year at Artogrul Gazy Mosque in Ashgabat and one year at the Goek Tepe Mosque.

Nonregistered religious groups are prohibited officially from conducting religious activities, including gathering, disseminating religious materials, and proselytizing. This is a consequence of the Government's interpretation of the law rather than the law itself, which does not prohibit nonregistered religious groups from gathering. In fact the Law on Public Associations specifically excludes its application in the case of religious gatherings. Nevertheless government authorities regularly apply the Law on Public Associations when nonregistered religious groups meet, even if the meetings occur in private homes. Participants are subject to fines and administrative arrest, according to the country's administrative code, and once administrative measures are exhausted, are subject to criminal prosecution. In such cases, the Soviet-era 1988 regulation on the procedure for conducting gatherings, meetings, marches, and demonstrations is applied, although gatherings in private homes are not within the scope of this regulation. In March 2002, there was an internal government investigation of the Committee for National Security (KNB) and other state security organs for possible abuse of human rights, including violation of the 1988 Soviet regulation on meetings, such as illegal searches of private homes. The entire leadership of the KNB was fired and some senior officials were prosecuted.

There is no religious instruction in public schools. However, the Government requires instruction on "Rukhnama," President Niyazov's spiritual guidebook on Turkmen culture and heritage, which was released in February 2001, in all public schools and institutes of higher learning. Rukhnama is present in every mosque and President Niyazov is mentioned officially in Muslim prayer. The Russian Orthodox Church conducts religious instruction classes for children. Home-schooling usually is allowed only in cases of severe illness or disability and not for religious reasons.

The Government maintains a Council on Religious Affairs that reports to President Niyazov. The Chairman is the Imam of the Goek Tepe Mosque. He serves with three deputy chairmen: the Mufti of Turkmenistan, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan, and a government representative.

Technically the Council acts as an intermediary between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations. However, in practice the Council acts as an arm of the state, supervising the work of the two registered religions and selecting their personnel, as well as helping to control all religious publications and activities. It has no role in promoting interfaith dialog beyond that between these two religions. Although the Government does not favor officially any one religion, it does provide some financial and other support for the construction of new mosques to the Council on Religious Affairs.

In addition, religious holidays that also are national holidays are all Muslim. These include Gurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), a 3-day holiday that commemorates the end of the Hajj; and Oraza-Bairam (Eid al-Fitr), which commemorates the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. These holidays do not have an overt negative impact on any non-Muslim groups.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government's registration requirements for religious groups, which specify that a group must have at least 500 citizens over the age of 18 as members in each locality, effectively prevent all religions but Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church from practicing openly. However, the only groups specifically banned by the Government are extremist groups that advocate violence.

The Government restricts organized religions in establishing places of worship. The Government does not allow unregistered groups to gather publicly or privately or to establish a church; it punishes individuals or groups who violate these prohibitions. Congregations continue to practice quietly and privately.

The Government restricts the number of Muslim places of worship whose construction requires government permission. According to the Council on Religious Affairs, every village should have one mosque. Large, monumental mosques, such as the ones in Ashgabat and Goek Tepe, and the one planned for Gipchak, are supported by the Government. Village mosques are supported by the local population. Villagers who wish to build a mosque must first obtain land from the local authorities, then get permission from nearby residents, and provide the funding for construction and maintenance.

The Government also controls and restricts access to Islamic education. Beginning in 1997, the Government began to restrict mosque-based imams from teaching Islam to pupils. In a meeting with religious leaders in January 2002, President Niyazov explained he had closed all but one institution of Islamic education to prevent what he believed was inappropriate instruction of Islam. The President specified that future annual classes of religious students would be limited to between 15 to 20 students a year. The students would spend two years studying Islam, 1 year at the Artogrul Gazy Mosque in Ashgabat and another at the Goek Tepe Mosque. The Government controls the curriculum of this instruction. In 2001 the Government controlled the number of persons allowed to participate in the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj). In December 2001, the Government again specified that only 187 pilgrims would be allowed to journey to Mecca (out of the country's quota of 4,600). Transport was to be provided free of charge by the national airline. However, in January 2002, the Government abolished exit-visas, in theory permitting travel to all those who wished to participate in the Hajj. The Government did not release statistics on how many pilgrims participated in the Hajj in 2002; however, there were anecdotal reports of individuals participating even though the Government closely screened travelers.

Although the Government continues to restrict the freedom of parents of some religious groups, such as the Adventists, to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs, the authorities had long tolerated Bahai's conducting of Sunday school until April 2002, when they were closed down across the country.

Foreign missionary activity is prohibited, although both Christian and Muslim missionaries have some presence in the country. Ethnic Turkmen members of unregistered religious groups who are accused of disseminating religious material receive harsher treatment than non-ethnic Turkmen, especially if they have received financial support from foreign sources.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In November 1999, the Government razed the Seventh-Day Adventist church in Turkmenabat. In October 2000, the Adventist pastor was detained and questioned for several days in Turkmenabat after police and KNB members raided a prayer service he was conducting in a private apartment. The same private apartment was raided again in November 2001, when authorities dispersed a small Bible study of Seventh-Day Adventists. On the latter occasion, two of the participants were detained overnight by police. The Government charged the owner of the apartment for holding meetings of an unregistered religious organization in her home. The apartment owner was fined and evicted from her apartment. In January 2002, she left the country fearing for her personal safety.

According to Keston News Service, in May 2002, a group of Christians in the village of Deinau were forced to renounce their faith publicly. Three Christians who refused to comply with the local police, swearing to renounce the Bible and Jesus, were expelled from the village.

In November 2000, four ethnic Turkmen Baptists were detained, interrogated, and tortured by KNB officials in Anau, outside of Ashgabat, after local police found Christian literature in their car. In December the KNB again harassed and detained the four Baptists in Ashgabat and Turkmenabat. In December 2000, three of the ethnic Turkmen Baptists were forced to sign documents ceding houses, used for religious purposes, over to the Government, although they were allowed to keep their personal property. In February 2001, local authorities of the Niyazov district of Ashgabat sealed the country's last functioning Baptist church. In March 2001, the authorities reportedly broke the seals and removed all of the church's contents. The church had been in existence for 20 years, and was owned corporately by the congregation, which had been registered under the Soviets but lost registration in 1997 under the new law.

In 2001 the religious press reported that Dmitri Melnichenko, a member of a Baptist Church in Ashgabat, was arrested and tortured because of his persistent refusal, on religious grounds, to perform military service. These reports remain unconfirmed. Also in May 2001, a Baptist pastor and two fellow church members were detained by Mary KNB officials and questioned for several hours after the KNB broke up an open air religious service conducted by the pastor outside Mary. Local police officials prohibited the Baptists from ever traveling to Mary again. In July 2001, two Armenian Baptists were deported from Turkmenbashi because of their religious activity. In October 2001, the Keston News reported the Baptists' families also were deported, although these reports were unconfirmed. According to Keston News Service reports, in July 2001, five officers of the KNB, raided a Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad. During the raid, the officers wrote down the name, address, and place of work of all those present and warned them not to meet again under the threat of confiscation of their church building. They reportedly also warned the Baptists not to take their case to court.

In December 2001, the religious press reported that an elderly blind Baptist was threatened with eviction from her apartment in the town of Khazar after holding a Baptist service that had been raided by secret police earlier in the week. Also in Khazar, in January 2002, six members of a Baptist congregation were fined for holding "illegal services." Since early 2002, there has been a dramatic decline in reports of government harassment of Baptists.

In November 2001, police raided a Protestant Word of Life Church meeting in Ashgabat. Approximately 40 persons were arrested after police dispersed the gathering held in a private apartment. Three non-Turkmen citizens who participated in the meeting were deported. The other participants subsequently were released but authorities imposed large fines on them. The Protestant Word of Life Church members were threatened with dismissal from work, confiscation of identity documents, and long-term imprisonment if the fines were not paid. The owner of the apartment in which the meeting was held was threatened with eviction. There were no reports whether the eviction was carried out. In December 2001, the Keston News Service later reported that several members of the Protestant Word of Life Church again were arrested for their participation in the November meeting; and one member was sentenced to 15 days in prison. The report was not confirmed.

In April 2001, a Pentecostal pastor lost his long court battle against eviction from the house in which he held religious services. The Ashgabat city government, without inspecting the premises, claimed he had made unauthorized renovations that rendered it unsafe for occupation. Despite the pastor's intention to appeal, the city has allowed 20 workers to live in the house.

In April 2001, a group of KNB, police, and city officials disrupted a Jehovah's Witnesses service in a private apartment. In June 2001, the city of Ashgabat determined that the owner of the apartment, a Jehovah's Witness adherent, should be evicted from the apartment and not provided with another because she had used the apartment for holding unauthorized religious meetings. However, there were no reports as to whether the eviction was carried out during the period covered by this report.

In April 2002, the Government closed all Baha'i Sunday school groups, which had been allowed to operate since the country's independence.

During the period covered by this report, there were credible but unconfirmed reports that certain congregations of Russian Orthodox Christians were prevented from practicing their faith despite the religion's registration with the Government.

In December 2001, several members of Jehovah's Witnesses who had been imprisoned for conscientious objection were released, however six of their colleagues were not. There were no other reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, there were no accounts that the Government tortured members of any religious groups.

In January 2002, the Government ended the exit visa regime that restricted external movement by Turkmen citizens. Members of unregistered religious groups are now allowed to travel to other countries for religious meetings without interference, and there were reports of believers exercising this option. In May 2002, approximately 30 Catholics were allowed to travel to Baku, Azerbaijan, to attend a Mass given by the Pope.

In January 2002, Baptist prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov was released from prison. Atakov had been in prison since 1999 for allegedly making an illegal transfer of automobiles in 1994. His original sentence of 2 years had been extended to 4 years and he was fined $12,000, an unusually large fine for such an offense. Atakov denied the charges and claimed that he was being imprisoned because of his religious beliefs. Following his early release from prison, Atakov was placed under a month of observation by agents of the KNB, after which he was given complete freedom of movement and allowed to receive visitors. Embassy officers visited Atakov on two separate occasions. He was in fair health and reported no serious problems.

Unlike in the past, there were no reports of harassment of Baptists in Ashgabat by authorities during the period covered by this report.

In March 2002, the Government initiated an internal investigation of the KNB and other security organs in part because of allegations of human rights abuses. President Niyazov openly criticized several members of the KNB and other ministries for violating the law (for example, illegal searches of private homes). Some of those criticized for human rights abuses later were dismissed from their positions and stripped of their rank. Prosecutions have been instigated against the senior leadership of the KNB.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There were no reports of general, overt societal discrimination or violence based on religion during the period covered by this report. The culture historically is tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. For example, in the early part of the 20th century, Ashgabat was a refuge for members of the Baha'i Faith escaping persecution in Iran, and the first Baha'i temple was built in Ashgabat. Government repression of minority religions does not reflect doctrinal or societal friction between the majority Muslim population and minority religions. Rather, observers believe that it reflects the Government's concern that the proliferation of nontraditional religions could lead to loss of state control, civil unrest, undue influence of foreign interests and the undermining of the Niyazov Government. The societal attitude toward conversion from Islam to any other religion generally is surprise, and often disapproval. Although most citizens do not emphasize mosque attendance or observance of many Islamic customs practiced in other parts of the Muslim world, they view being Muslim as an integral part of the national culture and identity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

During the period covered by this report, the Embassy approached the Government regularly regarding the issue of religious freedom, at every level including with President Niyazov. In October 2001, the Ambassador met with members of the Council on Religious Affairs to press for increased religious freedom. In late October, the Ambassador opened a joint restoration project of a ruined mosque in Anau in an effort to promote religious tolerance. In November 2001, the Ambassador hosted an Iftar dinner, celebrating the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, in support of religious tolerance. In December 2001, the Ambassador joined European Union ambassadors in urging the Government to release religious prisoner Shageldy Atakov and calling for an end to the law on religious registration. During the announced December amnesty, the Ambassador again urged the highest levels of the Government to release Atakov later in the month.

Embassy efforts to promote religious freedom continued in 2002, when in January, the Ambassador and the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs met with President Niyazov and discussed several topics including increasing religious freedom. In February 2002, the Ambassador and Embassy staff met with the staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Ashgabat to maximize cooperation in promoting religious freedom. During the period covered by this report, the Ambassador and Embassy officers encouraged the Government to increase religious freedom. President Niyazov wrote to President Bush in March 2002 to reiterate commitment to freedom of religion and to develop the country's religion law in accordance with OSCE and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) commitments. Throughout the period covered by this report, the Ambassador and Embassy officers regularly met with representatives of unregistered religious groups to hear about their situation and discuss possible steps for easing their difficulties. Embassy officers also visited Shageldy Atakov for updates on his condition after his release from prison. In May 2002, the Embassy sponsored a series of public events featuring an American Muslim who talked at length about religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador hosted a roundtable with members of minority faiths in May 2002.