International Religious Freedom Report 2003
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. The 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 were registered successfully under the law in effect at the end of the reporting period were Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which are controlled by the Government. The Government has used the law to prevent all other religious groups from registering, despite the fact that some of those groups appear to have sufficient numbers of congregants to do so. The Government severely limits the activities of unregistered 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.

The status of government respect for religious freedom deteriorated during the period covered by this report. Although government harassment of nearly all unregistered religious groups lessened between June 2002 and April 2003, the Government resumed harassment of unregistered religious minority groups in April. Some observers attributed the decrease in harassment to the Government's focus on the emergence and suppression of internal political opposition, which culminated with an armed attack against President Niyazov's motorcade in November 2002. Harassment of religious groups was consistent with that experienced in years past and included detention, arrest, confiscation of religious literature and materials, pressure to abandon religious beliefs, and threats of eviction and loss of jobs. However, there were no reported incidents of torture. Human rights observers widely reported that the Government replaced a number of Sunni Muslim imams with individuals believed to be less independent in their interpretations of Islam, in an attempt to better facilitate government control of mosques.

There is no general, notable societal discrimination or violence based on religion in the country, although the overwhelming majority of Turkmen identify themselves as "Muslim," and Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert to other faiths are viewed with skepticism and sometimes ostracized, but the society has historically been tolerant and inclusive of different religious beliefs. The Government's restrictions on nontraditional religions 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, particularly the emergence of extreme, political interpretations of Islam throughout the country. The Government appears to view active participation in or sponsorship of both traditional and nontraditional religions as a threat to the stability of the Government.

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 raised specific cases of religious freedom abuses in meetings with government officials and urged greater support for religious freedom. Although the Government failed to respond to several formal requests for meetings with the Council on Religious Affairs, in meetings with high-level officials, the Ambassador urged them to rescind legislation requiring registration of religious groups and met with religious minority representatives to underscore U.S. support for religious freedom in the country. Improving registration for nongovernmental groups, including religious organizations, was a top U.S. priority. Embassy officers met 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 figures from the Government's most recent census in 1995, 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). Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups comprised the remaining 5.1 percent of the population. The majority 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 approximately 320. Restrictive government control, unorthodox indigenous Islamic culture, and 70 years of Soviet rule have meant that traditional mosque-based Islam does not play a dominant role in society. Traditional Turkmen interpretations of Islam place a heavy premium on rituals associated with birth, marriage, and death ("sadakas"), featuring music and dancing that more traditional Muslims view as unorthodox. Together with shrine pilgrimage, such rituals play a greater role in Turkmen Muslims' expression of Islam than regular prayer at mosques.

While the 1995 census showed that Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, subsequent 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 (ROC). 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.

Russians and Armenians also comprise a significant percentage of unregistered religious congregations, although ethnic Turkmen appear to be increasingly represented among these groups as well. There are small communities of the following denominations: the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostal Christians, the Protestant Word of Life Church, the Greater Grace World Outreach Church, the New Apostolic Church, members of Jehovah's Witnesses, and several unaffiliated, non-denominational evangelical Christian groups. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Serakhs, reportedly practices the Lutheran faith. There are also Baha'is (believed to number about 400 believers), Hare Krishnas, and Jews. None of these groups is registered or maintains churches, temples, or recognized places of worship. The Government demolished the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1999 and seized the Baptist church in 2001. The Roman Catholic community in Ashgabat, which includes both citizens and foreigners, meets in the chapel of the Vatican Nunciate. Foreign missionaries, typically representing evangelical Protestant denominations, reportedly operate in the country, although the extent of their activities is unknown.

It is estimated that fewer than 1,000 ethnic Jews live in the country, virtually all of whom are non-practicing. Most are descendants from families that came to the country from Ukraine during World War II, 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 are no synagogues or rabbis in the country and the Jewish community continues to dwindle as members emigrate to Israel, Russia, and Germany.

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 tightly control religious life and severely restrict the activities of all religions. There are no safeguards in the legal system that provide for effective remedies against violation of religious freedom or persecution by private actors. Governmental entities at all levels, including the courts, have interpreted the laws in such a way as to discriminate against those practicing any faith other than Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity.

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 to attain legal status (i.e., it is not sufficient to have 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 faiths other than Islam have been subjected to official harassment and mistreatment and, in some cases, social isolation.

There is no state religion, but the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Turkmen society considers an individual born into an ethnicity and religion at the same time. Departures from the pattern are rare and either receive little support or are criticized in society. The Government has incorporated some aspects of Islamic tradition as part of its effort to redefine a national identity. However, the Government is concerned about the establishment of foreign-backed Islamic movements in the country.

The Government maintains tight control over the practice of Islam. It pays most Muslim clerics' salaries and approves all senior clerics' appointments, requiring them to report regularly to the Council on Religious Affairs. In 1997, the Government began prohibiting mosque-based imams from gathering pupils and formally teaching Islam in madrassas. Following President Niyazov's closure of a mosque and madrassa in Dashoguz in 2001, the Theological Faculty at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat became the only academic institution in the country to conduct Islamic education. The Government has since declared further restrictions on Islamic education. In January 2002, the President declared that clerical students would be limited to 15 to 20 a year and would spend 1 year at Artogrul Ghazi Mosque in Ashgabat and 1 year at the Goek Tepe Mosque. In January 2003, the popular former Mufti of Turkmenistan, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was demoted and replaced, reportedly because he declined to call for the death penalty for perpetrators of the November 2002 attack against President Niyazov and because he was insufficiently rigorous in promoting "Rukhnama," President Niyazov's spiritual-social tome. In April, an Islamic secondary school operating under the auspices of the sole remaining theological faculty was closed, reportedly in part because of school administrators' and teachers' refusal to promote "Rukhnama" as an orthodox Islamic text.

Unregistered 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 unregistered 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 invoke the Law on Public Associations when they disrupt meetings of unregistered religious groups, even if the meetings occur in private homes. Participants are subject to fines and administrative arrest under the 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.

The Jehovah's Witnesses claim to have over 1,000 congregants in Ashgabat and submitted applications to legally register with the Council on Religious Affairs annually since 2001, but have never received a response. A group comprising various Protestant evangelical groups attempted to register a nondenominational Bible study society in Ashgabat in 2001, pooling members to reach the necessary 500 congregant requirement. The Council on Religious Affairs rejected that application, saying the group was too big to be a "society"--they had over 700 signatures--and was not a religion because different denominations were represented. Shiite Muslims have been denied registration several times since 1997. A number of Protestant evangelical groups did not attempt to register because they did not believe their applications would be approved and feared applying would prompt greater harassment.

There is no religious instruction in public schools. However, the Government requires regular instruction on "Rukhnama," President Niyazov's spiritual guidebook on Turkmen culture and heritage, in all public schools and institutes of higher learning. In 2002, the Halk Maslahaty (People's Council) declared Saturdays "Rukhnama Day," to be used for study of the text. At the beginning of the academic year in 2002, the Ministry of Education began requiring that each child bring a personal copy of "Rukhnama" to school. Copies of the book are kept in every mosque.

The Russian Orthodox Church conducts religious instruction classes for children. Some minority religious communities also conduct 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 the 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.

The Council ostensibly acts as an intermediary between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations. In practice it 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. Its writ is enforced through security and police forces, and it has no role in promoting interfaith dialog beyond that between these two religions. Although the Government does not officially favor any one religion, it does provide some financial and other support for the construction of new mosques to the Council on Religious Affairs.

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 churches, temples, or other places of worship; it punishes individuals or groups who violate these prohibitions. Congregations continue to practice quietly and privately, largely in private homes.

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, while others were prevented from registering with the Government, despite apparently having the required minimum number of congregants.

The Government restricts the number of Muslim mosques by requiring government permission for construction. 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. The local population supports village mosques. Villagers who wish to build a mosque must obtain land from local authorities, get permission from nearby residents, and provide the funding for construction and maintenance.

The Government also controls and restricts access to Islamic education. After President Niyazov ordered all but a few madrassas to be closed in 1997 to prevent what he believed was inappropriate Islamic education, none were in operation during the reporting period, thereby preventing most mosque-based imams from teaching 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 2 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 2003 the Government continued to limit the number of persons allowed to participate in the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj), specifying that only 187 pilgrims out of the country's quota of 4,600 would be allowed to journey to Mecca. Transport was provided free of charge by the national airline. 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 actually participated in the Hajj in 2002; however, there were anecdotal reports of individuals participating even though the Government closely screened travelers. In March 2003, following the failed assassination attempt on President Niyazov in the previous November, the Government formally reimposed an exit-visa regime, which had the effect of strengthening its ability to control who is able to perform the Hajj. Members of registered religions and unregistered religious minority groups have reported that the reimposition of the exit-visa regime has reduced their ability to attend conferences or undertake religious study abroad.

Although the Government continues to restrict the freedom of parents of some religious groups, such as the Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, to raise their children in accordance with their religious beliefs, the authorities have allowed other groups such as Roman Catholics, Baha'i, and Jews to continue quietly providing religious instruction.

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, particularly if they have received financial support from foreign sources. The Government monitors peaceful minority religions that are practiced in the country, particularly those that are perceived to have connections with or be supported by a supranational hierarchy. In televised remarks in January, President Niyazov warned the newly appointed Mufti of Turkmenistan against accepting money from foreigners seeking to patronize Turkmen mosques to propagate a more fundamentalist Islamic message.

In June 2002, President Niyazov issued a decree banning the import of foreign language newspapers and periodicals, ostensibly because of cost concerns. The ban has had the effect of making it difficult for religious minority groups, many of which are predominantly comprised of ethnic Russians, to import Russian-language Bibles and other religious literature. Beginning in July 2003, the Government prohibited the delivery of all Russian-language newspapers and periodicals into the country, citing high air-mail delivery rates. The ban has made it more difficult for religious minority groups, such as the ROC, to obtain and import religious literature and materials. The ROC is now barred from subscribing to their church's main journal, the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate.

During the reporting period, the Government confiscated copies of Christian literature, including the Bible, claiming that it was not authentic Christian religious literature. There were credible reports that authorities have claimed that Bibles not bearing the Russian Orthodox cross are not legitimate and are therefore subject to confiscation.

The enforced use of President Niyazov's spiritual guide, "Rukhnama," in educational institutions, mosques, and Russian Orthodox churches constitutes a restriction of freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Copies of the book are kept in every mosque. There were credible reports that authorities pressured Russian Orthodox priests in March to teach "Rukhnama" in their services in Turkmenabat and Ashgabat.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

According to unconfirmed Forum 18 News Service reports, in May, police and officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs authorities reportedly beat one Hare Krishna during an interrogation after authorities raided and arrested three Hare Krishnas in a home where they were meeting in Ashgabat. Authorities reportedly filmed the occupants of the home and confiscated all religious articles and religious literature. Two were assessed administrative fines for violating the prohibition on gatherings of unregistered religious groups. According to unconfirmed Forum 18 News Service reports, a similar incident involving a raid on a Hare Krishna service in Mary took place in May.

Members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Turkmenabat have continued to meet since the Government razed their church building in 1999.

In April, authorities summoned a Jehovah's Witness to a meeting with the Chairman of the Council on Religious Affairs, who accused her of hosting a prayer meeting at her family home. She was released in exchange for signing a statement that the charge was incorrect and that she would not host such meetings in the future.

From early 2002 through April, there had been a dramatic decline in reports of severe government harassment of Baptists. However, since April, there were several incidents of government harassment of Baptist groups. According to BBC Monitoring and Forum 18, in March, officers raided worship services of an unregistered Baptist Church in Balkanabad. The church was accused of holding an unapproved meeting and the names, addresses, and places of work of the congregants, both children and adults, were taken.

According to Forum 18, on May 11, authorities broke up two unregistered Baptist Sunday services in the cities of Balkanabad and Turkmenbashi. The same source also reported that authorities raided at least four different Protestant congregations in the city of Ashgabat in May.

According to unconfirmed Forum 18 News Service reports, in June, authorities raided a Baptist prayer meeting in a private home in Turkmenabad and detained at least three persons. They were reportedly questioned for several hours about their religious beliefs and contacts between their group and Baptist Church officials abroad. In addition, two of the detainees were reportedly threatened with lengthy imprisonment unless they ceased meeting. The owner of the apartment used for the meeting was assessed an administrative fine of approximately $25.00 at the unofficial exchange rate (500,000 manat); other detainees were fined approximately $12.50 (250,000 manat).

In March 2002, a Jehovah's Witness was publicly criticized at a general assembly at her institute of higher learning and expelled for her religious beliefs. Unconfirmed Keston News Service reports describe a similar incident in October, when a teacher who is a Jehovah's Witness was publicly humiliated before her colleagues and threatened with dismissal if she did not renounce her faith. Also in October, four members of Jehovah's Witnesses were detained and fined for talking about their faith.

In May 2002, authorities raided a meeting of nondenominational Protestants in Denau. Government officials cut off natural gas, electricity, and water supplies to the entire community, in which the church meeting took place, prompting social condemnation of the congregants and pressure to stop the meetings. Local officials were particularly harsh in their treatment of the group, reportedly because they were frustrated that ethnic Turkmen had chosen a faith other than Islam.

In November 2002, authorities in Bairamali questioned a local member of an unregistered religious minority group about her beliefs, pressured her to stop meeting with fellow believers, questioned her neighbors about her activities, and told her she would not be allowed to leave the country to attend a religious convention.

In November and December 2002, a local imam, acting in concert with intelligence and law enforcement authorities, attempted to pressure a member of an unregistered religious minority living in Turkmenkala to abandon her beliefs. They forced her to surrender religious literature and threatened to resettle her to a labor colony and strip her sons of their jobs if she persisted in teaching and distributing literature about her faith to members of her village. Fellow villagers criticized the woman, an ethnic Turkmen from a Muslim family, for being an adherent of another faith. Authorities told the woman even Muslims did not have the right to teach Islam in Turkmenistan, saying "Rukhnama" was the only spiritual book recognized in the country.

In March, authorities raided a meeting of an unregistered religious minority group. Four of the participants were each assessed administrative fines of approximately $12.50 (250,000 manat); one teenage boy and a pensioner were exempted.

In April, police raided a meeting of an unregistered Christian group in Ashgabat, detaining 11 adults and 13 children. Most were held for 6 hours and released, but 3 adults were detained overnight. Authorities confiscated the group's Bibles, saying they were contraband, and demanded that adult congregants disclose the identities of their leader and of the individuals who had provided the group with Bibles. Congregants were verbally threatened during custody but were not physically abused. The three leaders of the group were assessed administrative fines of approximately $12.50 (250,000 manat) for violating the prohibition on meetings of unregistered religious groups. One of the leaders appealed the decision. A judge at the appeal hearing asked why the group's members needed any version of Christianity other than the Russian Orthodox Church and then affirmed the lower court's decision to assess a fine.

In April, authorities summoned a member of an unregistered religious minority group to the Kopet Dag Etrap offices for a meeting with the district Hakim, the Mufti of Turkmenistan, and a Deputy Mayor. The Mufti and Mayor were members of the Council on Religious Affairs. The officials accused him of holding illegal church meetings at his home and threatened to confiscate his state-owned apartment if they continued.

In May, officers of the Ministry of National Security (MNB) and local police raided a meeting of five members of the same group in Abadan. Authorities confiscated Bibles and other religious materials and detained them overnight, forcing them to sign statements not to hold or attend such meetings again. In June, the same congregants were detained and questioned again and each was assessed a fine of approximately $12.50 (250,000 manat) for holding an illegal meeting of an unregistered religious group. A local MNB officer threatened to evict the owner of the apartment in which the meeting was held, and to resettle him in a rural area if meetings were held at his home again. Another member of the group, a teacher, was pressured to sign a letter of resignation, but refused to do so. She had lost her job in 2001 after a meeting she was attending was raided, but was reinstated after the group sent a letter to President Niyazov highlighting abuse by local officials. She was allowed to keep her job after teaching a class in Turkmen language and demonstrating knowledge of "Rukhnama."

In May, authorities mistakenly raided the birthday party of a 16-year-old girl, believing it was a meeting of an unregistered religious minority group. Officials took the names of the teenagers in attendance and summoned the girl's parents and the group's leader for questioning.

In May, authorities raided a meeting of an unregistered religious minority group, which had met without incident for nearly 10 years. Authorities took the names of all congregants and warned them not to hold such meetings in the future. They also threatened to take custody of a number of children and teenagers who attended the meeting, although all of them either had signed permission from their parents to attend or were the children of congregants.

Since early 2002, there have been few confirmed reports of government harassment of the Protestant Word of Life Church. In November 2001, police raided a Protestant Word of Life Church meeting in a private apartment in Ashgabat. Many of those in attendance suffered severe consequences such as deportation, large fines, threats of dismissal from work, confiscation of identity documents, and long-term imprisonment if fines were not paid. There was an unconfirmed report that one member was sentenced to 15 days in prison.

The Government threatened members of religious minority groups with loss of employment and housing because of their religious beliefs. In at least one case, a university student was expelled because of her affiliation with an unregistered religious group.

Since January 2002, there have been no reports of harassment of Pentecostals.

Two prisoners, both members of Jehovah's Witnesses, were serving sentences for refusing to perform compulsory military service because of their religious beliefs. In October, the Supreme Court upheld a second conviction for Jehovah's Witness Nikolai Shelekhov, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2002 for refusing to perform compulsory military service, after previously serving a 1-year sentence for the same crime. Shelekhov's second conviction came only 6 months after his release from the prison colony at which he served 1 year for the same offense. Kurban Zakirov was sentenced to 1 year in 1999 and has been detained since, reportedly for refusing to take an oath of loyalty to President Niyazov and the state while placing his hand on a copy of the Koran, a customary procedure for prisoners who benefit from the annual Presidential Amnesty.

According to unconfirmed Keston News Service reports, Oguldzhan Dzhumanazarova, who was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 4 years in prison in 2001, remained in prison. The Jehovah's Witness community claims that the accusations of fraud were based on fabricated evidence. There are no other confirmed cases of religious detainees or prisoners remaining in detention.

There were no confirmed cases in which the Government carried out or permitted the forced resettlement of persons based on their religious beliefs or practices. However, authorities threatened individual members of several religious minority groups with resettlement unless they immediately ceased holding or attending meetings of their respective groups.

Religious leader Hoja Ahmed Orazglychev remained in internal exile in Tedjen, after serving a prison term for unregistered religious activity.

In January 2002, Baptist prisoner of conscience Shageldy Atakov was released from prison. Atakov had been in prison since 1999 for 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 1 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. Unconfirmed reports indicated that harassment began again and his property was confiscated. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Atakov and his family left the country to seek asylum.

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.

Most religious minority groups reported a general abatement of harassment by the Government between June 2002 and early 2003; however, the Government renewed systematic harassment of such groups in April.

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. Although more traditional adherents of Islam consider Turkmen interpretations to be unorthodox and many Turkmen do not regularly attend mosques, the overwhelming majority of Turkmen identify themselves as "Muslim" and Turkmen identity is linked to Islam. Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert from Islam to other faiths are viewed skeptically and sometimes ostracized, although Turkmen society has historically been 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 undermine state control, promote civil unrest, facilitate undue influence by foreign interests, and destabilize the Government.

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.

In November 2002, the Ambassador urged the Government to release imprisoned Jehovah's Witness Kurban Zakirov and others in the December 2002 Presidential Amnesty. In November 2002, the Ambassador hosted an Iftar dinner, celebrating the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, in support of religious tolerance and interfaith dialog.

In 2003, the Government refused to respond to multiple requests for the U.S. Ambassador and other Embassy officers to meet with the Council on Religious Affairs. However, the Ambassador and Embassy officers raised specific reports of abuse and urged greater respect for religious freedom in unscheduled encounters with members of the Council on Religious Affairs. The Ambassador also raised specific reports and urged ending numerically-based registration for religious minority groups in multiple meetings with the Foreign Minister in 2003. During the period covered by this report, the Ambassador and Embassy officers met regularly with the staff of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Ashgabat and other diplomatic missions to maximize cooperation in monitoring abuses of and promoting greater respect for religious freedom. The Ambassador and Embassy officers regularly met with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups to monitor their situation, receive reports of abuse, and discuss measures to raise their cases with the Government. Embassy officers visited Shegeldy Atakov on two separate occasions during the period covered by this report.