Turkmenistan Closes Churches Amid New Rules

Monday, November 3, 2003

More controversial legislation in former Soviet republic

By Stefan J. Bos
Eastern Europe Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

ASHGABAT / BUDAPEST (ANS) -- Turkmenistan, an ex-Soviet republic with what human rights watchers call the "harshest state control" in the region has drafted new legislation that will make it difficult for churches to operate and to spread the Gospel, a news agency said Monday, Nov. 3

"Breaking the law will lead to criminal, not administrative, punishments," said Forum 18 News (F18News) which reports on persecution of believers for the religious rights organization Forum 18.

"The new law also reportedly requires religious groups to "coordinate" contacts with foreigners with the government, and to gain permission before receiving foreign support such as funding and religious literature," Forum 18News said.

Churches have already been demolished and police routinely break up religious meetings and often beat, threaten and fine believers, several human rights groups say.


"Christians have also been sacked from their jobs, imprisoned, had their homes confiscated, been sent to a remote area of the country, and deported from Turkmenistan," F18News reported.

The country is among the world's most toughest countries for Christians, according Open Doors, an international Christian ministry supporting the suffering church worldwide, with North Korea topping the list.

"The government has incorporated some aspects of the majority religion, the Islamic tradition, into its effort to redefine a national identity. The Turkmen society is characterized by the personality cult around President Saparmurat Niyazov," said Open Doors about Turkmenistan.


"The president does not accept the fact that Christians give higher authority to God than to him. Ethnic Turkmen who have converted to Christianity are considered to be a threat to the national identity and have been subjected to official harassment and mistreatment."

Having re-named himself 'The Father of all Turkmen', the country's president runs an oppressive regime, Open Doors said. "Those who refuse to bow down to his portrait are harshly punished."

The organization and other sources said an oath must be recited by all school children in Turkmenistan as they kiss the flag saying: Turkmenistan, my beloved motherland, my beloved homeland! "You are always with me in my thoughts and in my heart. "For the slightest evil against you let my hand be lost. "For the slightest slander about you let my tongue be lost. "At the moment of my betrayal to my motherland, to her sacred banner, to Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, let my breath stop."


Those who refuse to obey can face serious problems, Open Doors said. As an example Open Doors cited a recent report from the respected Keston Institute, which has studied religious persecution around the globe.

"Eight Christians in Deinau were recently forced to renounce their faith. They were arrested when a postal employee found a Christian magazine in their mail. Three refused to give up their faith and went into hiding. They are now subject to a manhunt ordered by the police in Ashgabat," Keston reported in May.

However the authorities have defended their policies and the latest legislation with the Justice Minister, Taganmyrat Gochyev, saying that "harsher controls are necessary to address security concerns," F18News claimed, citing a state run television report.


The bill amending the 1996 version of the law on freedom of conscience is now in the Mejlis, the parliament, a rubber-stamp body that routinely approves bills prepared by the leadership. No date has yet been set for the law's final adoption.

Turkmenistan's current restrictions on religious activity have recently come under fire from the European Parliament, members of the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

Last month the influential Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) urged American President George W. Bush to describe Turkmenistan as among the "Countries of Particular Concern, as called for under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

The designation could lead to sanctions and other measures against the Central Asian country of just over 4 million people.