By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission
Special to ASSIST News Service
AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- It was back in 1999 that the Turkmenistan government declared its intention to “strangle minority faiths. All foreign Christians were expelled and the persecution of national believers, especially ethnic Turkmen, intensified intolerably.
While unregistered minority religious groups were not illegal, members of unregistered groups were scorned, harassed and persecuted, particularly by the National Security Committee (security police – KNB, formerly KGB). Christians have been beaten, tortured, had their homes confiscated and been driven into exile. For all its boasting of freedom of belief, Turkmenistan severely abuses religious liberty.
Turkmenistan has now replaced its highly repressive 1991 religion law with an even more repressive version. The new religion law, signed by President Niyazov on 21 October, came into effect on 10 November 2003. Unregistered religious activity is now officially banned as illegal. Members of minority faiths (Baptists, Pentecostals, Jews, Adventists etc), who have long been subject to administrative punishments, are now vulnerable to criminal charges.
NEW RELIGION LAW
Article 8 of the new religion law states, as previously, that registration with the Justice Ministry requires 500 adult citizens living inside the country. This requirement is so restrictive that only the Sunni Muslims and Russian Orthodox will be able to achieve registration. Evangelicals that minister to ethnic Turkmen find it doubly difficult to find the 500 members necessary for registration. To protect ethnic Turkmen believers from persecution, and to protect congregations that minister to ethnic Turkmen from harassment, evangelical churches will often not list the names of ethnic Turkmen on their rolls.
Article 11 states, "The activity of unregistered religious organizations is banned. An individual carrying out activity in the name of an unregistered religious organization bears responsibility in accordance with the laws of Turkmenistan."
Article 14 gives the Justice Ministry the right to cancel a group’s registration on a wide range of bases, from “interference in family relations leading to the breakdown of the family”, to “violation of social security and social order”.
Article 15 requires all registered religious organizations receiving money or other support from foreign donors to notify the Justice Ministry.
Article 20 requires all religious literature imported by registered religious organizations to be approved by the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs.
Article 6 states, "The teaching of spiritual beliefs on a private basis is banned and bears responsibility in the manner established by the law of Turkmenistan.”
CRIMINAL CODE AMENDED
The criminal code has been amended to provide punishments for those breaking the law by engaging in unregistered religious activity. According to Forum 18, “The new article 223 part 2 of the Criminal Code, also signed by President Niyazov on 21 October, punishes ‘violation of the law on religious organizations’. Those breaking the law who have already been punished within the space of a year under the Code of Administrative Offences ‘are to be punished by a fine of between ten and thirty average monthly wages, or corrective labor for a term of up to one year, or deprivation of freedom for a term of up to six months, with confiscation of illegally received means.’ Such criminal punishments could be imposed on those who lead unregistered religious communities or those who teach religion in such communities.” (Link 1)
PRISON IN TURKMENISTAN
It is important to note here that Turkmenistan’s prisons are absolutely appalling. Turkmenistan is thought to have one of the highest per-capita prison population rates in the world. Most prisons are situated in the desert where the temperature can climb to 55 degrees Celsius, and they usually house up to ten times the number of inmates they were built to house. What’s more, provisions are supplied for only the number of inmates the prison was built to hold.
Gulgeldy Annaniyazov, a former political prisoner (now living in Europe), reported to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last year (21 Nov 2002) that where he was imprisoned near Turkmenbashi City for three and a half years, there were 8,000 inmates but only one water faucet. “We had really no food to speak of in our prison. They gave us food but first you had to clean the cockroaches and worms out of it, then you could eat. Since Turkmenistan became independent in 1991 no monitoring group has been permitted to monitor prison conditions.
We must never underestimate what prison means for a Turkmenistan believer.
FREEDOM OF BELIEF?
Forum 18 quotes Murad Karryev, deputy head of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, as saying during a half-hour television program on the new law on 7 November that there is "complete freedom of belief for all sects and confessions" as long as they are registered officially. "We do not intervene in the affairs of religious sects and confessions if they are legally registered at the Ministry of Justice."
While this statement is no doubt true, the repressive restrictions make a mockery of religious freedom.
Joseph K. Grieboski, the President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy condemned the new religion law saying, “The passage of this law uses quasi-democratic means to eliminate basic rights ideally guaranteed by the state. The Government of Turkmenistan has ignored its commitments to international agreements, flown in the face of international norms, and ignored the basic rights due the citizens of Turkmenistan.” (Link 2)
SOCIETY UNDER PRESIDENTIAL SCRUTINY
Forum 18 reports, “Speaking on television on 22 October, Justice Minister Taganmyrat Gochyev said tighter control of religious groups and public organizations was needed to address security concerns.”
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty adds, “Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project based in Budapest, points out that ‘the new religion law and criminal code amendment are consistent with a larger government effort to bring Turkmen society even further under its control.
‘It's worth noting,’ Dailey told RFE/RL, ‘that this new revised law on religion and religious organizations in Turkmenistan was signed into law at exactly the same time that a parallel law on NGOs, on nongovernmental organizations, was also signed into law. And the spirit of both new laws is very similar. It is to provide administrative oversight headed by the president himself of nongovernmental activities, whether they be religious or civic in nature.’
“Dailey adds that it is likely not a coincidence that the laws came into force in the days preceding the first anniversary of the 25 November alleged assassination attempt against Niyazov.” (Link 3)
1) New religion law defies international human rights agreements
By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service11 Nov 2003
2) Institute Condemns New Turkmenistan Religion Law
Washington, DC, November 11, 2003
3) Ashgabat Takes Further Steps To Suppress Religious Faiths
By Antoine Blua, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 14 Nov 2003