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IRIN – Turkmenistan continues to deny its citizens the right to religious freedom, despite longstanding international pressure to reform.

” Turkmenistan ‘s government still refuses to allow residents of the country to practice their faith freely,” Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, said from London on Thursday.

His comments come one day after a coalition of 10 human rights and advocacy organisations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), called on Washington to designate the former Soviet republic as a “country of particular concern” under US law for severe violation of religious freedom.

“There is no freedom of religion in Turkmenistan ,” a letter addressed to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice read, citing the extent of repression in the reclusive, but oil-rich state.

Describing the government of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov as one of the most closed and brutal in the world, activists in the coalition accused Ashgabat of persecuting minority religious communities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists, with police raids on prayer meetings, arbitrary arrests and beatings.

But religious persecution remains very much across the board. The Muslim community remains tightly controlled, while the Russian Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan has been denied re-registration for refusing to allow its parishes to become independent of the Central Asian diocese headquartered in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent , Corley explained.

“No religious community can freely print, publish or import religious literature,” he said, adding that the government had yet to explain why the former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah was still serving a 22-year prison sentence and places of worship bulldozed or confiscated in recent years had yet to be built or returned – with no compensation offered.

Despite that assessment, Washington ‘s decision whether to designate the country or not was likely to take into account America ‘s security needs and stability in Central Asia , as much as the country’s draconian efforts to suppress religion, according to the coalition.

In July, the hard-line government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, once a staunch ally in America ‘s war on terror, ordered Washington to close down its military base in the south of the country, a facility which had been instrumental in US military and humanitarian efforts in neighbouring Afghanistan .

Since then, a visit to Turkmenistan in August by Gen John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, hinted of possible military interest in the Central Asian state.

Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the executive is required to designate countries that are serious violators of religious freedom as “countries of particular concern.” When a country is named to this list, the Secretary of State must choose from a number of steps, from diplomatic pressure to the imposition of sanctions.

Calling the designation “long overdue”, the coalition asserted that Rice’s failure to designate Turkmenistan would “jeopardize the credibility of the IRFA’s unique, proven leverage with respect to Turkmenistan and other countries…[Go To Full Story]