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Forum18 – Turkmenistan regularly claims that religious freedom exists in the country, one example being Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov’s statement to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in August 2005. However, in practice, people in Turkmenistan are not permitted by the government to practice a faith or belief alone or with others, to meet freely for worship and spread their religious beliefs, or to freely choose to change their beliefs. The government tries to control the extremely limited legal religious activity it permits, which often does not – even for registered religious groups – include the right to worship. All unregistered religious activity remains banned and the government actively tries to suppress such activity along with its attacks on registered activity.

Places of worship have been confiscated and destroyed in recent years, while those still open are tightly restricted – with many faiths not being allowed any place of worship. Sharing religious beliefs in public and in the media is impossible, while formal religious education, apart from at a basic level, within places of worship or elsewhere is impossible. The exception to this is a small Muslim theological faculty in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat], and this faculty has this year had all its foreign (Turkish) staff expelled, its student numbers reduced, and its status downgraded. Religious believers have been fired from their jobs because of their faith, evicted from their homes and harassed, fined and beaten for meeting – even in private homes – for unsanctioned meetings.

The changes to the religion law in March 2004 to allow small religious communities to register has allowed about nine previously “illegal” religious communities to gain legal status. But this seems to have been a move purely for purposes of foreign publicity, as it is rendered worthless due to government refusal to allow religious communities to meet, especially outside Ashgabad.

The March 2004 changes to the religion law and the subsequent registration by the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry of some religious minority communities, together with the removal of criminal penalties for unregistered religious activity – which came under strong international pressure – were much trumpeted by the Turkmen government. The states record has encouraged religious communities to view the changes with suspicion (eg. see F18News 28 February 2005 Unregistered religious activity remains an administrative offence and state agencies have continued to behave as if unregistered religious activity was still a criminal offence…[Go To Full Story]