The Republic of Turkmenistan, in Central Asia, was part of the Soviet Union until independence in1991. Its capital is Ashgabat, and the main language spoken is Turkmen. Turkmenistan is mainly desert, flanked by two populated strips of land. Despite large natural gas and cotton resources, the economy is underdeveloped and most people live in poverty.
Turkmenistan is governed by one of the most repressive regimes in the world and human rights violations are extensive. Denial of freedom of religion is intertwined with denial of the rights to freedoms of assembly, speech, expression and movement. The state controls all religious leaders and communities and imposes severe restrictions on religious education and sharing beliefs.
President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in December 2006, held dictatorial power from soviet times and styled himself Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen). He made himself the centre of a personality cult – and president for life – and spent public money on grandiose projects, while slashing social welfare. Niyazov tightly controlled the army, police, justice system, economy and the press.
In February 2007, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (pictured) won the presidential election, widely considered to have been rigged. He has moved away from the Niyazov cult and towards a less repressive system, and has restored pensions. However, the government still tightly controls religious and political activity, trade unions and the media. TV and radio are state-owned, and the authorities monitor internet use, blocking opposition websites.
About 96% of the population is Muslim, with only 95,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians (by far the majority of these are Russian Orthodox; about 1,000 are evangelicals). At the time of independence there were only one or two ethnic Turkmen Christians, but the numbers have increased to about 1,000.
Constitutionally, there is freedom of religion, but in practice this is limited to Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy: others face severe repression and harassment, and even Islam is tightly controlled, because of the fear of terrorism – some Muslims have been imprisoned in labour camp as a punishment for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. Muslims worship in government built and controlled mosques, and in recent years 14 mosques in the capital have been bulldozed because the authorities said they had been built without permission.
Jehovah’s Witnesses face a particular problem because military service is compulsory for all young men in Turkmenistan and they, as conscientious objectors, face arrest and a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment, despite being willing to do any form of alternative, non-military service.
Religion is controlled by the government’s Comission for Work with Religious Organisations, established in summer 2015, which must approve all religious literature and any new places of worship. All religious communities must be registered, but apart from Russian Orthodox churches, only a handful of other churches have been able to register.
A new Religion Law, to replace the much-amended 2003 Religion Law, was approved in the Mejlis (Parliament) in March 2016, and came into force in April. The President claimed a new law was needed because of the worldwide rise of terrorism and religious extremism.
The new Religion Law retains earlier restrictions such as the ban on unregistered religious activity, but makes it even more difficult to register as it increases the minimum number of adult citizens who must apply for legal status for a religious community from five to fifty.
The government is hostile to any independent Christian activity and evangelicals are targeted by the police. They face arrest, interrogation, heavy fines and occasionally imprisonment, especially for meeting in unregistered gatherings, and religious literature is confiscated. Summer camps have been raided by the police and teenagers detained for hours without food or water. Secret police from the Ministry of State Security carry out surveillance of known or suspected evangelicals, and they try to recruit agents to infiltrate and inform on gatherings.
It is very difficult for churches to obtain registered status, and once registered they still face harassment. Registered churches are monitored, and closed if three violations of the restrictive regulations are recorded.
Religious literature may be sold by the Russian Orthodox church, though it must be stamped as approved by the government’s Commission. However, Christians from other churches have been unable to register a Bible Society to distribute Bibles.
Turkmen who become Christians run the risk of losing their jobs, and they are often pressurised to return to Islam. Most foreign Christians have been expelled, and several Turkmen pastors have been exiled, beaten, heavily fined or imprisoned. In October 2010, Pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was sentenced (on false charges) to four years in prison, with “forcible medical treatment“. He was released from labour camp in February 2012 among a group of about 230 prisoners freed under amnesty but the police warned him not to resume church gatherings for worship.
(Forum 18, Operation World, Voice of the Martyrs, World Watch List)
Former prisoner Shagildy Atakov, together with his wife Artygul, their five children and his brother Hoshgeldi, all Baptists, are still on the blacklist in the central Asian republic of Turkmenistan.
Shagildy leads a small independent Baptist congregation in the village of Kaakhka, near Ashgabad. He was a Christian prisoner of conscience from December 1998 to January 2001.
Shagildy Atakov (a Baptist who was imprisoned for three years in 1998) was recently taken off a plane at Ashgabad airport by government officials. Shagildy was due to fly to Moscow to meet fellow Baptists. He already had a ticket, had passed through passport control and was sitting in the aeroplane when officers of the secret police took him off the flight shortly before takeoff was due.
“Officers told him they had an order ‘from above’ not to allow him to leave the country,” a friend reported. “But none of them was prepared to say who had issued the order.”
“We blocked him from travelling ‚Äì he’s here on the list,” a Migration Service officer commented. “People are only stopped from leaving if they have problems with the government,” he added, without explaining what reasons trigger exit bans. Other religious believers (including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees) have also been forbidden from leaving the country. Although the official refused to say how many people are barred from leaving from Ashgabad airport each day, regular travellers from the airport have stated that in recent months, several people are routinely taken off each flight, often from the aeroplane itself after they have passed through passport control.
Since his release from prison in January 2002, Shagildy had been able to make a previous visit to Russia. He has been living with his wife Artygul and their five children in the town of Kaakhka, midway between Ashgabad and Tejenstroy, near the border with Iran.He remains under close government surveillance. (Forum 18)
Anti-Terrorist police raided last Sunday’s (14 August) worship service of a registered Baptist church in the north-eastern town of Dashoguz. After the service, police questioned church members, confiscating all Turkmen-language Bibles and Hymnbooks.
The police took particular interest in children at the service, and were diappointed they were in the service with parental permission. Next day, church leaders were summoned for “more thorough interrogation,” and told that the Baptist Church’s national state registration is “not valid for northern Turkmenistan.”
This claim has been made elsewhere in the country, and Baptists strongly dispute it. Police pressured church leaders to sign a declaration that the church will not meet until it had state registration. “We met for worship before ‘your registration’ existed, and will continue to meet now we have registration, even if you did not recognise it. And we will continue to meet in future as our faith does not depend on registration,” church leaders told police.
Officers warned church leaders that they had no right to hold church services or to read the Bible together in the countryside, and that such activity was an offence. They said that without registration of the congregation in Dashoguz, the congregation cannot meet or spread their faith. “Individuals can only believe alone on their own at home,” police warned.
Earlier this year, Registered Baptists in the eastern towns of Turkmenabad and Mary also had their services attacked by police and similar claims were made in both cases that the congregations are in fact unregistered.
Registered congregations are pressured to give honour to the extreme cult of personality surrounding the country’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, who likes to be called Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmens.
Strong official pressure also continues to be used against unregistered – and de facto illegal – communities, such as those from the Baptist Council of Churches, whose congregations refuse on principle to register with the state authorities. (Forum 18)
Shagildy Atakov was imprisoned in Turkmenistan from December 1998 to January 2002. During his imprisonment, he was brutally treated and came close to death. A recent visitor to Turkmenistan brings current news
The Atakovs continue to follow the Lord and are not ashamed of the Gospel. Christian literature is displayed publicly in Shagildy‚Äôs house. He remarks, We have nothing to hide. When people come here, they need to see that a Christian family is living in this house.
Police still monitor his movements. Often after he has been preaching at a house meeting, police officers arrive at the scene and ask about his whereabouts. Was Shagildy here? When the people in the house affirm that, they say, What a pity that we just missed him. We need to arrest him. Next time we‚Äôll get him! After the following house meeting, they do the same. This way, they try to intimidate the people. (Friedenstimme)
Law enforcement officers broke up the Sunday morning Baptist service in Balkanabad on 11 May and forcibly took all those present to the police station. The church, which meets in a private flat, had previously been raided in March and April.
One church member described what happened: Between ten and 12 people burst into the room and ordered us to leave the building. The service was still under way, but the law enforcement officers ordered that it stop and began to apply physical force, even on children, to turn everyone out of the building, paying no attention to the cries and screams of the children.