08/09/2008, 00.00
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Everyday religious repression

Group prayers require state authorisation, something hard to get. Police raids, seizes and fines all illegal religious activity. The Catholic Church has only one site. Imams are under tight control.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews/F18) – Religious freedom violations are systematic in Turkmenistan, repression by the authorities is almost scientific, the Forum 18 news agency reports. Article 11 of Turkmenistan's Constitution may recognise everyone’s right to profess any religion, individually or jointly with others, but religious groups must register with the authorities to engage in any kind of activity, even prayers.

Registration means providing the authorities with a great deal of information, including where people meet and organisers’ names.

Authorities reserve the right to deny authorisation to meet and police raid prayer meetings and private homes even when believers have informed the former.

By and large the right of assembly, free speech and the right of movement are non-existent. Anyone involved in unauthorised religious activity is liable for heavy fines or even prison.

For the Catholic Church only the Holy See nunciature in Ashgabat is recognised—two priests are allowed to celebrate mass in what is diplomatic territory.

Legal groups must also allow state officials to attend their meetings, read all their documents and go through all their financial reports, which must show each donation and contribution.

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s pledge during the 2007 elections to allow greater religious freedom has remained a dead letter.

In schools and in public life reading the Ruhnama (Book of Soul) by the late President Niyazov remains compulsory. Every place of worship must have a copy of the book.

Islam, which is the religion practiced by a majority of Turkmenistan’s five million people, is even more tightly controlled.

The Committee for Religious Affairs appoints the chief mufti and the main imams. It also appoints all Muslim and Russian Orthodox clergy.

Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who was in favour of greater autonomy for Muslim clergy, was imprisoned from 2004 to 2007 on charges that were never made clear. He was replaced by someone hand-picked by the Committee for Religious Affairs.

Dispensing religious education is banned even within one’s own community. This year for example the secret police raided classes in which Protestant religious teaching was given; during the operation they seized religious texts and threatened the teachers.

The same applies to Muslims, except for the Muslim theological section in the History Faculty of Magtymguly Turkmen State University in Ashgabad which admits a few students.

Religious literature must receive prior state approval and religious material is often seized.

Most religious websites are not accessible from within the country.

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