12/22/2006, 00.00
TURKMENISTAN
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After Niyazov, still few hopes for religious freedom

Who will be the next leader remains uncertain. Believers ask themselves whether there will be changes or whether the personality cult of the dead president will continue. Some experts speak.

Ashgabat (AsiaNews/Forum18) – Uncertainty reigns over who will succeed Saparmurat Niyazov, president and dictator of Turkmenistan for 21 years. The People's Assembly of Turkmenistan is set to meet next Tuesday to debate the succession process. Under the constitution presidential elections should take place within two months, whilst the speaker of parliament should become the acting president. However, current Speaker Ovezgeldy Atayev could not take up his new post because of criminal charges brought against him. Instead he was replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Kurbanguly Berdynmukhamedov.

As the wait to see who will be the next president, victims of the dead president’s anti-religious policies are asking themselves what will change. Many fear that nothing will change.

“Transition leaders have already praised Niyazov and his policies and vowed to continue them,” the Forum 18 agency quoted a local Protestant as saying.

Between 1997 and 2003 no religious communities apart from some state-approved Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities were allowed to function. Police raids were carried out and harsh punishments inflicted on those conducting religious activity without state permission.

For pessimists, the structure of state control—including complete control of Islam from the inside and control on all other faiths from outside—is likely to remain in place. Others suggest instead that a junta will come to power “engaged in intrigues about power and gas.”

For exiled human rights activist Farid Tukhbatullin, who heads the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, the anti-religious policy was instituted on the "personal instruction" of President Niyazov because he feared any movement in society.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church faced restrictions. For example, the women's convent next to St Nicholas' Church in Ashgabad had to come to a halt in late 2005 after President Niyazov warned the Orthodox clergy in a private conversation that if they carried on with the building work he would order the demolition of all the country's Orthodox churches.

Still, as personal as the Niyazov’s fears may have been, “this does not mean that his subordinates were merely implementing his will,” Tukhbatullin said. “Almost all of them shared his views on this.”

Even if the new government were interested in responding favourably to international requests for greater freedoms, the  “overwhelming majority of officials of the police and MSS secret police have a vested interest in preserving the current situation, under which they enjoy unlimited rights.”

What does seem unclear is whether Niyazov's personality cult based on the ‘Ruhnama’ (or Book of the Soul) will continue to be imposed in school children and public servants and forcibly read in religious institutions and mosques.

In recent years various muftis were removed from office and in 2003 chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, who fiercely opposed Niyazov’s personality cult and the presence of copies of the Ruhnama in mosques, was removed from office and sentenced to 22 years in prison on trumped up charges of attempting on the life of the president.

About 87 per cent of the population of 5.5 million is Muslim. Christians are about 2 per cent. The country’s substantial Armenian community is not recognised and Catholics can only celebrate mass at the Nunciature in Ashgabat.  (PB)

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