10/03/2005, 00.00
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"Continual" violations of freedom of worship in Turkmenistan

 Arbitrary arrests and beatings of Baptist Christians and Jehovah Witnesses, "strict control" over Islamic communities, places of worship razed to the ground. Such are the charges made by humanitarian organizations calling on the United States to issue an official condemnation and to take diplomatic action.

London (AsiaNews/Agencies) - "Turkmenistan's government still refuses to allow residents of the country to practice their faith freely." The charge was made by Felix Corley, the editor of Forum 18 News Service, on Thursday 29 September. Forum 18 is an agency monitoring religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe.
On 28 September, a coalition of 10 organizations which monitor human rights, including Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Condoleeza Rice, US Secretary of State, to say that "there is no freedom of worship in Turkmenistan". The coalition called on the United States to designate Turkmenistan as a "country of particular concern" for its grave violations of freedom of worship. The American International Religious Freedom Act of 1988 stipulates that once such a declaration is made, the Secretary of State should adopt one of a list of measures ranging from diplomatic pressure to imposition of sanctions.

The letter says that despite persistent international pressure, persecution continues in Turkmenistan, targeting especially minorities like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Baptists, with frequent police raids on prayer meetings, arbitrary arrests and beatings.  
Says Corley: ""No religious community can freely print, publish or import religious literature." Islamic communities are subject to strict controls and the government has yet to explain why the former chief mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah was arrested in 2003 and condemned to a 22-year prison sentence without any visitors allowed. And the authorities have never given any reasons, continued Corley, as to why places of worship demolished or confiscated in recent years, were never restored or why compensation was never paid for them.

The letter charges that the President, Saparmurat Niyazov wants to set up a new religion based on the cult of his own person: public propaganda glorifies him as a "prophet", his book "Ruhnama" (defined as "Holy") is obligatory school material, and he is recalled and thanked in the "preface of all prayers". President Niyazov, continues the letter, has announced the upcoming publication of a "list of accepted Islamic rituals", which Muslims must observe. A "corner of the president" is obligatory in places of worship, where images of Niyazov and his book are displayed. In February 2005, the State Council for religious affairs told Islamic leaders that "a priority task for clergymen [is] to disseminate the lofty ideas in our great leader's sacred books on the duties of parents and children."

However, human rights activists fear that Washington may pay more attention to American security concerns in central Asia than to severe human rights violations. This is especially the case since the Uzbek president Islam Karimov, once a US ally in the "war on terror", ordered the closure of American military bases in the country, which had a noteworthy strategic importance. The following August, General John Abizaid, head of the USA Central Command, visited Turkmenistan and hinted at possible interest in setting up military bases in the oil-rich state.

In its letter, the coalition criticized the executive for not taking "long overdue" action and observed that this "would also cast doubt among the citizens of an overwhelmingly Muslim country on the U.S. government's credibility as a champion of religious freedom".

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See also
Turkmen amnesty excludes Protestant and Jehovah's Witnesses
Ashgabat, Jehovah's Witness sentenced in secret, with (false) accusations of pornography
Head of Altai Jehovah's Witnesses convicted of 'extremism'
The Russian government confirms condemnation of Jehovah's Witnesses
Turkmenistan, another Jehovah's Witness imprisoned because conscientious objector


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