RELIGION IN TURKMENISTAN

RELIGION IN TURKMENISTAN

Turkmenistan has no state religion. An estimated 89 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam and 9 percent, Russian Orthodoxy. Islam in Turkmenistan often includes elements of mysticism and shamanism. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2007, CIA World Factbook]

The state is avowedly secular. Many who profess Islam are not active adherents. Religious minorities are persecuted. Some historians believe that Zoroaster may have lived in Margiana in present-day Turkmenistan. The number of Orthodox Christians was higher in the past when there were more Russians in Turkmenistan.

According to the U.S. Department of State: “ There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Shia Muslims, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals. Most ethnic Russians and Armenians are Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller religious groups.There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, many of whom are ethnic Iranians, Azeris, or Kurds living along the border with Iran and in the western city of Turkmenbashi.There are an estimated 300 Jews. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

The constitution guarantees the equality of citizens before the law regardless of religious preference, but the law prohibits all unregistered religious activity, including establishing places of worship, gathering for services, disseminating religious materials, and proselytizing. Unregistered religious activities are punishable through administrative fines. *^*

Religion in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras in Turkmenistan

In the Soviet era, all religious beliefs were attacked by the communist authorities as superstition and "vestiges of the past." Most religious schooling and religious observance were banned, and the vast majority of mosques were closed. An official Muslim Board of Central Asia with a headquarters in Tashkent was established during World War II to supervise Islam in Central Asia. For the most part, the Muslim Board functioned as an instrument of propaganda whose activities did little to enhance the Muslim cause. Atheist indoctrination stifled religious development and contributed to the isolation of the Turkmen from the international Muslim community. Some religious customs, such as Muslim burial and male circumcision, continued to be practiced throughout the Soviet period, but most religious belief, knowledge, and customs were preserved only in rural areas in "folk form" as a kind of unofficial Islam not sanctioned by the state-run Spiritual Directorate. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The current government oversees official Islam through a structure inherited from the Soviet period. Turkmenistan's Muslim Religious Board, together with that of Uzbekistan, constitutes the Muslim Religious Board of Mavarannahr. The Mavarannahr board is based in Tashkent and exerts considerable influence in appointments of religious leaders in Turkmenistan. The governing body of Islamic judges (Kaziat) is registered with the Turkmenistan Ministry of Justice, and a council of religious affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers monitors the activities of clergy. Individuals who wish to become members of the official clergy must attend official religious institutions; a few, however, may prove their qualifications simply by taking an examination. *

Since 1990, efforts have been made to regain some of the cultural heritage lost under Soviet rule. President Niyazov has ordered that basic Islamic principles be taught in public schools. More religious institutions, including religious schools and mosques, have appeared, many with the support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey. Religious classes are held in both the schools and the mosques, with instruction in Arabic language, the Koran (Quran) and the hadith, and the history of Islam. *

Turkmenistan's government stresses its secular nature and its support of freedom of religious belief, as embodied in the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and institutionalized in the 1992 constitution. That document guarantees the separation of church and state; it also removes any legal basis for Islam to play a role in political life by prohibiting proselytizing, the dissemination of "unofficial" religious literature, discrimination based on religion, and the formation of religious political parties. In addition, the government reserves the right to appoint and dismiss anyone who teaches religious matters or who is a member of the clergy. Since independence, the Islamic leadership in Turkmenistan has been more assertive, but in large part it still responds to government control. The official governing body of religious judges gave its official support to President Niyazov in the June 1992 elections. *

On the other hand, some Muslim leaders are opposed to the secular concept of government and especially to a government controlled by former communists. Some official leaders and teachers working outside the official structure have vowed to increase the population's knowledge of Islam, increase Islam's role in society, and broaden adherence to its tenets. Alarmed that such activism may aggravate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and especially alienate Orthodox Slavs, the government has drawn up plans to elevate the council of religious affairs to ministry status in an effort to regulate religious activities more tightly. *

Evil Eye and Amulets in Turkmenistan

Turkmen are great believers in charms and amulets, which they regard as having special powers and magic forces. Beads, birds feathers, rams' horns and other objects are believed to be able to drive away evil spirits, summon good spirits and protect their owners from various troubles and misfortunes. These charms may be in the form of an eye, heart, snake head, small shells or scarab beetles. Amulets and talismans — and images associated with them — are found in carpets, embroidery and clothes as well as jewelry and lucky charms.[Source: advantour.com <=>]

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “Turkmen have a horror of the evil eye. Perhaps a lingering feature of the shamanism that was once part of the spiritual life of the region, this anxious reflex is apparent in every sphere of Turkmen existence. Trinkets for warding off the evil eye were on sale in many of the stalls in the bazaar—staring glass eyes, carved wooden talismans, and a sheep-horn symbol that Merdan said was effective against maledictions. Some Turkmen believed that evil could come as a withering blast from thin air, a kind of diabolical death ray. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

“The most common antidote to this bedevilment was a charm that broke the ray into pieces, a sort of prism made of colored wool, which one wore as a necklace or a bracelet, or hung over a bed or a doorway. Some of them looked like the kind of multicolored lanyards I had made at camp when I was a boy. Still, the things worked, or so I was assured by Merdan, who bought me a length of brown-and-red rope to get me through to Uzbekistan. (Bashi was as superstitious as his countrymen; he kept an evil-eye amulet over the door to his office, and always wore an evil-eye tie tack, first a blue eye and, in his last months, a diamond.)

Magic forces have been attributed to certain kinds of fruits, seeds and grains for hundreds of years. One of the earliest amulets was the necklace made of the seeds of dzhida, pomegranate, pistachio and cloves. According to ancient beliefs the strong smell of these plants could protect the wearer from evil spirits and jinxes and a woman wearing such a necklace could bear a lot of children.

Jewelry, especially stuff made with precious stones, often serve as charms in addition to being decorative. Each type of stone had special significance. Some are believed to have curative and magic properties while others protect the wearer from evil forces. The most honored and popular stone has always been a cornelian. It is thought that it gives health and prosperity, brings peace, pleasure and wealth.

Different Kinds of Amulets in Turkmenistan

An amulet against jinxes — an "aladzha" — can be found in all kinds of Turkmen arts and crafts. It is a string woven from black-and-white threads. Thin "aldzhas" are worn on the wrist and neck, attached to clothes; thicker ones are hung above the front door of a house or inside on a wall. According to Turkmen superstitions, a “tumar”— a triangular poach with coal and salt kept in a white fabric amulet holder - possessed the ability to drive away evil spirits. Wearing a "tumar" brings well-being to its owner. [Source: advantour.com <=>]

Among the objects protecting a person from jinxes are: camel wool, silver plates, ancient coins and wooden triangular amulets called "dagdans". Triangular forms of contrasting colors have traditionally had a sacred value and have served as charms since ancient times. Various combinations of triangles, squares and rhombuses decorate such charms. They can also be seen in skull caps embroideries, women's and men's robes and the edges of Turkmen carpets.

Decorations have traditionally been "programmed" to shape a person's behavior and success in life. Good wishes made in form of beads and pendants give a person confidence in all aspects of their lives. For example, a heart-shaped pendant called an "asyk" serves not only as a woman's hair-pin but also works as a charm protecting her hair which might be used by someone to put a curse on her. Turkmen women paid special attention to head and breast ornaments.

Having many children has always been a tradition among Turkmen. A variety of amulets and talismans have been employed to protect them. Right after a girl was born her parents traditionally decorated her with earrings believing that they performed a guardian function. A child is believed to be safe from harm if he or she wears simple bracelets made from colored or black-and-white beads.

Religious Laws in Turkmenistan

Religious issues are overseen by the government-controlled Council of Religious Affairs (CRA) and Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The CRA reports to the president and acts as an intermediary between the government bureaucracy and registered religious organizations. According to the U.S. Department of State: “The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and worship, including the right of individuals to choose their religion, to express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and to participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution guarantees the equality of citizens before the law regardless of religious preference. Other laws and policies restrict religious freedom. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines for various religious practices, including providing unauthorized religious education to children; producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials; accepting funds from foreign sources by unregistered religious groups; and conducting activities that are not in an organization’s charter. *^*

The criminal and administrative codes prohibit harassment by private actors towards registered religious groups, but the prohibition is unevenly enforced, and there is no protection extended to unregistered groups. Authorities generally do not enforce the prohibition due to lack of reporting by registered religious groups, who have expressed concerns that authorities would increase harassment or monitoring of their activities. The administrative code stipulates penalties of 200-500 manat ($70-$176) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or abstain from worship, and fines of up to 10,000 manat ($3,521) for religious groups receiving unapproved donations from outside the country. *^*

The law prohibits the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion and religious groups’ involvement in politics. Although no laws expressly prohibit holding religious services on residential property, the housing code states that communal housing should not be used for any activities other than habitation. The religion law states that religious services must be held at the religious group’s designated location.*^*

The religion law prohibits foreign missionary activity and foreign religious organizations. The law does not restrict the ability of foreigners to worship with local registered religious groups. The religion law prohibits the domestic publication of religious literature that will incite “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred.” The CRA must approve imported religious literature, and only registered religious groups can import literature. The religion law prohibits religious attire in public places, except for clergy of religious organizations.

The constitution states that military service is compulsory for men over the age of 18. The government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors; individuals who refuse military service for religious reasons are offered noncombatant military positions. Refusal to perform compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.

The religion law allows mosques to provide religious education to children after school for four hours per week with the approval of parents. Those who graduate from institutions of higher religious education (the law does not specify domestic or international institutions) and who obtain CRA approval may provide religious education. Citizens have the right to receive religious education individually or with other persons; however, the law prohibits providing religious education in private settings such as residences, and those who do so are subject to punitive legal action. *^*

Registration of Religious Groups in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law requires all religious organizations to register with the MOJ in order to operate legally in the country. In order to obtain registration, organizations must submit their contact information, proof of address, charter, and a registration fee of approximately 400 manat ($141). The government-controlled CRA and local police enforce government regulations through administrative fines. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

The law states the CRA should help registered religious groups to work with government agencies, explain the law to religious representatives, monitor the activities of religious groups to ensure they are in compliance with the law, assist with translating and publishing religious literature, and promote understanding and tolerance among different religious groups. The CRA is comprised of Sunni Muslim imams and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as government representatives, but has no representatives from other religious groups. In practice the CRA acts as an arm of the state, exercising direct control over the hiring, promotion, and removal of Sunni Muslim clergy, as well as playing a role in controlling all religious publications and activities.*^*

A May 3 amendment to the Law on Religion formalized the requirement that members of religious groups register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and provide interim and final reports on the use of the funds. An August 16 amendment to the religion law removed the provision for tax-exempt status for religious groups. The government stated in November, however, that the tax code still stipulates that religious groups are tax-exempt. *^*

There are two legal categories for registered religious communities: religious groups (consisting of at least five and fewer than 50 members of legal age), and religious organizations (consisting of at least 50 members). Religious groups state that registration procedures are not easy to comply with or understand. No new religious groups received registration during the year. According to government figures, there are 121 registered religious organizations and seven registered religious groups operating in the country. Of these, 104 are Muslim organizations, of which 99 are Sunni and five Shia; 13 are Russian Orthodox; and 11 represent other religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Bahais, Hare Krishnas, and Protestants. *^*

Unregistered religious groups and unregistered branches of religious groups cannot legally conduct religious activities, including establishing places of worship, gathering for services, disseminating religious materials, or proselytizing. Unregistered religious activity is punishable as an administrative offense, with fines ranging from 500 to 1,000 manat ($176 to $352), depending on whether the person involved in the activity is a religious leader or is acting on behalf of a religious group. Registered religious groups can also be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without state approval.The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups from providing religious education. *^*

Government Restrictions on Religious Groups in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government approves the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics and requires senior clerics to report regularly to the CRA. Some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups are financed independently, and the government is not involved with the appointment of their leadership. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

Religious groups seldom received permission from the CRA to import religious literature. Minority religious groups stated they were disadvantaged in importing religious materials because they had no representation on the CRA. The government reportedly prohibited all religious groups from subscribing to foreign publications. The CRA required that its officials stamp all religious literature, including Bibles and Qurans, to authorize each copy of the text. *^* While the Quran was practically unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, most homes retained one copy in Arabic or a Russian translation from the Soviet-era. Few translations were available in Turkmen. Some citizens reported the seizure of personal Bibles at the airport upon arrival from foreign travel, even though the Bibles had been in their possession when they departed the country. *^*

There were no reports of travel restrictions for religious study abroad or to attend religious conferences. In November the government reported that individuals do not need to obtain special permission for religious study abroad. There was one report that education officials threatened university students with expulsion if they attended services at mosques. Although individuals and religious groups were fined for unauthorized religious practices, there were no reports of officials being fined for abusing religious freedom, and observers noted it was unlikely such fines would be levied against any agents of the state.*^*

Authorities required some registered religious groups to obtain approval to carry out religious activities. In September 2014, the MOJ launched a new website that made information on the Law on Religion more publicly available, including information on registration procedures for religious organizations. The government also participated in training events on international religious freedom, published information on registration procedures for religious groups, and reportedly continued to allow self-funded pilgrims to participate in the Hajj.*^*

Harassment of Religious Groups in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Some groups reported difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to carry out religious activities such as Bible camps. Some groups stated that by routinely notifying the government of their gatherings and events and inviting government representatives to attend, they generally avoided government harassment. Nevertheless, in June authorities in the city of Mary attempted to close a children’s camp organized by a registered Protestant group, even though authorities had been notified in advance of the camp’s establishment. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

Religious groups reported the government and state-affiliated enterprises hindered or prevented some of them from purchasing or obtaining long-term leases for land or buildings for worship or meetings; however, many segments of society experienced obstacles regarding the purchase and leasing of property. Registered religious groups also reported they had difficulty renting special event space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, possibly due to concern about official disapproval. *^*

Some registered religious groups were denied permission to conduct church meetings such as study groups and seminars, although they were able to hold weekly services. The government forbade unregistered religious groups or unregistered branches of registered religious groups from gathering publicly or privately and sometimes broke up such gatherings. Some unregistered congregations continued to practice quietly, mostly in private homes, and were able to do so as long as the neighbors did not complain. *^*

There was no official religious instruction in public schools. Authorities actively enforced existing restrictions on private religious education. Although the government did not officially restrict persons from changing their religious beliefs and affiliation, representatives of religious minorities stated that ethnic Turkmen converts from Islam or who were members of unregistered religious groups were subjected to more scrutiny and questioning than non-ethnic Turkmen. Although it remained illegal to proselytize, some registered groups such as the Bahai community were able to speak about their faith in public without harassment. *^*

Societal Attitudes and Human Rights Issues on Religion in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “Religious groups reported continued difficulties working with the Council on Religious Affairs (CRA) to obtain registration with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The government also restricts the ability of registered groups to obtain permanent premises for worship, and to print, import, or disseminate religious literature. There was societal criticism and harassment of those who deviated from traditional ethno-religious beliefs and practices. There were reports that ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than non-ethnic Turkmen converts and were ostracized by their communities. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“In July 2014, the U.S. Secretary of State designated Turkmenistan as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Officers in the Ministry of National Security and Ministry of Internal Affairs in divisions charged with fighting organized crime and terrorism monitored members of religious minorities, reportedly through telephone and undercover surveillance.The government denied visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Some congregations seeking religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers reported the visas were often short-term and required burdensome paperwork. Others were unable to obtain visas for foreign religious representatives. Some registered religious minority groups, however, obtained assistance from the CRA in obtaining entry visas for foreign members of their churches to give religious lectures to their congregations. In November the government reported that during the year it had approved six visits by foreign members of religious congregations in Turkmenistan, including for Protestants, Hare Krishnas, Sunni Muslims, and members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The government did not report the number of visa applications of foreign members that were denied.

There was some societal criticism and harassment of those who deviated from traditional ethno-religious beliefs and practices. Societal attitudes generally reflected the belief that an individual is born into an ethno-religious group, and that Islam was an inherent part of the Turkmen national identity. Those who departed from these traditions received little social support or were criticized. Representatives of religious minorities stated that ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than non-ethnic Turkmen converts and were ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas. Societal distrust of foreign-based religious groups continued.

Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkmenistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “There were reports of beatings, imprisonment, arbitrary detention, threats of sexual assault, searches, confiscation of religious materials, and verbal abuse against religious minorities, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses... On July 3, law enforcement officials in Dashoguz reportedly beat and threatened a Jehovah’s Witness with rape. The officials also reportedly detained the individual in a drug rehabilitation center for two days and subjected the individual to four injections of a substance designed to paralyze the limbs. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“Jehovah’s Witnesses often refused compulsory military service. There were reports of torture, beatings, imprisonment, and arbitrary detention of Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to comply with compulsory military service. The government arrested six Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. Since 2010, the government arrested 28 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing military service, most recently in September. In October the government granted amnesty to eight of nine Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection and other charges and released them from prison. Courts issued suspended sentences for two Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year. Since 2010, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been released for serving the bulk of their sentences, nine have been amnestied, seven have received suspended sentences, and one remained in prison at year’s end.*^*

“According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, in May a Jehovah’s Witness was sentenced to four years in prison on reportedly fabricated charges for disseminating pornography, but was amnestied in October. According to NGOs, since 2010 three Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned on charges of distributing pornography and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison. Two of these Jehovah’s Witnesses were amnestied this year, and one was amnestied in 2012. *^*

In October the government granted early release to eight imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses, three of whom were arrested in 2014. One Jehovah’s Witness remained in prison at the end of the year. “According to Forum 18, on July 5, law enforcement authorities detained Jehovah’s Witness Bibi Rahmanova, her husband Vepa Tuvakov, and their four-year old son at the Dashoguz train station. The police reportedly used force with Rahmanova, beat Tuvakov, and confiscated their religious literature before releasing them on July 7. On August 7, Rahmanova was reportedly formally detained at the DZD-7 detention facility in Dashoguz. On August 18, she was convicted on charges of hooliganism and violence against a law enforcement officer, and she was sentenced to four years in prison. On September 2, an appeals court overturned the ruling, gave Rahmanova a suspended three-year sentence, and released her from prison. *^*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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