Turkmenistan Religions and Religious Freedom
About 90 to 95% of the Turkmenistan population are Muslims of Sunni faith. In addition, around 1.5 to 8% of the country’s population belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Places of worship can be found mainly in cities with a larger Russian minority (Ashgabat, Mary, Turkmenbashi).
According to a recent report, Turkmenistan is one of the most restrictive states in the world on religious freedom. Since the early 2000’s, members of the Orthodox Church have been increasingly exposed to reprisals and brutal suppression of various kinds and are less and less able to live their faith openly. A few years ago, Catholic Christianity was registered as the third religion. A small minority of Catholic Christians (less than 0.001% of the total population) live in Ashgabat, where there is also a small chapel. Since 2016 all religious communities in Turkmenistan are obliged to re-register regardless of any previous registrations. For this purpose, at least 50 natural persons must contact the state, providing personal data and requesting registration of their religious community. What proves to be a challenge here is that the very desire (regardless of the success of the registration) can lead to reprisals. Furthermore, even in the case of successful registration, members of religious communities are obliged to have all religious acts in which more than two people of the same religion participate individually approved. Accordingly, baptisms, church services, joint prayers, weddings or funerals are also subject to approval.
In principle, every religious activity is subject to the supervision of the Gengesh – a state-controlled religious supervisory authority. Two traditional Islamic festivals (Oraza Bairam – breaking the fast and Kurban Bairam – festival of sacrifice) have been declared Turkmenistan national holidays and are described as an opportunity to rediscover national culture and customs.
Since the successful registration is the prerequisite for the legal practice of a religion, all other religions are in fact prohibited. Open confession is punished, meetings are dissolved by the state authority and the participants have to expect long prison sentences. An Adventist church, a Baptist church, two Hare Krishna temples and seven Shiite mosques were ransacked and destroyed to prevent meetings. The last Shiite imam was forced to leave the country back in 2005.
However, the gathering of members of registered religious communities is also problematic if this gathering has not been approved in advance by all competent government agencies. For example, in autumn 2010 the pastor of a Christian community was sentenced to four years in a psychiatric clinic after having previously held an inadequately registered Christian youth camp. At the beginning of 2012 the convict was released early.
According to nexticle, the OSCE, the US government, the UNHCR and the Open Society Foundation name the greatest challenges for religious freedom in Turkmenistan in particular:
– Adopt laws that conflict with international human rights obligations
– The prohibition of any form of religious practice without government approval
– The arbitrary withdrawal of the recognition of religious communities
– Recruiting computer networks within faith communities
– Legally justified and unfounded restrictions, also against state-recognized religious communities
– The lack of fair trials and judicial decisions
– The torture of people who exercise their human right to freedom of religion, the torture of imprisoned for exercising their human right to freedom of conscience, the torture of relatives of those tortured who complain to the UN Human Rights Committee about the torture of their relatives.
– The detention of people for exercising their human right to freedom of religion and / or conscience
– Refusal to give detainees access to places of worship for the purpose of worship, including torture of Muslims who express such a wish while in detention
– The punishment of conscientious objectors to conscientious objection, including the complete denial of even the possibility of a conscientious decision
– State control of all religious leaders and communities, including state designation of all Islamic religious leaders
– The state’s drive to convert all non-Muslims to Islam, including many pressures against non-Muslims
– The numerous restrictions on religious education, including prohibiting women from studying in theological schools
– The arbitrary destruction of numerous mosques and other places of prayer and other measures to make it difficult for believers to find a common place to pray
– The state-imposed restriction on the number of Hajj pilgrims
– The maintenance of blacklists of the travel ban for members of religious communities
– The harassment of students who have exercised their human right to practice religion abroad
– The almost complete ban on contact with members of the same religious community abroad
– The censorship of religious literature
According to the number of seats in the aircraft, minus the attendants sent along, the government grants a maximum of 188 Turkmenistan pilgrimages to Mecca each year. In accordance with the much larger number of Turkmens ready to go on pilgrimage, the waiting time for permission to do Hajj in Turkmenistan is currently around 11 years, although permission to travel is only permitted after a careful pre-selection by the government. In a few years the Hajj will remain banned. Alternatively, the government then organizes pilgrimages within Turkmenistan which she describes as a complete substitute for the Hajj. Historical shrines and important sites of Turkmenistan history are visited as well as various examples of the successes of the current government policy in the form of modern kindergartens or sanatoriums. The destruction of places of worship continues. According to non-verifiable information, by 2016 around 50% of the country’s mosques built to date had been destroyed.
Throughout the country under President Niyazov and President Berdimuhamedow numerous, sometimes extremely magnificent, new mosques were built. The most important mosque built under President Niyazov is the Turkmenbashi Memorial Mosque not far from his place of birth. This is also the largest mosque in Central Asia. The mausoleum of the Niyazov family is in the immediate vicinity. The interior of the mosque is magnificently decorated with quotations from the book Rukhnama, which he wrote (see pictures below). Excerpts from the book can also be found on the minarets. In contrast, the Koran is only of secondary importance here. The value that President Niyazov gave the Koran in relation to his book is particularly clear at the monumental entrance gate. It says: “The Rukhnama is the holy book.
To a certain extent, the Turkmenistan government approves individual forms of openly practiced religiosity, as long as this is not based on a structured organization. In particular, the pilgrimage sites throughout the country are enjoying great and growing popularity. According to popular belief, magical (healing, fertility-promoting, wish-supporting etc.) effective places are sought here for prayers. Depending on the content of the prayer (desire for children, income, house building, house blessing, etc.), small prayer memories are left in the vicinity of particularly effective places (see photos). After decades of suppression of all religiosity, Islamic rituals, natural religious traditions and elements of Manichaeism, Nestorianism and partly also Zoroastrianism merged into completely new forms of belief. Such pilgrimage destinations can be foundacross the country. Some particularly impressive examples include:
- Anau (immediately east of Ashgabat).
- Ak Ishan.
- Malik Baba.
- Parau Bibi.
- the Mausoleum Nejmeddin Kubras.
- Kyrk Molla (as well as the aforementioned mausoleum in Konye Urganch).
- Ismamut Ata.
- the cave of Kyrk Gyz.
- the mausoleum of Mohammed Ibn Said.