TURKMENISTAN: Chief Mufti Refuses to Discuss Presidential Madrassah Closures.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 21 January 2002

Turkmenistan's chief mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, has resolutely declined to discuss President Saparmurat Niyazov's public admission that he ordered the mass closure of madrassahs (Islamic schools) and his insistence that there will be only one madrassah with a maximum of 20 students for the entire country. Keston News Service managed to reach Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah by telephone on 17 January, but as soon as he found out why Keston was calling he immediately said that he had "absolutely no time". Pressed by Keston, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah advised phoning Murad Karriyev, the deputy chairman of the Gengeshi (council) for religious affairs, which is responsible to the president. However, Karriyev told Keston from Ashgabad by telephone the same day that "any comment on such matters" was the prerogative of the chief mufti. "There is complete religious freedom in Turkmenistan," Karriyev insisted. "There are 368 mosques functioning here. A theological faculty has opened at the Turkmen University and also a theological lycee."

Turkmenistan currently has no functioning educational institution to train mullahs, despite the fact that the majority of the country's 4.7 million population is of Muslim background. The theological faculty at the Turkmen university trains only secular scholars.

President Niyazov made his remarks in a speech on 12 January in the fortress of Geokdepe on the outskirts of Ashgabad at a ceremony to commemorate those who fought for Turkmenistan's independence. In his address, broadcast on channel 1 of Turkmen television the same day, Niyazov spoke in particular about state policy on religion. "Concerning religion, I must note that in many areas we have closed down the religious madrassahs. This was the right decision because any random person started to teach religion in his own way and according to his own ideas," Niyazov declared. "We plan to set up just one madrassah to train village clergymen. The religious school will function at the Artogrul Gazy mosque [in Ashgabad] and at Geokdepe mosque. It will have some 15-20 students with a two-year course. One year will be spent at the Geokdepe mosque and the next year at the Artogrul Gazy mosque. The student body should not exceed 20."

Niyazov's public admission that the state intervenes in believers' affairs - by no means the first time he has admitted as much - comes despite the country's constitution, which declares that religion is separate from the state.

Although neither the chief mufti nor officials of the Gengeshi for religious affairs were prepared to explain what justified the president's unconstitutional interference in Islamic education, the press officer at the Turkmen embassy in Russia, Grigori Kolodin, proved more forthcoming. "Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan, is battling against religious ignorance," he told Keston by telephone from Moscow on 17 January. "Frequently people have preached in the mosques who lack elementary religious education. It is both right and logical to close down such mosques. This is not the first time that the Turkmen authorities have taken measures in the battle against religious ignorance. In 2000, Saparmurat Niyazov ordered the Gengeshi for religious affairs to check the level of theological preparation of the imam-hatybs at the mosques and to dismiss those who were professionally unfit."

"Of course, the fact that the Turkmen president is closing mosques is an infringement of believers' right," Bess Brown, an official of the mission in Ashgabad of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told Keston by telephone on 17 January. "I don't think there is anything unusual about Niyazov's speech at Geokdepe. Niyazov has never previously hidden the fact that he intervenes in believers' affairs." (END).