Issue 7, Articles 7-8, 13 July 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Thursday 13 July 2000

by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

In a rare conversation with an independent journalist, an official of
Turkmenistan's Council for Religious Affairs (CRA) admitted to Keston News
Service that the council exercises direct control over the hiring, promotion and
sacking of both Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox clergy - despite the fact
that this role is nowhere listed among the CRA's duties in the country's law on
religion. To Keston's knowledge, such detailed government management of
the internal affairs of religious confessions is unparalleled in any other former
Soviet republic. As the Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church are
the only religious groups with official registration in Turkmenistan, this means
that the government controls the appointment of all the country's legally-
permitted clergy.

As a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe,
Turkmenistan is committed to allowing religious groups to appoint their own
personnel. Article 16 of the Concluding Document of the 1989 Vienna
Conference requires states to respect the right of religious communities to
`select, appoint and replace their personnel in accordance with their respective
requirements and standards', the state intervening only in cases of a `freely
accepted arrangement'. It is not clear if the Turkmen government has reached
any kind of agreement with the Sunni Muslim Board or the Russian Orthodox
Church allowing it to take over the role of appointing clergy.

The conversation with the official took place on 11 July in the gleaming, plush
new offices of the Council for Religious Affairs at the Azadi Mosque in
Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat. Over the preceding six months Keston had
made repeated attempts by both telephone and fax to get the Turkmen
authorities to explain the government's policies on religious freedom. The
authorities had consistently responded either by ignoring Keston's questions or
by explicitly refusing to discuss them (see KNS 21 January 2000).

On 11 July, toward the end of a six-day visit to Turkmenistan, the Keston
representative simply called in on the Council for Religious Affairs, introduced
himself as an employee of a British research institute which studies religious
life in the former Soviet Union, presented his visiting card and engaged
MERED CHARIYAROV in conversation. The Keston representative also
asked to meet the CRA's chairman YAGSHYMYRAD ATAMYRADOV and
vice-chairmen MURAD KARRIYEV and Moscow Patriarchate priest
ANDREI SAPUNOV, but was told that they were out of town.

Chariyarov told Keston that he has worked continuously as a staff consultant
for the Council for Religious Affairs for the last 25 years. (This of course
means that for the first half of this period he was working for a structure whose
mission was the suppression of religious belief on behalf of an explicitly atheist
state. He told Keston that he is now a practising Muslim.) The Turkmen CRA
now has eight staff in Ashgabat and three more in various provincial towns, he
said, and continues to maintain informal working ties with its counterparts in
other former Soviet republics.

Asked how he and his colleagues spend their typical working day, Chariyarov
said that their most important task was `personnel questions'. Pressed to clarify
whether that meant that the CRA decided which Muslim clergy to promote or
to sack, he said that it did. He likewise confirmed that this applied to the
clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Chariyarov also confirmed to Keston that the CRA, not just the Ministry of
Justice, is involved in decisions about whether to accept the applications of
bodies such as local church congregations for state registration, in line with
Article 13 of the law on religion. (END)

Thursday 13 July 2000

by Lawrence A. Uzzell, Keston News Service

In the wake of concerted government attempts to crush all religious activity by
Protestant Christian groups in Turkmenistan, an official of the government's
Council for Religious Affairs, MERED CHARIYAROV, confirmed to Keston
News Service on 11 July that Baptists, Adventists and Pentecostal Christians
used to be officially registered in Turkmenistan but that under 1996
amendments to the republic's law on religion they lost their registration because
they lacked the necessary 500 signatures. He said that these groups have now
`ushli' (`gone away'), but `perhaps they are meeting quietly somewhere'.

Asked if the authorities would act to prevent such unregistered bodies from
conducting worship services in private homes, he said No. (This contradicts
numerous accounts Keston has received both from Protestants and from
independent observers, according to which such worship services have
repeatedly been harassed by police raids, threats against individual believers
and other tactics. Keston chooses not to identify these sources more
specifically, since doing so would make them more vulnerable to official

Strikingly, Chariyarov volunteered his opinion that the Baptists, Adventists and
Pentecostals are `peaceful people' whose activities do not threaten the Turkmen
state. He said that some of them had previously wanted to get involved in
opposition politics, but that `we talked with them about this' and that now the
authorities no longer consider it a cause for concern. (END)