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Scepticism And Optimism: Greet Turkmenistan Decree

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  • Scepticism And Optimism: Greet Turkmenistan Decree

    Maranatha Christian Journal
    March 22 2004

    Scepticism And Optimism
    Greet Turkmenistan Decree

    ( F18News) -- Despite a surprise 11 March decree from Turkmenistan
    President Saparmurat Niyazov lifting the requirement that a religious
    community must have 500 adult citizen members before it can register,
    officials have insisted that unregistered religious activity remains

    Religious believers of the many illegal faiths - including all
    Protestant, Armenian Apostolic, Shia Muslim, Jewish, Hare Krishna,
    Baha'i and Jehovah's Witness communities - have been taken by
    surprise by an March 11 decree from Turkmenistan's authoritarian
    president Saparmurat Niyazov allowing religious communities to gain
    official registration regardless of how many members they have or
    what faith they belong to.

    Some have told Forum 18 News Service they are optimistic that
    conditions will improve, though others - especially from groups that
    have regularly suffered fines, beatings and threats - are sceptical.
    Under the country's harsh religion law, communities have previously
    needed five hundred adult citizen members (a requirement almost
    impossible for religious minorities to achieve), while since last
    November unregistered religious activity has been a crime. The new
    decree makes no mention of decriminalising unregistered religious

    Bibi Agina, an official of the department that registers social
    organisations at the Adalat (Justice) Ministry, told Forum 18 that
    the decree does not mean that unregistered religious communities can
    start to meet freely in private homes. "As before, religious
    communities can only function after they get registration," she told
    Forum 18 from Ashgabad on 12 March. "The decree simply gives
    religious communities like the Baptists and others the possibility to
    work legally."

    Officials at the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious
    Affairs were, as usual, reluctant to talk, putting down the phone
    when Forum 18 telephoned. Eventually Forum 18 managed to speak to
    Mukhamed (who refused to give his last name), an aide to the deputy
    chairman Murad Karriyev, who said the same as Agina that the decree
    does not entitle unregistered religious communities to begin to
    function. "They still need registration," he insisted to Forum 18.

    Radik Zakirov, a Protestant from Ashgabad, said his community is not
    preparing to register under the new decree. But he believed it might
    mark a change of policy. "The authorities have tried up till now to
    use repressive measures and have understood this is unsuccessful," he
    told Forum 18 on March 12. "They seem now to be trying to bring
    religious communities under state control - perhaps a cleverer

    One immediate welcome for the decree came from Armenia's Ambassador
    to Turkmenistan, Aram Grigorian, who has been seeking the return to
    the local Armenian community of their church in the Caspian port city
    of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk), which was confiscated during
    the Soviet period. "This is a very progressive decree," he told Forum
    18 from Ashgabad on March 12. "We will try to make use of it."

    The government has not allowed any Armenian Apostolic churches to
    reopen or open in Turkmenistan and, if they wish to attend services,
    Armenian Apostolic believers are forced to go to the only legal
    Christian denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church, although the
    Armenian Church is of the Oriental family of Christian Churches, not
    the Orthodox.

    Vasili Kalin, chairman of the ruling council of the Jehovah's
    Witnesses in Russia, who maintains close ties with fellow believers
    in Turkmenistan, was cautiously optimistic over what he regarded as
    perhaps the start of a process of improvement. "We welcome the
    guarantees of freedom of religion and registration in the decree," he
    told Forum 18 from St Petersburg on 12 March, "but experience teaches
    us to look at what happens in practice." Anatoly Melnik, a Jehovah's
    Witness leader from Kazakhstan with contacts in Turkmenistan, was
    more pessimistic over whether the decree will improve life for their
    communities, believing the decree might be simply a "propaganda

    Kalin said their communities in Turkmenistan are ready to register,
    but pointed out that several Jehovah's Witnesses remain in prison for
    their faith. "It would be a good gesture that Turkmenistan is ready
    to abide by its international human rights commitments if these
    innocent people would be freed. We hope to see that soon." He said
    the new decree might be a signal that Turkmenistan is changing "just
    as in the Soviet Union when the situation changed". He pointed out
    that moving from illegality in the Soviet Union to a position where
    Jehovah's Witnesses could register their communities took time.

    One Protestant, whose church has had numerous problems from the
    authorities and has to meet in secret to try to evade state control,
    was sceptical about whether the decree would make a lot of
    difference. "We know about the decree," the Protestant - who
    preferred not to be identified - told Forum 18. "But are we
    optimistic? Not so much."

    A Christian representative outside Turkmenistan with close links in
    the country told Forum 18 that "if the decree becomes a reality, it
    will be good". The representative noted that without registration the
    church has faced a number of problems, including the impossibility of
    acquiring property for services.

    Most sceptical were leaders of unregistered Protestant churches.
    Viktor Makrousov of the Pentecostal church (who had not yet seen the
    decree) and Vladimir Tolmachev of Greater Grace both separately
    believed the situation is unlikely to improve on the ground. "Our
    main problem has not been the 500 signatures required for
    registration - we could achieve that," Tolmachev told Forum 18 from
    Ashgabad on March 12. "The problem is that people signing the
    registration application would get problems - they would be sacked
    from their work, especially those who are ethnic Turkmens. It is a
    problem of people's safety."

    Niyazov's decree, reported on state television on 11 March and
    published in Russian on the pro-government website,
    claims that the country "carries out fully" its commitments under the
    Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on
    Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on the Elimination of
    All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or
    Belief "while securing the harmony of the religious confessions
    functioning in Turkmenistan". In reality, the government has
    flagrantly violated these international commitments amid the heaviest
    controls on religious life of all the former Soviet republics.

    The decree sets out three provisions:

    "1. To secure the registration on the territory of Turkmenistan of
    religious organisations and groups in accordance with
    generally-accepted international norms and procedures.

    "2. To register on the territory of Turkmenistan according to
    established procedure religious groups of citizens independently of
    their number, faith and religion.

    "3. The Adalat Ministry of Turkmenistan is to put into effect the
    current decree from the day of its publication."

    The decree was published at the same time as a decree ordering the
    lifting of exit controls on Turkmenistan's citizens. Both this and
    the denial of religious freedom have been heavily criticised by
    foreign governments and human rights activists. Religious believers
    within the country are generally too frightened to speak out openly
    against the restrictions on their religious activity.