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.