ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan – Pastor Pavel Fedotov was in church leading services when the bulldozers and wrecking balls showed up. Over the next week, they razed his house of worship as part of the authoritarian Turkmen government’s crackdown on minority religions.
That was November 1999. Now, Fedotov’s small group of Seventh-day Adventists has become the first organization registered under relaxed religious restrictions in this majority Muslim nation. But Fedotov is still treading carefully, unsure whether his 70 congregants finally will be able to practice their faith freely.
“We prayed for this,” Fedotov said of his registration certificate, issued May 31. But “it’s only paper. … We hope that the situation will continue to get better.”
President Saparmurat Niyazov made the changes to religion laws this year in response to strong international pressure, including the threat of possible sanctions from the United States, which has made religious freedom one of its main concerns in Turkmenistan. Despite the positive steps, however, groups have said official harassment continues, and they are testing their new freedoms with trepidation.
Religious groups were previously required to have at least 500 members before they could register, and in practice, only Muslims and Orthodox Christians were able to get official recognition. Unregistered religious activity in this nation of 4.9 million people was punished as a criminal offense.
Under presidential decrees announced in March, after a visit by a senior U.S. diplomat, the minimum membership for registration was dropped to five people. A later decree removed criminal penalties for unregistered activity, but it can still be punished with fines.
A western ambassador in Ashgabat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the easing of human rights restrictions reflected Niyazov’s attempt this year to cultivate better ties with the West.
“They’ve made a serious effort in the last months (but) they still have a long way to go to meet their international human rights obligations,” the diplomat said.
Turkmenistan is rich in natural gas and the planned starting point for a pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan, a project strongly supported by Washington that aims to bring stability to the tense region and lure outside investment. Officially neutral, the country has offered U.S. forces airspace and landing rights for its operations in Afghanistan.
Viktor Mokrousov, a Pentecostal pastor, suggested pressure against minority religions wouldn’t ease significantly because its source was unchanged: Niyazov’s fear of any opposition in the country he has ruled with an iron hand since 1985, when it was still a Soviet republic.
“For him, everyone is an enemy,” Mokrousov said.
There is much evidence of continuing pressure on religious bodies. Before he received registration, the Adventists’ Fedotov said the Justice Ministry had him edit his group’s charter to state he would seek official approval for any literature he wants to import, and for invitations to foreigners, among other restrictions.
Fedotov and other minority religious leaders said police had summoned them in June to the department that normally deals with organized crime and terrorism. Officers asked them to provide names, contact information and photographs of their members and write a statement outlining the goals of their groups.
Andrei Zhbanov, a leader of the Jehovah’s Witness community in Ashgabat, said he refused to provide any information.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs prevent them from serving in the military, which has led to them facing some of the harshest harassment. Six who had been jailed for not participating in the country’s mandatory draft were freed in June, but another two remain in prison and London-based Amnesty International has expressed concern they face risk of mistreatment.
“Why should we run to register when nothing has changed?” Zhbanov asked.
Other groups in Turkmenistan include Baha’i, Baptists and Hare Krishnas – who have also received registration – while other minority religions include Roman Catholics, Lutherans and other Protestant groups.
Even Turkmenistan’s recognized religions are heavily restricted, and the heads of the Muslim and Orthodox Christian communities are government bureaucrats. More than 90 percent of the country is Muslim, with most of the rest Orthodox Christian and only about 2 percent from minority faiths.
Niyazov, himself a Muslim, has pushed to have a book he wrote on Turkmen history and culture assume a cultural place alongside the Quran, harnessing religion to fuel his cult of personality. At a new mosque being built in Niyazov’s home village of Kipchak, citations from “Rukhnama,” or “Book of the Soul,” are being engraved on the minarets alongside quotations from the Quran.