“It is of particular concern.” US State Department releases report on religious freedom in Turkmenistan in 2021

On June 2, the US State Department released a report on religious freedom around the world, including in Turkmenistan in 2021. The Chronicle of Turkmenistan cites some excerpts from the document.

During the year, the government of Turkmenistan allowed four religious organizations to register: three Muslim and one Christian. They complained that registration was difficult due to excessive bureaucratic procedures.

In May 2021, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pardoned all 16 Jehovah's Witnesses imprisoned for conscientious objection to military service.

Members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids and house searches when attempting to gather for a common worship service. In one case, authorities raided a house where 10 Muslims were praying and said they violated COVID-19 related restrictions. At the same time, people wondered why, when there were mosques and other places of worship closed due to COVID-19, the government, without taking precautions, held a wake for the President's father.

A little over a month ago, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) presented its annual report on the situation with observance of the rights of citizens to freedom of religion in different countries of the world in 2021 . The authors of the report classified Turkmenistan as a country of particular concern, and noted that over the past year, conditions for respect for religious freedom in the country remained among the worst in the world. USCIRF also recommended that the US government keep Turkmenistan as a country of particular concern, limit security support to the country, impose targeted sanctions against those responsible for gross violations of citizens' rights to religious freedom, and call on the government of Turkmenistan to introduce an alternative civilian service.

Section I. Religious demographics

As of mid-2021, the US government estimated the total population of Turkmenistan at 5.6 million. 89% of them are Muslims (mostly Sunnis), 9% are Orthodox and 2% are representatives of other religions. There are small communities of Jehovah's Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha'is, Catholics, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.

There are small groups of Shiite Muslims, consisting mainly of ethnic Iranians, Azerbaijanis and Kurds, some of whom live in Ashgabat and others along the border with Iran and in the city of Turkmenbashi.

In addition, according to the Israeli embassy, about 200 Jews live in the country.

Section II . Status of State Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, there are 133 religious organizations in the country representing Muslim, Christian and other religious groups; the majority (104) are Sunni Muslims and five are Shia Muslims.

Religious groups continued to report government restrictions on the importation of and access to religious literature. According to the Turkmen government, as of November 11, 240 copies of religious literature of various denominations had been imported into the country.

Members of various religious groups reported that the government and government-affiliated businesses tried to prevent the purchase or long-term lease of land and buildings for meetings.

The government continued the practice of denying visas to foreigners who wanted to engage in missionary work. Due to the closure of borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only one well-known foreign religious figure, an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been allowed entry into the country since 2020.

Most of the religious figures noted that, in general, relations with the authorities have remained unchanged over the past year.

Section III . Status of public respect for religious freedom

Representatives of religious minorities stated that persons who are not Sunni Muslims or Orthodox Russians are publicly stigmatized by their families, friends and neighbors and are afraid to speak freely about their faith in order to avoid being ostracized and attacked.

Section IV . US government policy and involvement

In meetings and in official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, representatives of the diplomatic mission and other US government officials have expressed concerns about religious freedom issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the possibility of registering religious groups, restrictions on the import of religious literature, and others. factors that contributed to the designation of Turkmenistan as a country of particular concern.

In April 2021, eight religious minority groups discussed religious freedom issues with the US Ambassador, members of the diplomatic mission and senior members of the diplomatic corps. Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other diplomats visited places of worship for religious minorities, including a Christian Orthodox church, a Baha'i temple and a Sunni mosque, to express support for these communities and provide an opportunity to discuss the religious situation.

Recall that in November 2021, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken again included Turkmenistan in the list of 10 countries of particular concern due to the fact that they "systematically and flagrantly violate religious freedoms." The same status was assigned to the country in 2020 and 2019 .

Source: Chronicles of Turkmenistan