The United States Department of State has added Turkmenistan to its shortlist of especially worrying religious freedom offenders, calling the reclusive Central Asian nation a “Country of Particular Concern” for the first time.
Turkmenistan has never been regarded as shining example of religious tolerance. Some of the country’s heavily monitored mosques are even inscribed with folk wisdom from the “book of the soul,” which was written by the country’s eccentric first president, Saparmurat Niyazov—a pertinent metaphor for the ever-watchful eye the state casts over worshippers.
But according to Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on July 28 at the rollout of the latest annual International Religious Freedom Report, last year Ashgabat plumbed new depths in its persecution of the faithful:
When countries undermine or attack religious freedom, they not only unjustly threaten the people that they target; they also threaten their country’s own stability. That’s why we, today, add Turkmenistan to the list of Countries of Particular Concern. We have seen reports that people in Turkmenistan are detained, beaten, and tortured because of their religious beliefs. The Government of Turkmenistan has passed religious laws that prohibit people from wearing religious attire in public places or that impose fines for distributing religious literature. And the authorities continue to arrest and imprison Jehovah’s Witnesses who are conscientious objectors to military service.
The State Department estimates that around 89 percent of Turkmenistan’s 5.1 million people consider themselves followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, while 9 percent, mostly ethnic Slavs, are Orthodox Christians.
In recent times Turkmen authorities have demonstrated their special dislike of the other 2 percent, mostly small Christian denominations that engage in proselytism.
According to the Turkmenistan section in the State Department report, authorities harass members of small sects such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and fail to intervene when minority religious communities are “ostracized” by their communities. The profile recalls an instance “of religious minorities having their gas and electricity temporarily shut off by community members.” Ethnic Turkmen converts to Protestantism and other Christian denominations are proportionally more likely to suffer scrutiny and harassment from the state than minorities, the chapter notes.
There were reports of beatings, pressure to confess to holding an illegal meeting, searches, raids, seizure of private property, confiscation of religious materials, verbal abuse, heavy fines, arbitrary detention, threats of sexual assault, and torture. These acts most commonly occurred when the government suspected individuals of unauthorized or unregistered religious activity.
Elsewhere in the region, Uzbekistan has found itself deemed a Country of Particular Concern for the eighth consecutive year, while Tajikistan earned a special mention as the only country in the world that continues to set an age minimum (18) on the right to engage in public worship.