Turkmenistan is among the most totalitarian states in the world today and engages in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. It has been ruled since 1985 by former Communist Party First Secretary and now-President Saparmurat Niyazov, who, after the country gained independence, systematically began to assume complete control through an aggressive cult of personality. Niyazov's all-pervasive authoritarian rule has effectively prevented any form of opposition from operating within the country. Religious freedom is severely proscribed in Turkmenistan and there is no evidence that the situation has improved in the past year. In fact, the overall human rights situation has deteriorated significantly since November 2002, when, after an alleged assassination attempt, Niyazov began arresting hundreds of relatives and associates of leading opposition figures. Many have been sentenced to as many as 25 years in prison after what have been characterized as Stalinist-type show trials.

President Niyazov has promoted a state-controlled version of Islam as part of Turkmen identity, and his monopoly of power and absolute control over Turkmen society renders independent religious activity, either Christian or Muslim, a potential threat to that control. Since independence, religious groups have been required to register with the government in order to engage in religious activities. A 1997 version of the religion law effectively banned all religious groups but the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church, though religious worship, instruction, or education outside of the officially approved structures even for these two religions is not allowed. Indeed, anyone acting outside the rigid state structure would be considered in opposition and would be treated as harshly as all other political opposition figures. All but one madrassa, or Islamic school, have been closed down by Niyazov. Imams have been instructed by the government to repeat an oath of loyalty to the "fatherland" and the President after each daily prayer. Niyazov has strengthened his personality cult with the publication of his three-volume work, Ruhnama, containing his "spiritual thoughts," which is required reading for all schoolchildren. Opposition on religious grounds to the reverence demanded by the Turkmen leader is considered a grave affront to his power.

The 1997 version of the religion law made it all but impossible for religious minorities to register and function legally. Turkmen security forces routinely interrogate and intimidate believers, especially those attempting to fulfill the registration requirement. Members of unregistered religious communities – including Baha'is, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's Witnesses, Muslims operating independently of the Sunni Muslim Board, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists – have reportedly been arrested, detained, with allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, imprisoned, deported, harassed, fined, and have had their services disrupted, congregations dispersed, religious literature confiscated, and places of worship destroyed. In May 2002, a group of Christians in Turkmenistan were forced to renounce their faith publicly, swearing an oath on a copy of Ruhnama. Baptist leaders who do not have Turkmen citizenship, regardless of their legal status in Turkmenistan, are routinely deported to Russia or Ukraine, together with their families and congregants. Security officials regularly break up religious meetings in private homes, perform searches of homes without warrants, confiscate religious literature, and detain and threaten congregants with criminal prosecution and deportation. Even family members of detained religious leaders have been subjected to harassment and internal exile.


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