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Turkmen, Uzbek Faith Groups Still Under Pressure

The state of religious freedoms in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remains as poor as ever, with both governments suspicious of Muslim and non-Muslim faith groups alike.

At a White House meeting on July 14 dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the United States' International Religious Freedom Act, President George Bush noted positive steps taken by the Turkmen authorities in this regard, in particular by releasing the country's former chief Muslim cleric, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah. President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov ordered Ibadullah's release last year.

President Bush cited Uzbekistan as being of particular concern when it came to the rights to religious believers.

Formal legislation in both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan guarantee freedom of confession, but in practice the right is surrounded by restrictive regulations.

Islam is the official religion in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, while Russian Orthodox Christianity is the other mainstream confession.

Turkmenistan, members of smaller faith groups – mostly Protestant groups and the Bahai community – operate on the fringes of legality or underground, and are subject to harassment by the security service. Jehovah's Witnesses are also subjected to arrest and imprisonement in Turkmenistan for refusing to do military service.

Faith communities find it hard to win legal recognition by registering with the authorities. By law they have to have at least 500 members in any one location – and as a commentator in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat explained, unregistered groups are banned from holding public meetings.

"Members of various confessions suffer severe psychological tension caused by the constant threat of repression," he said.

Since 2006, tougher rules have applied, and faith groups have to get permission from their local council as well as the justice ministry in order to operate. Non-Muslim groups also have to hand over one-fifth of the donations get to the local council and the State Committee for Religion.

In neighbouring Uzbekistan, the authorities also persecute believers, mainly concentrating on Muslims whom they identify as extremists or as participants in anti-state plots, and who are liable to be tortured and given long prison terms. Some local human rights activists estimate there are about 8,000 people serving jail sentences because of their faith.

The offence of importing, possessing or distributing religious literature is punishable by up to three years in prison.

As well as Muslims, other faith groups are also targeted in Uzbekistan. In April, a group of Seventh Day Adventists Syr Darya region were convicted and fined, and a year earlier Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov was given four years in prison.

"Religious minorities cannot feel safe in Uzbekistan," said Umida Niazova, a human rights expert.

According to one group, Civil Society in Uzbekistan, the information bulletin, several foreign groups have been closed down since 2005 after being accused of proselytising. They include three American and two Korean NGOs, an evangelical groups and a Protestant church. Fourteen staff members of the United States group Partnership in Academics and Development were expelled from the country for missionary work.

Political analyst Tashpulat Yoldashev notes a trend towards persecuting clergymen. In the last eight months, he says, about 30 imams or mosque prayer leaders have been given prison terms.

"The government believes all religious sermons amount to veiled criticism of the authorities," said Yoldashev said. "Anyone who actively preaches conservative, traditional values is going to end up in jail."

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)

Source: IWPR