Government Eases Restrictions on Religious Freedom; Minority Religions Still Uneasy

July 23, 2004

Source: The Journal Gazette

Wire Service: AP

On July 23, 2004 the Associated Press reported, " 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...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."