Efforts to curtail religious freedom in the reclusive oil-rich state of Turkmenistan continue, with at least seven mosques demolished in 2004 alone, activists told IRIN on Wednesday.
"By destroying mosques - as well as a Christian church and Hare Krishna temples, as was done in the past - the Turkmen government is demonstrating its contempt for the rights of believers of different faiths to maintain their own places of worship where they can pray freely in the way they wish to," Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News Service, an agency covering religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, told IRIN from London on Wednesday.
The destruction of places of worship is hardly new in the former Soviet republic. According to a Forum 18 report, in 2001 the Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the capital, Ashgabat, were closed dowm, leaving both communities with nowhere to worship, while in 1999 the Adventist church in Ashgabat and two Hare Krishna temples were bulldozed.
And though both groups later gained official registration in 2004, neither community has been allowed publicly to worship. Moreover, they received neither compensation for their properties, not were allowed to rebuild, Corley claimed.
Yet in a country said to be 89 percent Muslim, the destruction of mosques only underscores the complete disregard for religious freedom by the government of Turkmen president for life Saparmurat Niyazov, human rights groups believe.
Occurring in two waves, three mosques were demolished at the beginning of 2004, and a further four have been demolished since October, two of which were destroyed on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The three mosques known to have been demolished in the first wave were a Shia mosque used by local ethnic Iranians in the village of Bagyr near Ashgabat, as well as small Sunni mosques in the western town of Serdar (formerly Kyzyl-Arvat) and in the village of Geoktepe, 45 km northwest of Ashgabat.
According to the Forum 18 report, the autumn wave began with the demolition of two mosques in Ashgabat, both of which occurred on 15 October, just a day before the start of Ramadan.
"Turkmenistan's government wants to keep tight control on all institutions in the country, especially those it believes might form a potential source of opposition to the government," Corley maintained. "Religious believers of all faiths are restricted, controlled and monitored closely. Unregistered and independent mosques that don't toe the line can be closed down and even destroyed."
Two private mosques built by Imam Ahmed Orazgylych in a suburb of Ashgabat and in the village of Govki-Zeren near Tedjen in southern Turkmenistan were bulldozed in 2000, he explained, adding that it was possible other mosques had been destroyed in recent years.
Although heavy international pressure on Ashgabat over the past year over its appalling religious freedom record had elicited a few cosmetic changes, these did little to provide true freedom of worship, Corley said. For example, the Adventists regained registration after some seven years, but still cannot meet as a church community for worship in Ashgabat. More international pressure might lead to real change on the ground, he said.
On 22 October 2004, Niyazov, who has ruled Turkmenistan single-handedly since the country gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, inaugurated the Kipchak mosque, reportedly the largest mosque in Central Asia.
Built by the French company Bouygues in Niyazov's hometown of Kipchak in central Turkmenistan, the mosque became a source of contention when not only quotations from the Koran, but also from the Ruhnama (book of soul), a pseudo-spiritual guide to life by Niyazov, were incorporated on its walls.
Many Muslims regard the use of such quotations - and the requirement that copies of Ruhnama be placed in mosques on a par with the Koran, as well as instructions to imams to quote lavishly from the president's work in sermons - as blasphemous.