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Banned Baptists highlight lack of religious freedom

Observers and journalists expressed concern over the lack of religious freedom in Turkmenistan on Thursday, following reports that the Turkmen police have banned members of a Baptist congregation in the western town of Balkanabad from gathering to practice their faith. The groups said they had been threatened that if they did so they would be fined for each meeting. In Turkmenistan, the most reclusive Central Asian nation, only followers of officially-sanctioned Islam and the Orthodox Christian church are allowed to openly worship. "The situation there [in Turkmenistan] is very much connected with the issue of ethnic discrimination as there are only two religions that are formally allowed to function inside Turkmenistan," Erica Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project, told IRIN from the Hungarian capital Budapest on Thursday. "Basically the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan is the worst of all the former Soviet republics," 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. He added that the Turkmen government treated all religious faiths except state-sanctioned Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church as illegal. This included the Armenian Apostolic Church, Muslims who were outside the framework of the government-approved Muslim boards, Baptists, Adventists, the Hare Krishna community, Bahais, Jews, Lutherans, in fact any group or individual who was functioning without state registration was regarded as functioning illegally. "Turkmenistan has one of the highest threshold of any country in registering religious communities," Corley maintained, adding that according to Turkmen law one needed 500 adult citizen members living together in the same city or region in the country to register a religious community, which was almost impossible. Believers of many faiths in Turkmenistan, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants and some others, had been expelled from their jobs, they had been fined, beaten, detained and some of them were even sent to internal exile, Corley noted, adding that places used for religious worship had been confiscated or bulldozed, including an Adventist church, a Hare Krishna temple and even a mosque that was built without state permission. He went on to say that making it illegal to practice any faith other than Islam or Orthodox Christianity violated all of Turkmenistan's international human rights commitments. "The worst forms of harassment are happening at the local level by local authorities," Dailey said, pointing out that it was not necessarily implementation coming from above. She added that the prevailing atmosphere in Turkmenistan was one of suspicion of many things foreign. This meant that religious groups considered as sects were seen as something alien to "authentic" Turkmen culture, and as such they were often treated with hostility. Campaigners for religious rights in Central Asia told IRIN they want the international community to press Ashgabat to recognise the right of the Turkmen people to adhere to any religion they choose.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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