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Concern over religious freedom continues

Concern over the state of religious freedom in Turkmenistan persisted on Tuesday after a recent US State Department report failed to designate the reclusive Central Asian state a country of particular concern (CPC), much to the chagrin of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF). "The State Department's own records have consistently concluded that religious freedom conditions continue to deteriorate in Turkmenistan, a highly repressive country whose leader is currently imposing a state religion based on his own personality cult," USCIRF chair Preeta Bansal told IRIN from Washington. According to the USCIRF's annual report issued in May, the former Soviet state was among the most repressive states in the world, engaging in particularly severe and ongoing violations of freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. "The commission continues to recommend that the Secretary of State [Colin Powell] designate Turkmenistan as a 'country of particular concern', or CPC," the report read, noting that there had been no evidence that the situation for religious freedom had improved over the past year. Despite that call, however, the US State Department, in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2004 released last week, opted to use the threat of CPC designation as a stick to promote reform on the issue instead. But while Washington has long favoured the CPC label as a tool to improve individual states' behaviour, with less emphasis on retrospective condemnation, that strategy has had mixed results. "As you can see with the difference in opinion between the USCIRF and the State Department over Turkmenistan's poor human rights record on religious freedom, debate is lively," 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, noting that much of the report's main conclusions seemed buried in the mass of detail. "There are plenty of examples of religious freedom violations and some explanation of why they occur, but conclusions tend to be buried," Corley stressed. Although the constitution provided for freedom of religion, in practice the government did not protect these rights, the report pointedly said. But the 15 September report perhaps also reflected a bureaucrat's fondness for accepting promises by officials of other governments at face value, Corley suggested. Until recently, only two religions, Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, were officially recognised by the state, but they too faced close government scrutiny. And while much importance had been placed on the fact that minority religious communities could now register once again, Corley noted that the Adventist, Baptist (in Ashgabat at least), Baha'i and Hare Krishna communities could still not meet for open public worship despite having official registration (or in the case of the Baptists, semi-registration: their registration has not yet been completed). Nor had other minority faiths gained registration, he explained, emphasising: "The Turkmen government has not abandoned its desire to control, restrict and, if necessary, suppress religious practice." Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project in Budapest, agreed. Ashgabat had avoided CPC designation largely by offering a series of symbolic gestures, including the release of several prisoners of conscience - specifically six Jehovah's witnesses - earlier this year, who were believed to have been arrested as punishment for the right to express their religion. Additionally, the government had registered several minority religions and there had been certain changes to the law on religion also intended to reflect a more tolerate attitude towards freedom of religion. "It's really been a pattern of mollification," Dailey maintained. Such sentiment is not without justification. On 26 May, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Helsinki Federation, urged Washington to designate Turkmenistan a CPC country under the International Religious Freedom Act. While welcoming the de jure loosening of previously imposed restrictions on registering religious communities stipulated in the presidential decrees of 11 March, the 24 March amendments to the law on religion, and the legislative and administrative orders of 13 May, the eight-member group felt that implementation of these progressive legislative and administrative measures had yet to be tested, unregistered religious activity remained illegal, and other serious violations persisted. The government of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov had an appalling human rights record that sought to control religious belief and practice, the coalition said, noting that Ashgabat continued to favour dominant religions (Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodoxy) to the exclusion of minority religions; it neglected, discriminated against and persecuted minority and non-approved religions; and it had adopted discriminatory legislation that disadvantaged them. As for a solution, Dailey said Washington must use existing leverage, including sanctions, much more rigorously, as it was squandering an opportunity to secure and really sustain meaningful reform by setting the benchmarks as low as simply registering groups. "In Turkmenistan, registration is largely another tool for manipulation by the state," she said.
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