Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov during a 2015 visit to Afghanistan. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It’s been over a year since the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan added further restrictions to its Religion Law, but the changes were introduced in such secrecy that few knew about them until well after the event.

It wasn’t until January this year that regional news agency Forum 18 shed some light on the changes, which will mostly affect smaller religious denominations, such as Evangelical churches.

The most significant change is the need for all religious groups to re-register by providing the full names, addresses and dates of birth of at least 50 members. (It used to be five.)

Rolf Zeegers, regional analyst for the charity Open Doors, says that although the requirement for churches to register is “nothing new”, some churches will find it “as good as impossible” to find 50 signatories.

“There will be churches that will find it as good as impossible to produce 50 people willing to openly support the religious community. This will immediately put them on the radar of the authorities and will undoubtedly result in surveillance by the secret police.”

–Rolf Zeegers, Open Doors

“Practically all countries in Central Asia require registration with the authorities before religious communities can function,” he says. “All unregistered communities are strictly illegal.”

However, he adds: “This doesn’t mean they don’t exist: all over Central Asia there are secret house churches. If the authorities learn about them, they will be raided, while those present will be interrogated, detained (for a short period) and fined.

“What is new for Turkmenistan is the obligation for religious communities already registered to apply again, but now under much more difficult stipulations. There will be churches (especially the smaller ones) that will find it as good as impossible to produce 50 people willing to openly support the religious community. This will immediately put them on the radar of the authorities and will undoubtedly result in surveillance by the secret police.”

According to official government figures from November 2016, Turkmenistan has 19 registered churches – 13 Russian Orthodox and one each from the Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Greater Grace, Seventh-Day Adventist and New Apostolic denominations. (There are 106 registered Muslim groups – 101 Sunni and five Shia).

Turkmenistan’s President meets the Armenian Apostolic Church leader, Catholicos Garegin II, during a visit to Armenia in 2012. (Photo: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP/ Getty Images)

The new law was officially introduced on 12 April 2016, after the President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, said there was a need to introduce legislation to combat a global rise in terrorism and religious extremism. The draft of the law had been unanimously adopted, in secret, two weeks earlier.

According to Forum 18, the Turkmen government “totally ignored” the recommendations of a detailed 2010 OSCE legal review of the previous Religion Law. OSCE had called for many changes to bring the law into line with international human rights standards and obligations, including an end to state control, the ban on unregistered religious activity, and the ban on conscientious objection to military service.

“The introduction of the new Religion Law was achieved in secrecy, but now the details have become available to the world,” says Open Doors’ Zeegers. “What we see is that the government is by no means relaxing its grip on society. Despite being urged to implement improvements to its legislation by the OSCE and others, the government has begged to differ. Instead, it seems that the Turkmen government has decided to tighten the screws.”

He says Turkmenistan is following the example of its neighbour on the other side of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, which insists that all churches apply for new registration every seven or eight years.

“A much more restrictive law was passed that follows the example set by Azerbaijan and that has enabled the government there to bring down the number of registered religious communities,” says Zeegers. “There is no doubt that the Turkmen government has exactly the same goal in mind: fewer and fewer registered communities. It can hardly be coincidence that each time fewer churches manage to get the new registration. During the latest cycle, all churches and religious groups were required to renew their registration by 1 January 2010, but since that date no new churches have been able to register.”

As Forum 18 noted, Azerbaijan’s re-registration process has “almost ground to a halt, leaving many re-registration applications unanswered. Some religious communities have found that compulsory re-registration has meant de-registration. For example, the Baptist Union had 10 registered congregations in 1992. After compulsory re-registration in 1994 it was six. After compulsory re-registration in 1999 it was two. By 2009 – before the latest round of compulsory re-registration – the Union had been able to register three congregations, in Baku, Sumgait and Gyanja. Now it has no registered congregations, as all seven congregations which lodged applications – which they have repeatedly done – have received rejections.”

Zeegers concludes: “For Christians in Turkmenistan the situation will become even more problematic than it already is now. More and more of them won’t be able to go to openly registered, official, churches. And when they go to unregistered churches, they will have to count on possible dire consequences.