Presidential palace in Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat (WWM)
Presidential palace in Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat (World Watch Monitor)

Eighteen months after Turkmenistan introduced a law requiring religious communities to re-register with the authorities, only two have done so – other applications have been rejected by the government because of “errors”, reports regional news agency Forum 18.

The two groups – both Protestant – were part of 131 religious organisations that had state registration in the past. The figure of 131 was given by Gylychmyrat Hallyyev, the then Director of the presidential National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, to a UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) hearing on 9 March 2017. The number comprised 107 Muslim, 13 Russian Orthodox and 11 other religious groups.

The law is used by the state to deny legal status to many religious communities, so not officially allowing them to exist, says Forum 18.

Legal status has reportedly been denied to Protestant churches, new Russian Orthodox communities, independent mosques and Jehovah’s Witnesses. An amendment requiring groups with fewer than 50 members to also register was revealed earlier this year, and could have an impact on evangelical Christian communities, as World Watch Monitor reported.

Justice Ministry officials contacted about the re-registration process earlier in October put the phone down when Forum 18 introduced themselves.

State registration does not protect members of religious communities from the secret police, according to Forum 18. Registered and non-registered communities both report surveillance by the country’s Ministry of State Security.

Intimidation of religious communities by agents of the state takes many forms. Protestant and Jehovah’s Witness children have reported intimidation by teachers and police in schools, while sometimes officials bring in Muslim clerics to intimidate non-Muslim children, according to Forum 18. Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses have reported being sacked from state jobs, and a student was expelled from a university just for meeting with Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The 2017 review of religious freedoms in Turkmenistan by The European Centre for Law and Justice concluded that “Turkman law is unduly restrictive of fundamental rights”. The organisation helps the UNHRC by conducting periodic reviews of constitutional laws.  It recommended that Turkmenistan “reform its body of laws in an effort to roll back its restrictions on fundamental rights” and that the country should “guarantee religious freedom as its constitution and international commitments dictate”.