The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is calling on the Secretary of State to designate Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern," for the severe, systematic, and ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief carried out by their governments.
Last September in its Annual Review, the State Department, following the Commission's recommendation, added Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Eritrea to its list of "countries of particular concern," or CPCs, but notably omitted Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. However, according to the USCIRF, Turkmenistan is among the most repressive states in the world today and allows virtually no independent religious activity. In addition, the Commission claims that government of Uzbekistan places strict restrictions on religious practice and continues to crack down harshly on individuals and groups that operate outside of government strictures.
"It is time for the U.S. government to tell the truth about the state of religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and designate these countries as CPCs, as is clearly warranted," said Commission Chair Michael Cromartie, according to a statement released by the USCIRF on Monday. "In the face of the religious freedom violations persistently perpetrated by the Turkmen and Uzbek governments, the failure to name them CPCs is not only unconscionable, but it violates the spirit and letter of the International Religious Freedom Act," Cromartie said.
Since 2001, the Commission has recommended that Turkmenistan be designated a CPC. In addition to the severe government restrictions on religious practice that effectively ban much, if not most, religious activity, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's ever-escalating personality cult has become a quasi-religion to which the Turkmen population is forced to adhere, the Commission claimed. His self-published work of "spiritual thoughts," called "Rukhnama," is required reading in all schools. In addition, copies of Rukhnama must be given equal prominence to the Koran and the Bible in mosques and churches, according to the USCIRF.
In the past year, in a move likely aimed at avoiding possible CPC designation, Niyazov passed several decrees that permitted the registration of five very small religious communities. Despite this alleged easing of registration criteria, religious groups must ask permission from the state before holding worship services of any kind.
The USCIRF reported that it is unclear what-if any-practical benefits registration actually provides. Moreover, religious groups that do not meet often arbitrary registration rules still face possible criminal penalties due to their unregistered status and even newly registered religious groups have been raided by police.
"Turkmenistan is a highly repressive state - where conditions are comparable to those in North Korea whose people suffer under the yoke of a personality cult, which allows them few freedoms of any kind, including religious freedom," Cromartie said. "It is extremely troubling that a few superficial decrees regarding religious freedom that do little if anything to change the situation on the ground have allowed Turkmenistan yet again to escape the CPC designation it so clearly deserves."
In its Aug. 8 statement, the Commission also recommended that Uzbekistan, which the Commission visited in the past year, be designated a CPC.
According to the USCIRF, Uzbekistan has a highly restrictive law on religion that severely limits the ability of religious communities to function, leaving over 100 religious communities of various denominations currently denied registration. Reportedly, all Protestant activity in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan is now banned and several Protestants now allegedly face criminal charges for their religious activities.
Based on the criteria in the International Religious Freedom Act, Cromartie said Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan deserve CPC designation "without a doubt.
The Commission calls on the Department of State to adhere to principles of the Act and state the truth about these countries by naming them in this year's upcoming round as the severe religious freedom violators that they so clearly are, he said.