As Christian groups are independently financed, their clergy are not subject to control by the state Council on Religious Affairs; however, this is one of the very few advantages the Christian community can boast over the Turkmen Muslim community. Proselytizing is illegal in the country; holding religious services and conducting religious education is not permitted for non-registered groups. Foreign missionaries and religious organizations are prohibited. Jehovah’s Witnesses are frequently incarcerated for refusing military service. Religious groups may not be involved in politics.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan
Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University
Turkmenistan is 89 percent Muslim and 9 percent Eastern Orthodox (more specifically Russian Orthodox). The remaining 2 percent includes Protestant and Catholic Christians. Though the lion’s share of officially registered organizations in the country are Sunni Muslim, there are registered organizations acting on behalf of these smaller Christian groups.
History of the Christian Community
Many Christians in Turkmenistan believe that Christianity was introduced to Turkmenistan in the fourth century. It then almost completely disappeared in fourteenth century as the vast majority of Turkmen became Muslim. Being made into a Soviet Socialist Republic as part of its integration into the USSR meant an influx of Russians and Ukrainians in the early twentieth century; they continue to constitute the vast majority of Russian Orthodox adherents in the country.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
As Christian groups are independently financed, their clergy are not subject to control by the state Council on Religious Affairs; however, this is one of the very few advantages the Christian community can boast over the Turkmen Muslim community. Proselytizing is illegal in the country, and holding religious services and conducting religious education is not permitted for non-registered groups. Foreign missionaries and religious organizations are also prohibited. Jehovah’s Witnesses are frequently incarcerated for refusing military service. Religious groups may not be involved in politics, and foreign funding for religious organizations is highly restricted and closely monitored. Wearing religious attire in public is prohibited. In addition, authorities frequently abuse members of non-registered religions in their custody, routinely torturing detainees. For these reasons, The USCIRF has placed Turkmenistan on its list of CPCs (Countries of Particular Concern).
Responses to Persecution
Survival is the first goal for most Christians in Turkmenistan, and as such few engage in any strategies of association or confrontation. Protestant churches especially have gone almost completely underground. Often church members gather in different places for worship to minimize the chances that neighbors will report on them. Underground networks and messaging systems work to ensure the safety of their members, and church pastors or activists periodically travel to check on the conditions of their members and to bring church materials, particularly Bibles. Point people have the responsibility of notifying members or even international contacts in the event of government raids or arrests. They respond if a member needs legal assistance.
The Catholic community of Turkmenistan is extremely small and also remains semi-underground. Although allowed to say Mass, they have no church building, and it is not clear that Catholics have attempted to register or to obtain a public church building for worship in recent years. Based on the available evidence, it is likely that most Catholics have left Turkmenistan since the early 1990s. For those remaining, the focus is on prayer and Mass, underground Bible study and catechism, and hope in the future. Evangelization and charity work are not on the agenda.
Despite the repression they face, most churches in Turkmenistan are reluctant to turn to international actors for help. This is due largely to a fear of government retaliation and a cultural suspicion of strangers, particularly from the West. This is not without cause. In one chilling instance, a Jehovah’s Witness appealed to the UN Human Rights Commission, and police subsequently detained, beat, and tortured three family members. Most Christians groups remain small, highly fragmented, and unorganized, with little ability to communicate.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an exception to the oppression faced by other Christian groups in Turkmenistan. To achieve its goals of monopolizing Christianity in the region and driving out competitors, the Orthodox Church has established good relations with the regime in power and with the Muslim Spiritual Board, the state body that organizes and controls an Islamic hierarchy in the country. In large part, their strategies have been successful. In Turkmenistan, the Orthodox leader is deputy director—and on the payroll—of the state committee regulating religious organizations.
Many Christians in Turkmenistan have also chosen emigration, although motives for these moves are multi-causal. The vast majority of Russian émigrés, although they are nominally Orthodox Christian, have left for reasons other than religious oppression. Rising nationalism and changing language laws in the late 1980s triggered a wave of out-migration of ethnic Europeans (the majority of Christians) even before the Soviet collapse. Since 1989, the number of ethnic Christians in Turkmenistan has dropped from 13 percent to less than 5 percent.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Kathleen Collins and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.