Religion in Turkmenistan

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Turkmenistan Religions[1]

The Turkmen of Turkmenistan, like their kin in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran are predominantly Muslims. According to the CIA World Factbook, Turkmenistan is 89% Muslim and 10% Eastern Orthodox. Most ethnic Russians are Orthodox Christians. The remaining 1% is unknown.[2] A 2009 Pew Research Center report indicates a higher percentage of Muslims with 93.1% of Turkmenistan's population adhering to Islam.[3]

The great majority of Turkmen readily identify themselves as Muslims and acknowledge Islam as an integral part of their cultural heritage. However, there are some who only support a revival of the religion's status merely as an element of national revival.

Religious demography[edit]

The country has an area of 188,457 square miles (488,100 km2) and a population of 5,5-6 million. Statistics regarding religious affiliation were not available. According to the Government's most recent census (1995), ethnic Turkmen constitute 77 percent of the population. Minority ethnic populations include Uzbeks (9.2 percent), Russians (6.7 percent), and Kazakhs (2 percent). Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups comprise the remaining 5.1 percent. The majority religion is Sunni Muslim, and Russian Orthodox Christians constitute the largest religious minority. The level of active religious observance is unknown.

Since independence there has been a tightly controlled revival of Islam. During the Soviet era, there were only four mosques operating; now there are 698. Ethnic Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Balochs and Pashtuns living in Mary Province are predominantly Sunni Muslim. There are small pockets of Shi'a Muslims, many of whom are ethnic Iranians, Azeris, or Kurds living along the border with Iran and in Turkmenbashy (Krasnovodsk).

While the 1995 census indicated that ethnic Russians comprised almost 7 percent of the population, subsequent emigration to Russia and elsewhere has reduced considerably this proportion. Most ethnic Russians and Armenians are Orthodox Christians. There are 13 Russian Orthodox churches, 3 of which are in Ashgabat. A priest resident in Ashgabat leads the Orthodox Church within the country, serving under the religious jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There are no Russian Orthodox seminaries.

Ethnic Russians and Armenians also comprise a significant percentage of members of unregistered religious congregations; ethnic Turkmen appear to be increasingly represented among these groups as well. There are small communities of the following unregistered denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, and several evangelical Christian groups including "Separate" Baptists, charismatic groups, and an unaffiliated, nondenominational group.

Small communities of Baha'is, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness were registered with the Government. In May 2005 the Greater Grace World Outreach Church of Turkmenistan, the International Church of Christ, the New Apostolic Church of Turkmenistan, and two groups of Pentecostal Christians were able to register. Overthere existst the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greater Grace World Outreach Church, the Protestant Word of Life Church.

A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Serakhs, reportedly included practicing Lutherans. Approximately one thousand ethnic Poles live in the country; they have been largely absorbed into the Russian community and consider themselves Russian Orthodox. The Catholic community in Ashgabat, which included both citizens and foreigners, met in the chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature. There were some foreign missionaries, although the extent of their activities was unknown.

An estimated one thousand Jews live in the country. Most are members of families who came from Ukraine during World War II. There are some Jewish families living in Turkmenabat, on the border with Uzbekistan, who are known as Bukharan Jews, referring to the Uzbek city of Bukhara. There were no synagogues or rabbis, and Jews continue to emigrate to Israel, Russia, and Germany; however, the Jewish population remained relatively constant. The community gathered for religious observances but did not opt to register as a religious group; nor were there reports of harassment.

Islam and its history in Turkmenistan[edit]

Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the activities of Sufi shaykhs rather than through the mosque and the "high" written tradition of sedentary culture. These shaykhs were holy men critical in the process of reconciling Islamic beliefs with pre-Islamic belief systems; they often were adopted as "patron saints" of particular clans or tribal groups, thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic practice in Turkmenistan.

Integrated within the Turkmen tribal structure is the "holy" tribe called övlat . Ethnographers consider the övlat, of which six are active, as a revitalized form of the ancestor cult injected with Sufism. According to their genealogies, each tribe descends from the Prophet Muhammad through one of the Four Caliphs. Because of their belief in the sacred origin and spiritual powers of the övlat representatives, Turkmen accord these tribes a special, holy status. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the övlat tribes became dispersed in small, compact groups in Turkmenistan. They attended and conferred blessings on all important communal and life-cycle events, and also acted as mediators between clans and tribes. The institution of the övlat retains some authority today. Many of the Turkmen who are revered for their spiritual powers trace their lineage to an övlat, and it is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, for such individuals to be present at life-cycle and other communal celebrations.

In the Soviet era, all religious beliefs were attacked by the communist authorities as superstition and "vestiges of the past." Most religious schooling and religious observance were banned, and the vast majority of mosques were closed. An official Muslim Board of Central Asia with a headquarters in Tashkent was established during World War II to supervise Islam in Central Asia. For the most part, the Muslim Board functioned as an instrument of propaganda whose activities did little to enhance the Muslim cause. Atheist indoctrination stifled religious development and contributed to the isolation of the Turkmen from the international Muslim community. Some religious customs, such as Muslim burial and male circumcision, continued to be practiced throughout the Soviet period, but most religious belief, knowledge, and customs were preserved only in rural areas in "folk form" as a kind of unofficial Islam not sanctioned by the state-run Spiritual Directorate.

Religion after Independence[edit]

The current government oversees official Islam through a structure inherited from the Soviet period. Turkmenistan's Muslim Religious Board, together with that of Uzbekistan, constitutes the Muslim Religious Board of Mavarannahr. The Mavarannahr board is based in Tashkent and exerts considerable influence in appointments of religious leaders in Turkmenistan. The governing body of Islamic judges (Kaziat) is registered with the Turkmenistan Ministry of Justice, and a council of religious affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers monitors the activities of clergy. Individuals who wish to become members of the official clergy must attend official religious institutions; a few, however, may prove their qualifications simply by taking an examination.

Since 1990, efforts have been made to regain some of the cultural heritage lost under Soviet rule. President Niyazov has ordered that basic Islamic principles be taught in public schools. More religious institutions, including religious schools and mosques, have appeared, many with the support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey. Religious classes are held in both the schools and the mosques, with instruction in Arabic language, the Koran (Quran) and the hadith, and the history of Islam.

Turkmenistan's government stresses its secular nature and its support of freedom of religious belief, as embodied in the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and institutionalized in the 1992 constitution. That document guarantees the separation of religion and state; it also removes any legal basis for Islam to play a role in political life by prohibiting proselytizing, the dissemination of "unofficial" religious literature, discrimination based on religion, and the formation of religious political parties. In addition, the government reserves itself the right to appoint and dismiss anyone who teaches religious matters or who is a member of the clergy. Since independence, the Islamic leadership in Turkmenistan has been more assertive, but in large part it still responds to government control. The official governing body of religious judges gave its official support to President Niyazov in the June 1992 elections.

At that time, the Spiritual Administration appointed a kazi to supervise Islam in each republic. In Turkmenistan, the Kaziate is located in Chardzhou. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Muslim spiritual administrations collapsed also. On June 1, 1992, the Kazi Hajji Nasrullah ibn Ibadulla officially registered the Kaziate of Turkmenistan with the Turkmen Ministry of Justice. The condition under which it was registered was that Ministry of Justice officials "maintain a working relationship with the religious representatives".

On the other hand, some Muslim leaders are opposed to the secular concept of government and especially to a government controlled by former communists. Some official leaders and teachers working outside the official structure have vowed to increase the population's knowledge of Islam, increase Islam's role in society, and broaden adherence to its tenets. Alarmed that such activism may aggravate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and especially alienate Orthodox Slavs, the government has drawn up plans to elevate the council of religious affairs to ministry status in an effort to regulate religious activities more tightly.

Other religions[edit]


Protestants account for less than 1% of the population of Turkmenistan.[citation needed] There are also very few Catholics in the country - around 95 in total.[4]

Armenians living in Turkmenistan (below 1%) mostly adhere Armenian Apostolic Church.


Hinduism spread in Turkmenistan by Hare Krishna Missionaries. Hare Krishnas are a minority community in Turkmenistan. Many of the 600 Indians in Turkmenistan are Hindu.

A Hare Krishna representative reported that harassment from officials had decreased since her group's registration; there were no reports of authorities beating Hare Krishnas during this reporting period. In October 2006, as part of a general annual prison amnesty, former President Niyazov released imprisoned Hare Krishna follower Ceper Annaniyazova, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in November 2005 for having illegally crossed the border in 2002.

Bahá'í Faith[edit]

First Bahá'í House of Worship

The Bahá'í Faith in Turkmenistan begins before Russian advances into the region when the area was under the influence of Persia.[5] By 1887 a community of Bahá'í refugees from religious violence in Persia had made a religious center in Ashgabat.[5] Shortly afterwards — by 1894 — Russia made Turkmenistan part of the Russian Empire.[6] While the Bahá'í Faith spread across the Russian Empire[6][7] and attracted the attention of scholars and artists,[8] the Bahá'í community in Ashgabat built the first Bahá'í House of Worship, elected one of the first Bahá'í local administrative institutions and was a center of scholarship. However during the Soviet period religious persecution made the Bahá'í community almost disappear - however Bahá'ís who moved into the regions in the 1950s did identify individuals still adhering to the religion. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Bahá'í communities and their administrative bodies started to develop across the nations of the former Soviet Union;[9] In 1994 Turkmenistan elected its own National Spiritual Assembly[10] however laws passed in 1995 in Turkmenistan required 500 adult religious adherents in each locality for registration and no Bahá'í community in Turkmenistan could meet this requirement.[11] As of 2007 the religion had still failed to reach the minimum number of adherents to register[12] and individuals have seen their homes raided for Bahá'í literature.[13]

Freedom of religion[edit]

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by article 11 of the Constitution of Turkmenistan. However, like other human rights, in practice it does not exist. Former President Saparmurat Niyazov's book of spiritual writings, the Ruhnama, is imposed on all religious communities. According to Forum 18, despite international pressure, the authorities severely repress all religious groups, and the legal framework is so constrictive that many prefer to exist underground rather than have to pass through all of the official hurdles. Protestant Christian adherents are affected, in addition to groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Bahá'í, and Hare Krishna. [1] Jehovah's Witnesses have been fined, imprisoned and suffered beatings for their faith or due to being conscientious objectors.[14]

A 2009 CIA report regarding religious freedom in Turkmenistan reads:

"A survey of bookstores in central Ashgabat to check the availability of the Quran, the holy book of Muslims, revealed that the book was practically unavailable in state stores except for rare cases of second-hand copies. The only other places where the Quran could be bought were at an Iranian bookshop and from a private bookseller. During the visit to the Iranian store, the clerk explained that to import and sell the Quran in Turkmenistan, the store needed approval by the Presidential Council on Religious Affairs. In a predominantly Muslim society, the unavailability of the Quran for purchase seems to be an anomaly. The authorities' strict control over the availability of religious literature, including Islamic literature, highlights the state's insecurity about the impact that the unrestricted practice of religion could have on the current status quo in Turkmen society ... In general, the majority of Turkmen have a Quran in Arabic in their homes. Even if they cannot read Arabic, the fact of having the holy book is believed to protect a family from evil and misfortune. For an explanation of the Quran, most people rely on imams, who are appointed by the Council on Religious Affairs at national, provincial, city and district levels. The scarcity of the Quran in a familiar language leaves people little choice but to turn to the state-appointed imams for the "correct" interpretation of the book, a further sign of the government's policy of strict control over religious life in the country."[15]


  1. ^ Islam per beginning of the article.
  2. ^ CIA World Factbook
  3. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-08-10. Retrieved 2010-11-27.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Turkmenistan, Statistics by Diocese, by Catholic Population [Catholic-Hierarchy]". Retrieved 9 January 2019.
  5. ^ a b Momen, Moojan. "Turkmenistan". Draft for "A Short Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith". Bahá'í Library Online. Retrieved 2008-05-23.
  6. ^ a b Momen, Moojan. "Russia". Draft for "A Short Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith". Bahá'í Library Online. Retrieved 2008-04-14.
  7. ^ Local Spiritual Assembly of Kyiv (2007). "Statement on the history of the Bahá'í Faith in Soviet Union". Official Website of the Bahá'ís of Kyiv. Local Spiritual Assembly of Kyiv. Archived from the original on 2010-07-15. Retrieved 2008-04-19.
  8. ^ Smith, Peter (2000). "Tolstoy, Leo". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 340. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
  9. ^ Hassall, Graham; Fazel, Seena. "100 Years of the Bahá'í Faith in Europe". Bahá’í Studies Review. 1998 (8). pp. 35–44.
  10. ^ Hassall, Graham; Universal House of Justice. "National Spiritual Assemblies statistics 1923-1999". Assorted Resource Tools. Bahá'í Library Online. Retrieved 2008-04-02.
  11. ^ Wagner, Ralph D. "Turkmenistan". Synopsis of References to the Bahá'í Faith, in the US State Department's Reports on Human Rights 1991-2000. Bahá'í Library Online. Retrieved 2008-05-25.
  12. ^ U.S. State Department (2007-09-14). "Turkmenistan - International Religious Freedom Report 2007". The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affair. Retrieved 2008-05-21.
  13. ^ Corley, Felix (2004-04-01). "TURKMENISTAN: Religious communities theoretically permitted, but attacked in practice?". F18News.
  14. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-09-23. Retrieved 2014-09-11.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ "Availability of Quran in Turkmenistan". June 25, 2009.