Turkmenistan’s Cult-like Leadership Hinders Church

May 21, 2015 by Open Doors in Asia

Turkmenistan has a history of president personality cults. Until the death of former president Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, the country had been in the tight grip of his quasi-religious personality cult, based on his book, called “Ruhnama”. This book and its philosophy dominated public life and was taught in schools and universities. Perhaps the climax of this reverence was the construction of a huge tower in the capital of Ashgabat which was topped by a golden, rotating statue of Mr. President. The statue was always facing the sun. His successor, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov, took office after president Niyazov`s death and skipped some of his decisions, like renaming months and days according to Turkmen heroes. The compulsory teaching of Ruhnama in the country’s education system also diminished somewhat. The golden statue has now been moved to the outskirts of Ashgabat.

The Turkmen media announced that Ruhnama will soon be replaced by new books giving spiritual guidance authored by the new president. He received the honorary title: “Arkadag” (Protector). Teachers and other state employees have to buy the president’s five books, and students are compelled to spend 70 to 80 days of the academic year to participate in state-sponsored presidential parades. After Berdymuhamedov’s re-election in 2012, a new era was announced: the “Era of Supreme Happiness”. It looks like one personality cult has been replaced by the next. But this is also a cultural issue; people in Turkmenistan are used to having a sort of father-like person as a leader. They care about him because he takes care of them.

According to the government, there are 121 religious organizations and seven religious groups registered with the government. Of these, 104 are Islamic, including 99 Sunni and five Shiite organizations; 13 are Russian Orthodox, and 11 represent other religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Baha’is, Hare Krishnas and Protestants (who have several small churches).

In the entire country, nearly 90 percent of the population follows Sunni Islam, and around 8 percent are agnostic. Open Doors also estimates that there are around 95,000 followers of Christianity in Turkmenistan.

Non-registered religious activity is illegal. All religious communities need to be registered with the Council on Religious Affairs. There are few registered churches. The Roman Catholic Church and only a very few Protestant churches have received registration.

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