Officials in this Central Asian country don’t want to discuss why they keep so many Muslims from going on the haj. From Forum 18. by Felix Corley 25 November 2008
As has been the practice for many years, it appears that only 188 Muslim pilgrims are being allowed to take part directly from Turkmenistan in this year's haj pilgrimage to Mecca which begins later this month. "Only those on the official list who have been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers will go to Mecca on the one airplane," one source said from the capital, Ashgabat. "The government draws up the list and orders the airplane."
The numbers of genuine pilgrims actually permitted is almost certainly smaller than 188, as Forum 18 has been informed that members of the Ministry of State Security secret police are included among the pilgrims.
The government often prevents those it does not like – including prominent religious believers – from leaving the country. The government has also expelled from the country over recent years active members of religious communities who do not hold Turkmen passports, even if they have been living in the country for many years. Obliged to leave Turkmenistan at the beginning of November because of the authorities' repeated refusal to issue a residence permit was Tatyana Kalataevskaya, the daughter of an expelled Baptist pastor.
At the same time, Turkmenistan's strict entry criteria prevent local religious communities from freely inviting their fellow believers from abroad, often leaving them isolated from international contacts.
The government website reported on 4 November that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov had signed a decree arranging for 188 pilgrims to travel on the haj between 24 November and 14 December. It said the national airline, Turkmenistan Airlines, had been ordered to organize a special flight on a Boeing 757 to Saudi Arabia and back, which the airline itself was to pay for.
The quota for pilgrims assigned to Turkmenistan by the Saudi government has never been officially announced, but is believed to be about 5,000. Turkmenistan has a population of some 6 million, the majority of them of Muslim background.
This year the mainly Muslim southern Russian region of Dagestan – with a population of some 2.5 million – is expecting to send at least 8,000 pilgrims from Russia's quota, with the Dagestani government hoping to send even more. Uzbekistan, with a population of some 27 million, is expecting to send 5,000 pilgrims, while Kyrgyzstan, with a population of more than 5 million, is expecting to send 4,500.
The haj pilgrimage is compulsory at least once for Muslims who are able to perform it (there are exemptions, for example, for ill health) within Dhu al-Hijja, the 12th and final month in the Islamic calendar. However, given that for many years the Turkmen authorities have allowed no more than 188 pilgrims each year, this is an obligation that the vast majority of the country's Muslims cannot fulfill.
The Turkmen authorities have never explained why they allow only one airplane of pilgrims to travel. However, for the 2007 pilgrimage they claimed that in addition to the official party, pilgrims were allowed to travel on the haj independently. But the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ashgabat confirmed to Forum 18 in 2007 that the only pilgrims directly from Turkmenistan were those on the officially sponsored airplane.
Diplomats at the Saudi Arabian Embassy refused to say what this year's quota for pilgrims from Turkmenistan is, or how many haj visas it has issued. An official of the Iranian Embassy in Ashgabat told said it was his understanding that only the official airplane is authorized by the Turkmen authorities to take pilgrims on the haj. He said his embassy is willing to give transit visas to haj pilgrims, but that restrictions are "from the Turkmen side."
No one at the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs was prepared to explain the procedures or why so few pilgrims out of the country's quota are allowed to go. The man who answered the phone of deputy chairman Nurmukhamed Gurbanov immediately hung up as soon as Forum 18 introduced itself, as did the woman who answered the phone of Shirin Akhmedova, the head of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.
Nor were any officials of local hyakimliks
(administrations) in several districts of Ashgabat or in several other cities prepared to explain the procedures.
One Ashgabat-based source said the Cabinet of Ministers makes all the arrangements, through the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs. The source said would-be pilgrims have their documents processed through the local religious affairs official in the hyakimlik
where they live, though all the decisions on who may travel are made in Ashgabat. "The procedure is not published," the source lamented. As in previous years, the MSS secret police is also involved in the selection of pilgrims.
A Muslim in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi said Muslims who want to go on the haj must fill in an application form and hand it to the city's imam. The imam then passes on the application to the velayat
(regional) authorities, who then process the application from there. Would-be pilgrims have to present their passport and local residence registration with the application.
"People are then added to the queue – which is about 1,000 long here in Turkmenbashi," he said. "I'm in the queue, but I haven't asked what number I'm at. Some people on the list become ill, so can't travel when their name comes up, so someone else is then able to go." He would not say how many years those on the local list have to wait for a place to become available. He said that two or three pilgrims are traveling on this year's haj from Turkmenbashi, a city with a population of some 70,000.
On 11 November Deutsche Welle's Central Asian service quoted one would-be pilgrim as declaring that the authorities deliberately choose the most "loyal" Muslims to go on the official list, and select Sunnis rather than Muslims from the minority Shia community. It added that the authorities do not want those who have studied Islam in Turkey or Pakistan to increase their authority and influence by going on the haj.
Deutsche Welle adds that some would-be pilgrims make their way to Turkey without telling the Turkmen authorities that they are going on the haj. They then make arrangements from there. Sources have also told Forum 18 of such independent would-be pilgrims who travel to third countries in a bid to travel on the haj.