Turkmenistan is a country situated in Central Asia, bordered by Kazakhstan to the northwest, Uzbekistan to the north, east and northeast, Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest and the Caspian Sea to the west. Ashgabat is the capital and largest city in this country. The country has an area of 488,100 square kilometres and the population of the country is about 6 million, the lowest of the Central Asian republics. Turkmenistan is one of the most sparsely populated nations in Asia. Citizens of Turkmenistan are known as Turkmenistanis, Turkmenians or Turkmens. According to the Government’s most recent published census, ethnic Turkmen constitute 77 % of the population. Minority ethnic populations include 9% Uzbeks, 7% Russians, and 2% Kazakhs. Armenians, Azeris, and other ethnic groups comprise the remaining 5%.
The majority of Turkmenistanis are Sunni Muslims and Russian Christians constitute the largest religious minority. Since independence, Islam has been revived but it is tightly controlled. During the Soviet era, only four mosques operated and now there are 698. Ethnic Turkmens, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Balochs and Pashtuns living in Mary Province are predominantly Sunni Muslims. 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.
Most ethnic Russians and Armenians are Orthodox Christians. There are 12 Russian Orthodox churches, four of which are in Ashgabat. An archpriest resident in Ashgabat leads the Orthodox Church within the country. Until 2007 Turkmenistan fell under the religious jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox archbishop in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but since then has been subordinate to the Archbishop of Pyatigorsk and Cherkessia. There are no Russian Orthodox seminaries in Turkmenistan. 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.
Small communities of Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, the Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Baháʼí Faith have 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. There are also the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Greater Grace World Outreach Church, and the Protestant Word of Life Church. A very small community of ethnic Germans, most of whom live in and around the city of Sarahs, reportedly included practising 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 includes both citizens and foreigners, meet in the chapel of the Apostolic Nunciature. An estimated two hundred Jews live in the country. Most are members of families who came from Ukraine during World War II. Some Jewish families are living in Turkmenabat, on the border with Uzbekistan, part of the Bukharan Jewish community.
Islam and minority religions have been allowed to resume since 1991, under tight government control. Mosques were reopened, and Russian Orthodox Christian churches were allowed to operate. A small number of Protestant Christian churches have been allowed to register and operate. Large new mosques have been built in major cities, including the Türkmenbasy Ruhy Mosque in Ashgabat, constructed by Bouygues of France. Nevertheless, religion remains under government supervision. The mufti is appointed by the president. The importation of religious literature is banned, including the Quran and the Bible.
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 “Ovlat”. 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 Muhammad through one of the Four Caliphs. Because they believed 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 superstitions 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 practised throughout the Soviet period, but most religious beliefs, knowledge, and customs were preserved only in rural areas.
Christianity is the second largest religion in Turkmenistan and the third largest religion is Hinduism. Hinduism was spread in Turkmenistan by Hare Krishna missionaries. Hare Krishnas are a minority community in Turkmenistan. The Baháʼí Faith in Turkmenistan dates to before Russia’s advances into the region, while the area was under Persian influence. By 1887 a community of Baháʼí refugees from religious violence in Persia had founded a religious centre in Ashgabat. The Baháʼí community in Ashgabat built the first Baháʼí House of Worship. However, during the Soviet period, religious persecution caused the Baháʼí community almost to disappear.