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Saparmurat Niyazov, the president of Turkmenistan who died in late December, left behind a legacy that includes seemingly ubiquitous golden statues of himself, bans on ballet and lip-synching, an ice palace in the desert, 60 percent unemployment, and a dismal medical system. Niyazov, the self-styled "Head of the Turkmen" or Turkmenbashi, died unexpectedly of heart failure at age 66.

The election to replace Niyazov modeled Central Asian stability. Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, already the acting president, won an election with implausibly high turnout (98.65 percent, according to Turkmenistan news) on February 11.

Turkmenistan under Niyazov's bizarre regime had become increasingly isolated from the outside world—even its volatile neighbors Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

"Controls are not as tight as they were from 1997 to 2004, when all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox activity was banned and communities were regularly raided and harassed," said Felix Corley of the religious liberty organization Forum 18. "But controls and surveillance remain. Christians and other religious minorities have also been prevented from leaving Turkmenistan as the government still operates an exit blacklist."

Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, shared one example of the Christian experience in Turkmenistan. In 2006, after police arrested a couple, their pastor approached the authorities to try to exchange his freedom for theirs. He was beaten and told to walk naked about one-quarter of a mile, proclaiming, "Turkmenbashi is my father." None of them was released.

Despite such persecution, the Protestant church has grown exponentially since the fall of the Soviet Union. Virtually nonexistent in 1991, the church has grown to about 5,000 Christians, ...

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April 2007

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