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Turkmenistan Virtual Jewish History Tour

[By: Joanna Sloame]

Turkmenistan, one of the poorest republics of the former Soviet Union, is bordered by Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian Sea. There is little available information about the short history of the Jews in Turkmenistan.

Persian Jews began to immigrate from Iran to Turkmenistan in the late 1830s. Fleeing persecution, they settled in the Turkmenistan cities of Mary, Yoletan, and Baram-Ali. Little is known about the development of this community under the Soviets due to its isolation from major cities, transportation and communication systems. At its peak in the 1980s, the Jewish population in Turkmenistan was 2,500.

Iranian Jews only make up about 20 percent of the Turkmenistan Jewish population, comprised of mostly Ashkenazim who immigrated to the region during the Soviet era. A number of Ashkenazim came from the Ukraine during World War II.

Today, approximately 700 Jews live in the country, primarily in the capital, Ashkhabad. There are also communities in Turkmenbashi, Mary, and Dashoguz. A tiny group of Bukharan Jews lives in Turkmenabat, a village on the border with Uzbekistan.

There is no organized Jewish community or rabbi in Turkmenistan. The Soviets effectively suppressed all Jewish culture in the country and, unlike the other states of the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan's community never recovered. The Ashkhabad synagogue, the only one in the country, was converted into a gymnasium by the Soviets and no other formal congregations exist. The Turkmen Jews have no semblance of a community and the majority are non-practicing and do not usually disclose their religious origin due to severe religious persecution.

Turkmenistan has become increasingly Islamicized since independence, and non-Muslims face discrimination on a day-to-day basis. President Saparmurat Niayazov's Democratic Party has suppressed virtually all civil rights in the country. Other political parties have been banned, opposition leaders have been jailed, and the media is government-run. It is difficult to obtain a passport or exit visa, and Jews have to get visas through the Israeli embassy in Uzbekistan.

Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church are the only religions legal in Turkmenistan. All other denominations are forbidden to have a place of worship, and Turkmenistan is the only country in Central Asia whose government sponsors religious persecution. The flight of some 2,327 Jews from Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union has left those remaining in a precarious position. The lack of a Jewish community combined with the growing popularity of Islamic fundamentalism and the human rights violations on the part of Niayazov's totalitarian government has created a dangerous situation for Turkmen Jews.

The Turkmenistan chapter of the Jewish Agency, Sokhnut, functions in secret in private homes or rented classrooms. The authorities continually try to shut down the organization. Niyazov criticized the director of the Ashgabat School No. 19 S. Talibova for leasing rooms to the Sokhnut on Sundays. The school director was fired and the Sokhnut kicked out of the building. Following this incident, the Sokhnut Chair Sallai Meridor urged the Jewish community of Turkmenistan to make aliyah or otherwise leave the country.

Turkmenistan was the last former Soviet republic to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, in 1993. Neither country has an embassy in the other, Israel is represented by its ambassador to Moscow, and consular services are only available in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Sources: UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Unionl
U.S. Department of State
Euro-Asian Jewish Congress
World Jewish Congress