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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ashgabat Backs Off Of Religion

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan -- Members of a U.S. governmental commission said a recent visit to Turkmenistan showed signs of improvement in the country's religious freedom but that many concerns remained.

The five-day visit by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom ended Friday. That same day, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the creation of a commission on observing international human rights norms, Turkmen state media reported.

Berdymukhammedov came to power last year after the death of President Saparmurat Niyazov, who put tight restrictions on the country's two authorized religions -- Sunni Islam and Orthodox Christianity -- and other religious creeds.

Berdymukhammedov has shown signs of easing the authoritarianism, but the country remains a one-party state with no independent news media.

"There are some encouraging signs, but there is still a long way to go," commission member Donald Argue said in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy.

Last month, Amnesty International urged Turkmenistan to lift suspended sentences from Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to serve in the army.

Ahead of the U.S. delegation's arrival, a Muslim cleric sentenced to a long prison term under Niyazov was freed and given a job in the government commission overseeing religious issues.

AP, Reuters