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Last Updated: Friday, 22 October, 2004, 17:39 GMT 18:39 UK
Vast mosque opens in Turkmenistan
President Saparmurat Niyazov
President Saparmurat Niyazov has built up a personality cult
A new mosque capable of holding 10,000 worshippers has been inaugurated in the central Asian state of Turkmenistan.

Built in the desert village where President Saparmurat Niyazov was born, it boasts four 90m (295ft) minarets and is reported to have cost $100m.

Verses from Mr Niyazov's own spiritual guide, known as the Rukhnama, are engraved on the walls beside inscriptions from the Koran.

Mr Niyazov, who is president for life, has ruled Turkmenistan since 1985.

'Draw for pilgrims'

The vast golden and white marble mosque also has a 50m (164ft) dome, which was lowered into place by helicopter.

The mosque in Kipchak, near the capital, Ashgabat, was built by French construction giant Bouygues. It is reported to be part of a memorial complex devoted to Mr Niyazov's mother, Gurbansoltan.

Turkmen television also said it was the largest mosque in Central Asia.

President Niyazov, officially known as Turkmenbashi or Leader of Turkmens, hopes it will draw pilgrims by the thousands, says the BBC's Monica Whitlock in Kipchak.

Map of Turkmenistan showing Ashgabat and Kipchak

Most of those who came to the opening gazed in wonder, but some Turkmens were shocked to see the president's own sayings written in big letters among the minarets, giving his temporal power a spiritual edge, she says.

President Niyazov told state-controlled media that his words on the walls would become "guiding stars" for current and future generations of Turkmen citizens.

It was sensible to have inscriptions ordinary Turkmens could understand, he added.

After prayers, thousands of guests in long national robes sat down to take part in an outdoor feast sat on marble benches, and to watch the fireworks.

A flock of sheep was sacrificed especially for the day.

Personality cult

Correspondents say the president has created a personality cult unrivalled in the former Soviet Union.

Turkmenistan is effectively a one-party state: Mr Niyazov's portrait hangs everywhere in Turkmenistan, and streets and towns have been named in his honour.

In February, he passed a decree forbidding young men to wear long hair or beards.

After major heart surgery in 1997, he quit smoking, ordered all his ministers to do likewise and banned smoking in public places.

The human rights' group Amnesty International says the human rights situation in Turkmenistan is "appalling", with religious minorities and civil society activists facing persecution.

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