Mosque to carry Niyazov's stamp

The president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has ordered that his own words be inscribed alongside verses of the Koran on a new mosque being built just outside the capital Ashgabat, intended to be the biggest in all Asia.

The president announced that craftsmen would add lines from his book called "the Ruhnama" on the immense fa├žade.

Mr Niyazov, known generally as Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmens, is president for life in Turkmenistan but his absolute temporal power is now taking on an ever more spiritual overtone.

The new mosque is vast, with ample room for 10,000 worshippers.

There is a 50-metre-high dome, which has just been set into place by helicopter, and minarets twice as tall, towering above Turkmenbashi's ancestral village, the site chosen for what Mr Niyazov hopes will become a place of pilgrimage.

Now he has gone further and ordered that the facade will be inscribed with phrases from the Ruhnama - the Book of the Soul - a collection of his musings which is required reading in schools.

Aphorisms like "smile at one another" make up much of the text, along with guidelines for good manners.

Speaking on television, Turkmenbashi, said it was sensible to have at least some writings people could understand, in Turkmen not just Arabic.

Religious crackdown

It is the latest stage in what seems like a blurring between Turkmenbashi's earthly power and religious authority.

Local people say the Ruhnama is now often placed in the doorway of mosques so that worshippers can touch it on their way in.

And two years ago, when Turkmenbashi reached the age of 62, some officials made much of this being the life span of the Prophet Mohammed.

The presidents critics in exile accuse him of deliberately propagating the impression that he is almost a prophet but Turkmenbashi himself has always been careful to avoid going too far towards sacrilege.

Turkmenistan as a Muslim country has a board of Islamic scholars - or Muftiat - in charge of religious affairs.

In March, the authorities arrested the chief Mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, and sent him to jail for more than 20 years.

It is not clear why.

Some say he was accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Turkmenbashi but there is also talk that he was planning to set up an Islamic party, presumably finding support among those who find the president's semi-religious dimension unacceptable.