26 November 1999

WHY DID THE TURKMEN AUTHORITIES DESTROY AN ADVENTIST CHURCH? by Felix Corley, Keston News Service Was the deliberate destruction of the Adventist church in the centre of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad a bid to prevent the unregistered church from meeting or was it a genuine case of demolition to facilitate reconstruction of the city? Coming as it did just two months after the bulldozing of the Hare Krishna temple in Mary and the enforced demolition of the Hare Krishna temple in Ashgabad (see KNS 8 September and 22 September 1999), there is evidence that the Adventist church too was deliberately targeted for destruction, given that the Turkmen authorities are engaging in a sustained campaign to stamp out unregistered religious practice. However, city and government officials contacted by Keston News Service deny such claims. The Adventist pastor in Ashgabad, PAVEL FEDOTOV, is no stranger to official harassment for leading the unregistered community. A citizen of Turkmenistan, Fedotov has repeatedly tried to re-register the church but, despite having the 500 adult citizen members required by law, has been refused such registration. `About two months ago, a verbal warning was given to the pastor that if they did not stop holding services, the building would be destroyed,' BARBARA HUFF, an administrative assistant of the Euro-Asia Division of Seventh-day Adventists told Keston from Moscow. `The demolition began on Saturday afternoon, 13 November.  At first they tried to pull down the building with cables connected to a caterpillar. On the first day, the roof was destroyed and the windows were broken. They continued trying to destroy the building with the caterpillar and pickaxes. We were told that the walls were so strong they were having to do this brick by brick. On Thursday, the 18th, they brought in a crane and wrecking ball. The demolition was completed on Saturday, the 20th, one week after they started. We have a video of the demolition process up until the end of Thursday. We are not aware of any compensation being offered.' Pastor Fedotov and his family, who used to live in an apartment on the top floor of the church building, are living with his mother-in-law in Ashgabad, Huff told Keston. The church is no longer meeting. The first Pastor Fedotov heard officially of the impending demolition was a letter of 11 November from the Khakim (local administration) of the Kopetdag district of Ashgabad where the church was located. The Russian-language letter, addressed simply `To the Pastor of the Community of the Seventh day Adventists' and signed by DAVLIT ANNAMURADOV, the architect for the Kopetdag district, read in full: `The Khakim of the Kopetdag district notifies you that in accordance with the Decree of the Ashgabad Khakim of 9 November 1999, No. 1450, the church building is subject to demolition. In connection with this we command that within a period of one week you are to take measures for demolition.' (Keston has a copy of the letter.) The Ashgabad church was the only Adventist church in Turkmenistan. The congregation was registered during the later Soviet era and in 1992 the president of Turkmenistan SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV gave permission to build the church, which was completed in 1996. However, following revisions to the law on religion in 1997 that required each congregation to have 500 members before it could apply for registration, the church was deprived of official status and has been unable to regain it. Contacted by telephone in Ashgabad on 24 November, Davlit Annamuradov confirmed that he had issued the order for the Adventists to prepare to have their church demolished and said Decree No. 1450 related to the reconstruction of the street where the Adventist church was located. He denied to Keston that the Adventist church had been singled out for demolition. `The Adventist church was not the only building demolished. The street where the church is located is being completely reconstructed. In addition to the church 17 buildings are being demolished, including a school and apartment blocks. This is in accordance with the general plan for the city.' Asked if the Adventist church would thus be offered compensation for the value of the destroyed church, Annamuradov declared: `The question of whether they will receive compensation is not within my competence.' He said the city-wide authorities were responsible for this, but did not have the telephone number of the department that was dealing with the question. Annamuradov stressed that two mosques have already been demolished as part of city reconstruction plans, one in 1998 and one at the beginning of the year. `They received a warning first that the mosques were to be demolished and they then moved their property to other buildings. They weren't given new buildings - they voluntarily joined larger communities near by.' Asked whether the Muslim communities received compensation, he said that too was a matter for the city-wide authorities. However, he did confirm that the city authorities had allocated new apartments to individuals and families moved out of the apartment blocks that are being demolished in the current reconstruction. Asked if the reconstruction was not expensive and unnecessary, given the poverty of Turkmenistan, Annamuradov replied: `Of course it is expensive, especially for us. But it is being done for the beauty of the city.' Keston also spoke on 24 November with MURAD KARRYEV, the deputy chairman of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad. He immediately denied any responsibility for the demolition of the Adventist church. `This is nothing to do with us. It is not our responsibility, but the responsibility of the city authorities.' Asked whether he understood why people might regard the demolition of the church as persecution, given the destruction of the two Hare Krishna temples two months earlier, Karryev responded: `It was all done in accordance with the law.' Asked why the Adventists - along with all non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities - had been denied registration in Turkmenistan since 1997 he responded: `Our law on religious organisations specifies that a community must have 500 members in order to be registered. Registration is conducted by the Ministry of Justice.' When asked why the Adventists had been unable to obtain reregistration given that they had a reported 700 members in the capital, Karriev replied: `You will have to apply to the Ministry of Justice. Speak to KURBANOV in the registration department there.' Asked what his council did if it did not have responsibility for the demolition of religious buildings or the registration of religious communities, he declared that it was there to ensure that there were no inter-religious tensions in the republic. (He did not mention the fact that the Chief Mufti is the chairman of the Council, while the local head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Father ANDREI SAPUNOV, is the other deputy chairman.) Karryev confirmed that two mosques had been among the `many buildings' demolished in recent reconstruction work in Ashgabad, and admitted that neither community had received compensation from the city authorities. Keston tried to contact Kurbanov at the Ministry of Justice to find out why the Adventist church in Ashgabad had repeatedly been denied registration, but no- one answered the telephone in the registration department there. Although the reconstruction scheme appears to be genuine, it seems more than coincidence that the Adventist church, built so recently, was among the buildings designated for demolition. The fact that Pastor Fedotov was informed two months earlier of a connection between the continued meetings of the church and demolition shows that at least to officialdom the demolition has been a useful tool for stamping out Adventist worship in Turkmenistan. With a restrictive law that forces all but the two largest religious communities into illegality, Turkmenistan is in clear violation of its international commitments to religious liberty. The fact that the Adventist community has ceased to function in the wake of the demolition of their church may well be further evidence that the government all along had this intention. Since the demolition began, the Adventists have tried to send a senior representative to Turkmenistan to examine the situation on the spot. However, Turkmenistan's requirement that even visitors from other countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States need visas has effectively barred Adventist representatives from visiting. `The president of the Southern Union, ALEKSANDR SHVARTS, is a citizen of Kazakhstan and now he is unable to enter Turkmenistan,' Huff told Keston.  `He tried to get a visa through a tourist agency and was denied.  When church leaders are not allowed into the country, this isolates our people even more.' (END) All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright: (c) Keston Institute 1999 Reproduction for personal use only. 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