by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 13 November 2000

Nearly seven months after first presenting a proposal to visit Turkmenistan to discuss with the authorities the position of the Jehovah's Witness community in the country, a team of four foreign Jehovah's Witnesses is still waiting for a response from Turkmenistan's Brussels embassy. The team applied to visit back in April and met the Turkmen ambassador to Belgium and to the European Union, Niyazklych Nurklychev, and embassy first secretary Rovshan Bagiyev, when the aims of the visit were discussed.

In the absence of any follow-up, on 12 July, Bart Staes, a Belgian deputy to the European Parliament and chairman of the parliamentary co-operation committee for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia, wrote to the ambassador to urge him to speed up approval for the delegation to visit. In the four months since Staes' letter there has been no response.

The planned delegation, which would consist of John Burns, Lodewijk De Wit, Drew Holiner and Andrei Zhbanov, intends to `clear up misunderstandings' about the Jehovah's Witnesses in Turkmenistan, De Wit told Keston from Brussels on 10 November. `Some of our members there are being treated very badly, some have been detained, some beaten, fined or dismissed from their work and some deported.' The delegation aims to convince government officials that the community in Turkmenistan would obey the law. `Jehovah's Witnesses are totally different to what they expect and we want to convince them that we're not dangerous. We need contact with the highest authorities there.' De Wit declares that the delegation would ideally like to meet President Saparmurat Niyazov during any visit, but would also seek to meet the foreign minister and the head of the government's National Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

Ambassador Nurklychev told Keston on 10 November that he cannot remember details of the discussions about the planned visit as they took place so long ago. `All I know is that the delegation did not go. They themselves chose not to go.' Told that this differs from the Jehovah's Witness account that they do indeed wish to go and are still waiting for a response to their application, Ambassador Nurklychev referred all further enquiries to the first secretary Bagiyev. However, Bagiyev is away for the next ten days. Asked whether he would facilitate the planned Jehovah's Witness delegation visit to Turkmenistan, Nurklychev responded: `We're positive towards all Europeans. Yes we would consider it positively.'

The Jehovah's Witnesses - like all religious communities apart from those of the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church - have been refused registration consistently in Turkmenistan. Government officials insist (although it is not stated in the country's religion law) that all unregistered religious activity is illegal. The Jehovah's Witnesses remain determined to end harassment of their community and achieve legal status by dialogue, despite the difficulties they are encountering trying to present their case in person to the Turkmen government. (END)