by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 November 2000

A recent convert to the Baptist faith in the Caspian port of Khazar (formerly Cheleken) has been threatened and beaten by the former KGB after refusing to answer questions about whether he had been baptised and by whom. Baptists in the town have reported that Viktor Portnov's life was threatened by an officer of the National Security Ministry (KNB) who refused to give his name. Portnov was eventually freed, but warned not to attend church again or to preach. `These demands violate the laws and constitution of Turkmenistan,' local Baptists complained.

The Khazar congregation that Portnov joined belongs to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejected state control during the Soviet period. Although Keston News Service has not been able to verify the report of Portnov's maltreatment independently, information from sources within the Council of Churches has a long track record of reliability. No official agency was able to give Keston the telephone number of the Khazar KNB or the Khazar procuracy to seek their response to the Baptists' report.

According to a statement from the Khazar Baptist community - passed to Keston by the German-based Friedensstimme mission - Portnov was summoned to the local KNB station on 9 November. KNB officer Rozyev, who handed him the summons, told him they needed to `clarify some questions related to his faith'. Once at the KNB station, Portnov was interrogated in the office of the KNB chief by an officer who refused to give his name. When Portnov refused to say whether he had been baptised and by whom, the officer `flew into a rage, began to shout at him, grabbed his jacket and pushed him into another office where he began to bang his head against the wall'.

The KNB chief then arrived and the two officers tried to force Portnov to write a statement that `he would not preach about Christ and would not hand out religious literature'. Portnov declined to write any statement or reply to any questions. The unnamed officer again began to beat him in the face and `threatened that he would not let him live, and would let him rot'.

The officers then summoned Khazar's deputy procurator, who asked where the Baptists acquired their literature and who imported it into Turkmenistan. They threatened to sack Portnov's father and mother from work. They then drew up a charge sheet accusing him of attending `illegal meetings of believers of an unregistered sect' and going from house to house preaching. Despite efforts to force him to sign the charge sheet Portnov refused. The three officials then signed it and told Portnov they would send it to the regional procuracy. They then threatened Portnov with a 15-day `re-education' term in prison but in the end let him go with the warning not to attend the Baptist church again or to preach.

Turkmenistan is the most religiously repressive of the former Soviet republics. Only communities of the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church have been able to gain official registration since the law on religion was amended in 1996, while officials at all levels have spontaneously and repeatedly told both local believers and Keston that these are the only two religions allowed in the country (although this is nowhere stated in law). Protestant Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have been deported from the country or harassed. An Adventist church and two Hare Krishna temples have been demolished to prevent the communities from meeting. The Bahais, Jews and Armenian Apostolic Christians are among other communities banned from meeting. (END)