TURKMENISTAN: New Year Demolition for Pentecostal Church?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 21 December 2000

A year after the destruction of the Adventist church in the same district of Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabad, Pentecostal pastor Viktor Makrousov has learnt today (21 December) that the Kopetdag district court is to rule next week on the local authorities' suit to destroy the private home where the city's Pentecostal church meets. Makrousov told Keston News Service from Ashgabad that the hearing has been set to begin on 28 December at 10 am. If the court orders the destruction of the church it would be the sixth place of worship known to have been deliberately destroyed in Turkmenistan on official orders. Last year two Hare Krishna temples were destroyed as well as the Adventist church, while this year two mosques have been destroyed.

The building (Koltsova Street 21a), which Makrousov owns, has served as the Pentecostal church for some years. The suit brought by the khyakimlik (local authorities) of Kopetdag district on 24 November and signed by the acting khyakim Aleksei Razmakhov (of which Keston has received a copy) claimed that Makrousov had failed to seek or receive permission to use the building for services. `V. E. Makrousov, without the appropriate permission from the Ministry of Justice, began to gather various representatives/citizens belonging to the Christian faith, of Baptist and Evangelical tendency,' the suit complained, adding that religious meetings held there had violated presidential decree No. 2906 on bringing religious organisations under control, as well as Articles 178 and 205 of the Administrative Code. It noted three fines already imposed on him for refusing to halt services (March and July 1999 and October of this year).

Noting that Makrousov also owns another home, where he lives, Razmakhov complained that 30 or more people regularly gather for worship, disturbing `social order' in the neighbourhood. He claimed that Makrousov had also violated a 1997 decree from the Ashgabad khyakim by remodelling the interior of the building to accommodate more people. Razmakhov believed the reconstruction violated fire and sanitary regulations and that the building is now in a `hazardous condition'. He called for the building to be pulled down without granting Makrousov any compensation, a request met by the court.

Makrousov has been expecting a court case since an inspector was sent round in early November to check if the house was fit for habitation. `The house in question is in no worse state than are its near neighbours,' one Ashgabad-based diplomat told Keston on 21 December.

Contacted by telephone by Keston on 21 December, Razmakhov denied to Keston that the suit to demolish the building represented persecution of religious believers and that the country's political police, the KNB, was involved. He insisted that proper procedures were being followed, claiming that no other resident of his district had rebuilt their house to hold so many people. `Of course people in this country have freedom of conscience,' he claimed. `But this building was bought for use as a home and the owner did not have permission to use it for large gatherings.' He insisted that the maximum number of people other residents hosted in their homes - such as for weddings - was 20, far below the 30 or more who attended services at Makrousov's home. However, he admitted that Makrousov had done little more than knock down one internal wall to make the building's two rooms into one.

Officials at the government's Council for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad were unavailable on 21 December. The switchboard of the Ashgabad headquarters of the KNB (formerly the KGB) declined to put Keston through to Khudaiberchen Saparovich Khudaiberdiyev, the officer believed to be in charge of religious policy in the KNB, or to anyone else.

Sources told Keston that such pressure has been exerted on the congregation in recent months that it has been forced to halt public services. The Ashgabad Pentecostal church lost official registration in the compulsory re-registration process in early 1997 that saw all religious communities, apart from those of the Sunni Muslim board and the Russian Orthodox Church, lose their registration. Although Turkmenistan's published laws do not specifically criminalise unregistered religious activity, the government treats all unregistered religious activity as illegal and punishes those participating in it.

Meanwhile the court of the Niyazov district of Ashgabad has postponed a hearing to rule on Makrousov's refusal to pay an administrative fine, imposed for leading an unregistered worship service at the beginning of December in the town of Tedjen, south east of Ashgabad. The hearing - originally scheduled for 21 December - is now expected around New Year.

Although Makrousov was accused of leading the `illegal' meeting by the Tedjen authorities, they handed his case to Ashgabad. The Niyazov district khyakimlik imposed a fine of 250,000 manats (one month's average wages) under Article 205 of the Administrative Code. This article - which dates back to the Soviet period - punishes `violation of the procedure established by legislation for the organisation and conducting of religious meetings, processions and other cult ceremonies', a provision often used to punish leaders of unregistered religious communities. Fines handed down are usually 200,000 or 250,000 manats.

The khyakimlik also seized Makrousov's passport, refusing to give it back until the fine was paid despite his repeated requests. Passports serve not only for international travel but also as internal identity documents, making it difficult to travel inside the country or to conduct any official activity without one. (END)