TURKMENISTAN: Confiscation of Pentecostal Church Ordered

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 4 January 2001

The court of the Kopetdag district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad has today (4 January) ruled that the private house used as the city's Pentecostal church is to be confiscated without compensation. At the hearing - presided over by Judge Dovlet Sopiev - Pastor Viktor Makrousov defended his right to use the house that he owns for worship services, but such use was ruled illegal by the court. Makrousov immediately informed the court that he is to appeal against the ruling to the Ashgabad city court and the confiscation order will not take effect until after the appeal is heard. No date has yet been fixed for the appeal hearing.

Judge Sopiev denied access to the courtroom to a number of foreign diplomats at the morning session, telling them that he could not conduct the hearing with foreigners present. He did not, however, obstruct their entry into the courtroom for the afternoon session, after they challenged the ban with the Foreign Ministry.

Despite the original suit by the Kopetdag acting khyakim (head of administration) Aleksei Razmakhov that the building also be demolished (see KNS 2 January 2001), the two-page court ruling - of which Keston has received a copy - made no mention of demolition.

`We did not believe they would do this to us,' Pastor Makrousov told Keston News Service from Ashgabad in the wake of the hearing. `They did not listen to our arguments, they just issued the verdict to take away the house and that was that. The illegality comes down from the top.' Although he declared that they would appeal and complain to as many agencies as possible he felt there was little point. `I don't know if it will be of any use. No-one listens to us.'

The confiscation ruling was criticised by a number of the diplomats who attended the afternoon session, among them Bess Brown of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Ashgabad. `The ruling appears to have very little legal foundation in Turkmenistan's own law,' she told Keston on 4 January. `This case seems to be motivated by an intent to stop Pastor Makrousov's religious activities, which certainly is not in accord with Turkmenistan's OSCE commitments and violates its own law on freedom of conscience.' Brown stressed that one of the reasons cited for the confiscation - the alleged `dangerous state' of the building - appeared flimsy, as the house is in no worse physical condition than any of the surrounding houses. She contrasted the action taken against Makrousov with the lack of action over the house next to where she lives, despite numerous complaints from her and her neighbours about its dangerous state.

The Kopetdag administration complained that Makrousov had used the house `to assemble various representatives/citizens belonging to the Christian faith of Baptist and Evangelical tendency without the appropriate sanction of the Justice Ministry'. `Religious rites are systematically taking place without observing the rules of social order, making normal life impossible for the inhabitants of neighbouring houses.' The ruling claimed that the `large number’ of people attending services were at risk because of the `dangerous state' of the building.

Makrousov had failed to get permission before demolishing an internal wall to make the two rooms into one, the court claimed, and had failed to meet fire, sanitary and earthquake safety norms.

Makrousov challenged the view of the local authorities that inviting people to his home for religious services constituted an illegal activity and noted that he has applied for state registration of his church with the Ministry of Justice. He also contested the view that the house was in a dangerous state and that fire and safety norms had been ignored. Makrousov told the foreign diplomats attending the hearing that the country's religious law specifically guaranteed the right to conduct religious rites in private homes.

The high international profile of the case - the chairman of the Helsinki Commission of the United States Congress, Christopher Smith, wrote to Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov on 2 January expressing his concern about the court case - and the presence at the hearing of diplomats from the OSCE mission and the British, US and German embassies may have helped to prevent the court from ordering the demolition of the church.

Five places of worship have already been destroyed on official orders in Turkmenistan since 1999 - two Muslim mosques, two Hare Krishna temples and one Adventist church. Ironically, one of those present in the courtroom to support

Pastor Makrousov was Pastor Pavel Fedotov, whose Adventist church in Ashgabad was bulldozed in November 1999 without any court hearing. So far the Adventists have received no compensation and the road which the local authorities of the Kopetdag district said they were to build through the site has not yet been started. (END)