TURKMENISTAN: Appeal Date Set Over Penetecostal Church Confiscation

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 January 2001

The city court of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad is to consider Pentecostal pastor Viktor Makrousov's appeal against the confiscation of the city's Pentecostal church on 24 January. The hearing is due to begin at 10 am. Pastor Makrousov told Keston News Service from Ashgabad on 16 January that he had lodged his appeal against the ruling to confiscate the building - which he owns - on 11 January. If Makrousov loses his appeal the confiscation order will then take effect.

The Pentecostal church - which has faced months of harassment – has had to stop meeting in the building, though it continues to hold meetings in other private homes. `We have no alternative,' Pastor Makrousov declared. The church is preparing an application for registration.

The court of the Kopetdag district of Ashgabad ruled on 4 January that the church was to be confiscated without compensation (see KNS 4 January 2001). At the hearing - presided over by Judge Dovlet Sopiev - Pastor Makrousov defended his right to use the house that he owns for worship services, but this was ruled illegal by the court. Despite the original suit, by the Kopetdag acting khyakim (head of administration) Aleksei Razmakhov, that the building also be demolished, the two-page court ruling - of which Keston has received a copy - made no mention of demolition.

The confiscation ruling was criticised by a number of the diplomats who attended the 4 January hearing 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 in the aftermath of the hearing. `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.' Makrousov stresses that Turkmenistan's religious law specifically guarantees the right to conduct religious rites in private homes.

The case has attracted a high international profile. 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. The original hearing was attended by diplomats from the OSCE mission and the British, US and German embassies.

Turkmenistan is the most religiously repressive of the former Sovietrepublics. 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 (as well as two mosques) have been demolished to prevent the communities from meeting. The Bahais, Jews and Armenian Apostolic Christians are among other communities banned from meeting. (END)