TURKMENISTAN: Church Confiscation Appeal Postponed

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 24 January 2001

The hearing due to have taken place today (24 January) at the city court of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad to consider Pentecostal pastor Viktor Makrousov's appeal against the confiscation of the city's Pentecostal church was postponed.

His was among some five cases deferred to an unspecified date, sources present in court told Keston News Service from Ashgabad on 24 January. After verifying that the parties to the cases were present, the court clerk told them all that their cases were being deferred as `the judge is not ready'. She assured them that each would be notified when new dates had been set. ‘Maybe there will be a new hearing next Wednesday,’ Pastor Makrousov told Keston from Ashgabad. ‘They might give out the new date on Monday – you only ever get one or two days notice.’

Bess Brown of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Ashgabad Centre - who attended the abortive hearing – told Keston on 24 January that in addition to Makrousov and his family and congregation members, pastors of two other Christian churches were present in court, Pavel Fedotov of the Adventists and Vasili Korobov of the Baptists. Also present with Brown were two other OSCE representatives, as well as diplomats from the US, German and British embassies. She speculated that the postponement might have been due to the international concern over the proposed confiscation of the Pentecostal church or to the heavy overnight falls of snow in Ashgabad. `We just don't know the reason,' she told Keston. 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 court ruling made no mention of demolition.

Pastor Makrousov lodged his appeal against the confiscation ruling on 11 January. If he loses the 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. Pastor Makrousov - who has been repeatedly fined in recent months - 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, as evidenced by the presence of diplomats at both the court hearings. 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 threatened confiscation.

Pastor Makrousov has been preparing to lodge an application for registration of his congregation, despite the difficulties of collecting the required 500 signatures of church members and obtaining registration. In the wake of repeated assurances to foreign visitors and diplomats by the deputy chairman of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs, Murad Karriyev, that religious groups without registration should come and discuss their concerns, Pastor Makrousov arranged an appointment with Karriyev. When the two met in late December and Pastor Makrousov complained of the threat to confiscate and demolish the church, Karriyev reportedly told him that he should `repent' of his unspecified offence and `promise not to do it again'. It appears Pastor Makrousov made no progress towards his goal of the congregation being able to function without harassment and to acquire legal status. ‘There were no concrete results of the meeting,’ Pastor Makrousov told Keston.

Keston attempted to contact Karriyev at the Council for Religious Affairs on 24 January to find out why the Pentecostal church is facing such intense pressure from the authorities, but the telephones went unanswered.

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, 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)