TURKMENISTAN: Authorities Seal Last Open Baptist Church.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 22 February 2001

The authorities of the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad have sealed the city's Baptist church without warning. The church's pastor Vasily Korobov told Keston News Service from Ashgabad on 21 February that two seals were placed on the church doors last Saturday, 17 February, although no official gave the church any notice of the impending action or even informed them of it. The sealing of the doors may be a prelude to moves to confiscate the church, the latest phase of Turkmenistan's attempts to crush its Protestant minority. `We avoided the trouble earlier - they were not so harsh on us as they were on the others,' Pastor Korobov declared, referring to raids on other Protestant churches and attempts to confiscate the city's Pentecostal church. `But now they've turned on us.'

Keston has been unable to reach officials at the Niyazov district administration to enquire why the church has been sealed and what further action is intended.

`The night-watchman left on the Saturday morning as usual,' Pastor Korobov reported, `and no-one was in the church during the day. The seals were discovered when the night-watchman arrived again in the evening. We were not told this had been done - I was here at home and no-one called me.' The church decided not to break the seals to gain entrance the following day to hold the Sunday service, as it feared being accused of breaking the law. The church was forced to meet in a private home.

Pastor Korobov reported that he intends to go to the khyakimlik (local administration) of the Niyazov district to find out why the church (at 1st Tsyolkovsky street 15) has been sealed and why the authorities have given no explanation of the action. `But I'm not hurrying to go to meet them as they will only find new excuses to cause problems. I'm inclined to wait for them to come.'

Baptist sources told Keston that the sealing of the church came a week after the Sunday service on 11 February was raided by the political police, the KNB (former KGB). KNB officers swooped in the middle of a hymn, but the 20-strong congregation continued to sing despite the interruption and went on to complete the service. KNB officers took the names and passport details of all those present and told them not to attend the church again. `Next time we will take more serious measures,' they warned those present.

Pastor Korobov rejects any suggestion that the state authorities have the right to determine the fate of their building, which is owned by the congregation. `We have the right to deal with our own property under the law.' The authorities are reportedly claiming that as the church does not have registration (like all Protestant churches in Turkmenistan it lost state registration in the compulsory re-registration drive in 1997 that followed the adoption the previous year of a harsh new law on religion) its use for religious worship is illegal. The authorities claim that if the church does not dispose of the building within three years the property will revert to the state, something the church vigorously rejects.

The Ashgabad Baptist church - which is a member of the Central Asian Baptist Union - has functioned for more than a decade. The authorities last year closed all the other Baptist Union churches in the country, including those in Mary and Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-dag) (see KNS 4 April 2000). They have long been planning to close down the Ashgabad church too, disputing its ownership. However, Pastor Korobov insists any legal quibbles over ownership were settled some years ago and the congregation is the full owner. (END)