TURKMENISTAN: Baptists 'will be Fined' for Using Church.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 28 February 2001

The official in charge of the administrative commission that sealed the Baptist church in the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad ten days ago has insisted to Keston News Service that if the Baptists break the seal and use the church again for services they will be fined. Maksat Yazmuradov claimed that religious activity by groups without registration with the Ministry of Justice is illegal. However, he declined to tell Keston which article of which law forbids unregistered religious activity. A similar refusal to explain the legal basis for the closure of the church came from Muhammed Kerimov, deputy khyakim (administration head) of the Niyazov district, and from Bibi Dagiyeva, a consultant at the Ministry of Justice, although both insisted to Keston that the church's activity as an unregistered congregation violated the law and that the closure was therefore justified.

All three officials, speaking to Keston in separate telephone interviews from Ashgabad on 28 February, confirmed that two seals were placed on the church doors on 17 February by the administrative commission made up of representatives of the khyakimlik, the police and the political police, the KNB (former KGB) (see KNS 22 February 2001). However, none of the three was able to cite a law that bans unregistered religious activity. After being unable to cite any specific article of the 1996 law on freedom of conscience which he had first mentioned, Yazmuradov referred to Article 205 of the Administrative Code, a provision surviving from the Soviet era which punishes `violation of the legislation on religion' by a fine. However, this article punishes `refusal to register a religious association' but not religious activity without registration.

Asked by Keston to clarify why the khyakimlik considers the Baptists' activity to be illegal, Kerimov put the phone down. He declined to take further calls, so Keston has been unable to learn what the next steps will be.

Dagiyeva at the justice ministry was no more forthcoming. She insisted that as the Baptists failed to gain re-registration in 1997 their activity was illegal. After telling Keston that without registration believers `cannot meet, open a church or create a religious organisation', she declined to discuss the legal position any further, although she denied that this is `secret information'. `According to our regulations all foreign citizens must get their information through the Foreign Ministry.'

When the commission sealed the church - located at 1st Tsyolkovsky street 15 - they told the neighbour to tell the Baptists they should go to Dagiyeva's department at the justice ministry. The church's pastor Vasily Korobov is concerned the sealing of the building might be a prelude to confiscation, especially as legal moves to confiscate the city's Pentecostal church are proceeding in court.

The sealing of the church came a week after a KNB raid on the Sunday service on 11 February. KNB officers took the names and passport details of all those present and told them not to attend the church again. During the raid, Pastor Korobov was warned that if the church meets again he would be fined, the second time he would be fined an even larger sum and the third time he would face criminal charges of `insubordination' for failure to heed the authorities.

Baptist sources also report that on 21 February, three KNB officers visited the apartment of one church member, an elderly woman who has been sick for the last few weeks and was not at the church on 11 February. They asked her if church members met in her home. She told them that they meet at church. They informed her that the church has been sealed and that it would not be possible for any of the members to meet there anymore. They asked her again if they met in her home. She told them they had. They warned that if any further meetings take place in her home `it will be very bad for her'.

The Ashgabad Baptist church - which is a member of the Central Asian Baptist Union - has been functioning since 1978, when the building was bought. It was registered in 1984. It gained re-registration during the first re-registration round in the 1990s, but lost its legal status in May 1997 on the second re-registration round. Baptist sources also report that the sealing of the Ashgabad church came just after the local authorities closed the Baptist church in the town of Mary, 340 kms (210 miles) east of Ashgabad. In mid-January six KNB officers arrived at the church and forbade the Baptists from meeting. The raid came on a weekday, while church members were eating together. All were taken off to the KNB station, interrogated, warned and then released. Like the Ashgabad church, the Mary church was sealed and the Baptists told not to break the seals.

The leaders of the small congregation in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) have been summoned by the khyakimlik and ordered to provide full lists of all church members. They were also warned to halt all meetings.

All other Baptist Union churches in the country have already been closed down. `Looking at the authorities' actions,' the Baptist Union in Moscow declares, pointing to more than a century of Baptist activity in Turkmenistan, `one can conclude that the authorities of totalitarian Turkmenistan have decided to put a full stop to the activity of the community, with this obliterating the whole glorious history of this "little light" on Turkmen soil.' (END)