TURKMENISTAN: Bibles Banned from Book Trade?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 20 June 2001

Copies of the Bible may no longer be sold through the book trade, sources in Turkmenistan have told Keston News Service. A letter was reportedly sent in March to the directors of bookshops and companies running street book stalls banning such sales and reports say copies of the Bible in both Turkmen and Russian have disappeared from shops and stalls. The Koran was not mentioned in the letter and is still on sale widely. Although the ban on Bible sales was reported by reliable sources, Keston has been unable to establish which agency issued the instruction and has not seen a copy of the letter.

Father Andrei Sapunov, a Russian Orthodox priest and simultaneously a deputy chairman of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs responsible for Christian affairs, was unavailable either at the Gengeshi or at his cathedral on 19 and 20 June, and no other Gengeshi official was prepared to speak to Keston by telephone to explain whether such a ban on Bibles in the retail book trade had been issued and, if so, why.

Until the ban, Bibles were reportedly sold openly for about 100,000 to 120,000 manats (some five US dollars at the street exchange rate), the same price that is charged in bookstalls at Russian Orthodox churches (the only Christian churches allowed to function in Turkmenistan). `This price is expensive, but it was surprising how often Bibles were available,' one Christian told Keston.

It is not clear why the Bible - the holy book of one of Turkmenistan's two legal faiths - has apparently been banned from the retail trade. It also remains unclear whether holy books of unregistered faiths trying to function in Turkmenistan - such as the Bhagavad-Gita holy to the Hare Krishna faith or the teachings of the founder of the Bahais, Baha'u'llah - were also banned in the March letter.

Bookshops and stalls do not normally sell any other kind of religious literature, although books imported from Russia on the occult and themes such as extra-sensory perception are widely available.

A worker at the Russian Orthodox Voskresensky cathedral in Ashgabad told Keston by telephone on 20 June that although the cathedral has a bookstall, no Bibles are currently on sale there. `Sometimes we have copies, sometimes we don't,' the worker added. `They are very difficult to get hold of as we don't publish or print here. We import Bibles from the diocese in [the Uzbek capital] Tashkent, but there are no regular deliveries. It just depends on someone going somewhere and bringing back copies on an individual basis.' The worker added that other literature is currently available in the bookstall, such as prayer books and booklets on how to prepare to receive the sacraments.

The worker confirmed that the bookstall sells books to anyone who wishes to buy them. `We don't ask if they are Armenian Christians or Baptists, for example.' Both the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Baptist Church are among the faiths the government deems illegal. The worker did not know about the supply of Christian literature in Ashgabad's two other Russian Orthodox churches, the only other legal Christian places of worship in the capital. (END)