TURKMENISTAN: Baptists Threatened Not to Go to Court.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 July 2001

Five officers of Turkmenistan's secret police, the KNB (former KGB), raided the Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) during a service on 7 July, Protestant sources have told Keston News Service. During the raid the officers took down the name, address and place of work of all those present and warned them not to meet again under threat of confiscation of their church building. They also warned the Baptists not to take their case to court, specifically mentioning the case of the Pentecostal church confiscated in the capital Ashgabad, whose pastor Viktor Makrousov has tried - so far unsuccessfully - to challenge the confiscation in court (see KNS 12 April 2001). `Don't go to a judge,' the officers reportedly told the Baptists, `there will be no result.'

The raid came at 5 o'clock in the evening, exactly twelve hours after Baptist pastor Vasily Korobov - who had been visiting Balkanabad - left to return home to Ashgabad. Keston has not been able to verify the reports of the raid independently. Keston chose not to contact Pastor Korobov for fear of making his situation worse.

The Balkanabad church gained registration in 1968. A decade ago the authorities gave them the current building - a former clinic for treating drug addicts - `for ever' in exchange for the building they had been using previously. (The congregation still has a copy of the letter from the authorities guaranteeing this.)

However, following harsh amendments to Turkmenistan's religion law in 1996 which brought in a requirement for religious communities to have 500 members before they can apply for registration, the Baptist church lost registration (as did all religious communities apart from those of the officially-sanctioned Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church). Although there is no provision in published law banning religious activity without registration, the government treats all unregistered religious activity as illegal and subject to administrative and criminal punishments.

The Turkmen authorities have closed places of worship and religious schools, expelled hundreds of foreigners suspected of involvement in religious activity and confiscated some of their property, imprisoned religious activists, deprived active believers of their jobs, denied exit visas to active believers, banned the import or public sale of most religious literature, demolished a number of places of worship (including those of the Adventist, Muslim and Hare Krishna faiths) and confiscated other places of worship.

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has recently begun a new campaign to crush Islamic schools which, he complained in late June, were `unreasonably expanding', particularly in the northern Tashauz region close to the border with Uzbekistan. He instructed the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs to sort out this `unreasoned expansion' which, he said, was happening `without an obvious need for more religious schools'. Niyazov claimed that `in Turkmenistan religion is separated from the state and in principle we have nothing against spiritual education'.

The biggest casualty of this new drive is the madrassah (Islamic school) in Tashauz, which Niyazov ordered closed in mid-June. `[Chief mufti] Nasrullah Ibn-Ibbadulah has a madrassah in Tashauz where some of his relatives are working,' Niyazov complained in remarks broadcast on state television on 25 June. `Last week, I summoned him and told him to close down his madrassah. I told him: "If I don't order you to close it down, you will not do it. Even a mufti should not infringe laws or consider himself to be above others. People are watching you. You must be an example. You must be humble and faithful."'

Yagshymurad Atamuradov, the chairman of the Gengeshi for Religious Affairs, later declared that, in keeping with Niyazov's order, the Tashauz school would not admit young people this year. He added that religious students would instead attend a government-approved madrassah in Ashgabad.

Officials contacted by Keston have repeatedly declined to discuss Turkmenistan's policy of controlling and crushing religious activity.(END)