TURKMENISTAN: Further Fines On Baptists.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 January 2002

Six members of a Baptist congregation in the town of Khazar (formerly Cheleken) were fined in mid-January for holding "illegal services", Keston News Service has learned. The instruction to fine them came from the political police, the KNB (former KGB), the six were told. The Turkmen authorities routinely fine members of unregistered religious congregations for holding religious meetings, even if such meetings take place in private homes.

According to an 18 January statement from local Baptists, passed to Keston by the German-based Friedensstimme Mission, the six were summoned to an administrative commission at the hyakimlik (local administration) on 9 January. "There it was explained to them that an instruction had arrived about them from the KNB to take punishment measures against them in connection with illegal meetings they had conducted," the local Baptists reported. "They suggested that they should register the community, if they could collect 500 believers from the whole of Turkmenistan." Each of the six - named in the statement as V. Portnov, N. Popova, M. Kichibayeva, E. Zabibulayev, S. Nuriyeva and L. Bibartseva - was fined 250,000 manats (50 US dollars or 35 British pounds at the official exchange rate - about one week's wages) under Article 205 of the Administrative Code, an article dating back to the Soviet period that punishes those participating in unregistered religious activity. "The believers refused to sign the record and to pay the fines."

The Khazar Baptist church - like all congregations of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists - refuses to register with the authorities, believing that this would lead to unacceptable state control.

The suggestion that the congregation could register with 500 members nationally is in accordance with the latest version of the country's restrictive religion law, although local officials have routinely told members of other denominations trying to register that these 500 members (who must be Turkmen citizens) have to live in the same district of a town or the same rural district.

Turkmenistan operates the most repressive religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. Only communities of the state-sanctioned Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church have been allowed to register since 1997. All other communities are treated as illegal. (END)