TURKMENISTAN: Protestants Forced to Renounce Their Faith.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 17 May 2002

Turkmenistan's police and political police have forced a group of Protestants in a small village in the east of the country to renounce their faith publicly, Christian sources in Turkmenistan have told Keston News Service. The seven or eight Protestants - rounded up after a female village resident received a Christian magazine through the post from Kiev - were summoned at the beginning of May and ordered to swear an oath on a copy of President Saparmurat Niyazov's "spiritual book" Ruhnama renouncing the Bible and their faith in Jesus. Three of the group who refused - Murad Djumanazarov, Jamilya Boltaeva and Nurmurad (last name unknown) - were expelled from the village and are now subject to a manhunt ordered from the capital Ashgabad by the political police (KNB). The duty officer at the KNB headquarters in Ashgabad declined to provide Keston on 17 May with any information about the case, which department of the KNB was leading the manhunt or to provide further contact telephone numbers. "This is the first I've heard about this from you," declared the officer, who declined to give his name. "I don't know anything." He said the KNB had no press department.

The telephones went unanswered at the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs on 17 May, when Keston sought to discover why state officials believe they have the right to force believers to renounce their faith, in violation of the government's international commitment to uphold religious liberty and Turkmenistan's own constitution. Keston was unable to reach Father Andrei Sapunov, the head of the Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan and one of the deputy chairmen of the Gengeshi with responsibility for Christian affairs, at Ashgabad's Voskresensky cathedral either.

This is not the first time that Protestants in the village of Deinau 35 kilometres (20 miles) from Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou) have been pressured. Djumanazarov and Nurmurad were sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment last December in reprisal for their participation in a meeting organised by the Word of Life church in Ashgabad raided by the police and political police on 15 November (see KNS 7 December 2001). Djumanazarov had been beaten two years ago for his faith and had been threatened with expulsion from the village.

Sources told Keston that the parcel containing the Christian magazine was opened at the village post office and the contents reported to the police. It was then that the KNB became involved and all the known Protestants in the village were summoned to renounce their faith. Once the three refused, gas and electricity were cut off to their homes and they were expelled from Deinau, although they were all registered as residents of the village. Their relatives were told that gas and electricity supplies would not be restored until the three were no longer officially registered as living there.

After the village KNB apparently reported on the three Protestants' expulsion to the KNB headquarters in Ashgabad, the instruction came back that the three should be seized and that the local KNB should "take measures" against them. Local Protestants believe these unspecified measures are likely to include fines, detention or long-term imprisonment. The three are reportedly now in hiding at unknown locations.

The mission in Ashgabad of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose mandate includes the furtherance of democratisation in Turkmenistan and its compliance with its human rights obligations as an OSCE member, said it had not yet heard about the pressure on Deinau's Protestants to renounce their faith or the expulsion of the three from the village. "We will now try to clarify the matter with the proper authorities," the official, who declined to be named, told Keston from Ashgabad on 17 May.

This is not the first time state officials have been involved in pressuring believers to renounce their faith and choose another. In March 2001, the local mullah, administration officials and KNB officers in the town of Kaakhka pressured Artygyul Atakova, the wife of Baptist then-prisoner Shageldy Atakov, and their five children to renounce their faith in Jesus and convert to Islam. They refused (see KNS 26 March 2001).

Turkmenistan has 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. The government treats all other faiths - including the Baptists, Pentecostals, Armenian Apostolic Church, Jews, Baha'is, Jehovah's Witnesses, Lutherans and Hare Krishna community - as illegal. Believers have been fined, imprisoned, beaten and deported. Places of worship have been destroyed, while private homes used for worship have been confiscated. (END)