TURKMENISTAN: Imam Joins Moves to Deport Baptists.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 18 July 2002

The imam of the Muslim community in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) has joined state officials in ordering the deportation of two Baptist families from Turkmenistan within a month, local Baptists reported in a statement received by Keston News Service. Ziyad Ishchanov, the deputy head of the local branch of the political police, the KNB (former KGB), the inspector of the passport service and an officer of the local police, accompanied by the town's imam, issued the verbal orders to Nadezhda Potolova (and her four children) and Valentina Kalataevskaya (and the six of her seven children still living at home) during visits to their homes in the town on 14 July.

"They suggested that they leave the country within one month, referring to the fact that the Potolovs and the Kalataevskys are not citizens of Turkmenistan, and that their residence permits had been cancelled by a decree of the hyakimlik [local administration] No. 460 of 16 November 2001," local Baptists reported in the 17 July statement. "They refused to hand over a copy of the decree."

The officials then drew up records of the conversations, reporting that the families had been acquainted with the decree and that they categorically refused to leave the country. Local Baptists called for prayers and appeals that the two families be allowed to remain in Turkmenistan and that "pressure" on them and all Christians be halted.

The two families belong to a congregation affiliated with the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, a group uniting congregations in many former Soviet republics. Although Keston has been unable to verify independently the report of the threat to deport the Potolov and Kalataevsky families, reports distributed through the Council of Churches have a long track record of reliability.

The two women's husbands, Yevgeny Potolov, who is from Russia, and Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, who is from Ukraine, were deported from Turkmenistan into neighbouring Kazakhstan in June 2001 on Ishchanov's orders. The following month, Ishchanov ordered Nadezhda Potolova and Valentina Kalataevskaya and their children to leave Turkmenistan, warning that if they had not left the country by 15 August 2001, the authorities would send soldiers to load them and their possessions into vehicles and deport them (see KNS 23 July 2001). It appears that the two families managed to avoid deportation.

Turkmenistan has the most repressive 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. Muslim and Orthodox leaders have a voice in suppressing other faiths - two of the deputy chairmen of the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs are Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah and Father Andrei Sapunov, dean of the Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan. Asked by local non-Orthodox Christians how they can gain state approval to function, KNB officers in a number of regions have volunteered that Father Sapunov is the official at the Gengeshi that they must apply to, in effect giving him a veto on which rival Christian churches can be registered.

In the past five years, Turkmenistan has deported hundreds of foreign citizens active with a variety of faiths - including Protestants, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees. Six Baptist families active in local congregations of the Council of Churches are known to have been deported in recent years despite having legal residence in the country (see KNS 26 May 2000). All were Russian or Ukrainian citizens. The most recent known religious deportees were Russian pastor Vladmir Shamrai, his wife Olga (a Kazakh citizen), and visiting Russian pastor Leonid Malko, following a police raid on the Protestant Word of Life Church in the capital Ashgabad last November (see KNS 16 November 2001).

The deportation moves against the Potolov and Kalataevsky families come as conditions for Protestant churches in Turkmenistan are reported to have eased recently. "Things have been much quieter over recent months," Keston was told on 18 July by a member of the German-based Friedensstimme Mission, which maintains close ties with congregations of the Council of Churches. "This may be connected with the wide-ranging sacking of KNB leaders ordered by President Saparmurat Niyazov earlier this year."

Other Protestant denominations in Turkmenistan report a similar lull in pressure from the authorities. "Not even one single believer was put under harassment for attending very openly large common fellowship meetings which were never conducted secretly, but often outside in the city so many people could see saints praying and preaching," one Protestant told Keston from Turkmenistan in early July, adding that this was "very unusual" for the Protestant churches that still manage to function. "Until almost two weeks ago they were fined by the local authorities for every single meeting, no matter how secretly they were trying to meet." (END)