TURKMENISTAN: Orthodox Church Journal Banned.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 13 September 2002

In the wake of a presidential ban on the import of all newspapers and magazines from Russia, issued amid some secrecy last June, believers of Turkmenistan's only legal Christian denomination - the Russian Orthodox Church - are now barred from subscribing to their Church's main journal, the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, and other church publications from Russia. Bairmagul Begmuradova, chief specialist at Turkmenpochta - the joint stock company that handles subscriptions to publications - confirmed to Keston News Service from the Turkmen capital Ashgabad on 10 September that President Saparmurat Niyazov's decree extends to the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate. "It is a Russian publication and therefore no subscriptions to it are allowed," she declared categorically.

Reports from Turkmenistan say that subscribers stopped receiving Russian publications from 17 July. Those who have already paid subscriptions will be refunded. Customs officials have been instructed to confiscate all Russian publications from those entering Turkmenistan. Presumably, any copies of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate brought into the country will now be confiscated.

"The Turkmen people now, apparently, have no means of acquiring or reading Russian newspapers and magazines," the journalist Chemen Ashirova complained in the Russian news agency Prima on 6 September. "Even those who set up subscriptions for the second half of this year, and paid large sums of money in Turkmen manats or US dollars, will not receive their newspapers." Ashirova maintained that President Niyazov's ban on the import of Russian publications into Turkmenistan was designed "to prevent the dissemination among his people of unwholesome and libellous fabrications about himself and the reforms which he carries out almost every day of his life".

The head of the distribution department of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, Vera Semenova, told Keston from the Russian capital on 10 September that the journal has only 10 subscribers in Turkmenistan. "Most Turkmen residents buy our journal when they come to Moscow."

"This is the first I have heard about a ban on subscribing to our journal in Turkmenistan," the secretary responsible for the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, Marina Zhilkina, told Keston from Moscow on 11 September. "Of course, 10 subscribers is not a lot, but every reader is important to us. Furthermore, our subscribers in Turkmenistan are genuine supporters of our publication. They write us letters and telephone us. Therefore we are very upset at the news you have given us, and we hope that this misunderstanding will soon be resolved."

Speaking to Keston by telephone on 11 September, the deputy head of the department for external church relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, had also not heard about the Turkmen president's decision. "Metropolitan Vladimir, who is in charge of the Central Asian diocese, is currently in Moscow, and I will certainly find out the details from him," added Fr Vsevolod. At the same time, he stressed that "the Central Asian diocese is in four independent states, and decisions on all local issues must in the first instance be made by local Orthodox believers. It is hard to interpret the nuances of local circumstances from Moscow."

"Today, even countries with a long tradition of democracy are introducing a ban on the import of certain literature, such as fundamentalist publications," Fr Vsevolod added. "The future will show whether this is a good or a bad thing. But it is the spirit of the times." Nevertheless, he hoped that in spite of the Turkmen president's decision, the Orthodox of that country would be able to obtain religious literature from Russia as before, without restrictions.

Speaking to Keston on 11 September, Fr Andrei Sapunov, secretary to the Tashkent-based Metropolitan Vladimir and head of the Orthodox Church in Turkmenistan - and simultaneously a deputy chairman of the Turkmen government's Council for Religious Affairs - claimed that President Niyazov's decision might even work to the advantage of Orthodox believers in Turkmenistan. "Various pornographic publications come here from Russia. For example, it was possible to buy the "Spid-info" magazine in Ashgabad with pictures of naked women on its front cover," he told Keston. "As an Orthodox priest, I cannot welcome this."

According to Fr Andrei, a ban on subscriptions to the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate will not disrupt the lives of the Orthodox in Turkmenistan. "For example, I do not subscribe to that magazine, because it arrives very late. I always buy the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate when I go to Moscow. We have permission from the state agencies to bring religious literature here from Russia, and so I do not envisage any problems."

The priest of Ashgabad's Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral, Fr Ioann Kopach, expressed more reserved optimism. "In the main, we get religious literature from Moscow," he told Keston by telephone on 11 September. "Fr Andrei Sapunov decides precisely what literature Orthodox believers need, and receives permission for it to be brought here. I hope that in that way we will manage to obtain the literature we need in future as well." (END)