Friday 21 January 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Uzbek Baptists are calling the registration of their church in Urgench
`unprecedented' after the local Justice authorities bowed to pressure and
accepted an application they had refused just a few months earlier. In addition
to the freeing of all known Christian and Jehovah's Witness prisoners, the
registration of religious congregations of a variety of minority faiths has been
one of the most important improvements in the religious liberty situation in
Uzbekistan in the wake of the government's about-turn on religious policy in
August 1999. Many of these registrations of national religious bodies and local
communities have come about after pressure from Tashkent and in the teeth of
often fierce opposition from local officials.

The Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists of Central Asia told Keston
News Service from Tashkent on 20 January that the church in Urgench near
Uzbekistan's western border with Turkmenistan was registered by the Board of
the Justice Department of the Khorezm region at its meeting on 30 December.
However, the headquarters of the Union learnt of the decision only on 18
January, when the pastor of the Urgench congregation, OLEG BADER,
telephoned the chairman of the Union, PAVEL PEYCHEV, to report that he
had received the certificate of registration.

There had been one slight difficulty, the Union told Keston. `The leader of the
church Oleg Bader had not been able to attend the Board meeting, as the
policeman on duty at the [Justice] Department entrance had not allowed him
into the building. Afterwards officials of the Department accused Bader of
failing to respect such a high body as the Department of Justice and failing to
come to the Board meeting. However, after a conversation with the policeman
who admitted he had not let Bader in they decided to consider the incident

The Urgench church applied for registration in September 1999, but the
Khorezm region Department of Justice refused to process the application and in
early December gave the church `a couple of days' to correct what they said
were inadequacies in its registration application and resubmit the paperwork
(see KNS 10 December 1999). The Department of Justice demanded that the
church find new premises to meet, declaring that its current meeting place was
unacceptable. An official at the Department of Justice in Urgench had refused
to discuss the case with Keston on 10 December, although BEGZOD
KADYROV, an official of the Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent,
told Keston the Committee would seek to resolve the issue. In the wake of the
refusal, the Baptist Union leadership wrote to the Committee for Religious
Affairs calling on it to take `urgent and effective measures' to resolve the
problems. `As a result, Kadyrov declared that the church's documents are to be
returned again to the Department of Justice in Urgench,' the Union told Keston
on 21 December. `He gave an assurance that the church will be registered' (see
KNS 10 January 2000).

The Union declares that the Urgench church made no changes to its registration
application before resubmitting it in December. `Thanks to the active
involvement of many people of good will throughout the world the documents
were again submitted to the Department of Justice of Khorezm region in
exactly the same form and without a single change or addition. And now the
registration has taken place. Such a case is unprecedented up till today.'

Although the Uzbek government appears to have reversed its earlier decision to
obstruct the registration of local congregations of many minority religious
communities, it is clear from the Urgench Baptist case that obstruction on a
local level to registering individual religious communities continues. In this
instance, international coverage and the active involvement on the part of the
Committee for Religious Affairs in Tashkent helped achieve the registration.

Friday 21 January 2000

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Despite claims ahead of the destruction of the Adventist church in the Turkmen
capital Ashgabad last November that the land was needed to build a new road,
visitors to the city report that there is no sign of any new road being
constructed and question the validity of the claims. The second reason the
authorities subsequently cited was the poor condition of the church building
itself, but visitors to the church before its destruction and those who have
viewed videos of the building refute this suggestion also. The bulldozing of the
Adventist church - which began on 13 November 1999 and took two weeks to
complete - has been widely regarded as the defining moment of Turkmenistan's
suppression of its religious minorities.

KAREN LORD, Counsel for Freedom of Religion at the Commission on
Security and Cooperation in Europe of the US Congress (the Helsinki
Commission) told Keston News Service on 19 January that during a Helsinki
Commission delegation visit to Ashgabad in December she and other
Commission staff visited the site where the church had stood. `It is evident
from visiting the site that the authorities have no immediate plans to construct a
road,' she told Keston. `The building remains as a pile of rubble with no
indication that work continues on the site. No other buildings have been
destroyed save the church and a home behind the church. The Adventist
church, a neighbouring school, and 17 houses surrounding the site all received
notice from city planners but no others have been demolished to date.' Lord
added that after initially saying that the church had to be demolished to make
way for a new road the authorities declared that the building had to be
condemned because it was structurally unsound. `From the information
obtained by the Helsinki Commission staff, both of these reasons appear to be
fallacious. There is a major road a few blocks away which serves as a primary
artery for traffic in the city. No new road appears to be needed through a quiet
residential area ofAshgabad. The building itself was solidly constructed - the
time it took to demolish it is testimony to that.'

Other visitors to the site since the demolition have also confirmed to Keston
that the former building remains a pile of rubble and that no construction work
on a new road has begun.

DAVLIT ANNAMURADOV, the architect for the Kopetdag district of
Ashgabad where the church was located, denied to Keston on 24 November
1999 that the Adventist church had been singled out for demolition. He claimed
the demolition had taken place in accordance with the `general plan for the
city'. The first the church's pastor PAVEL FEDOTOV had learnt of the
impending demolition had been a letter from Annamuradov dated 11
November ordering the Adventists to vacate the building ahead of the
imminent demolition (see KNS 26 November 1999).

Keston also spoke on 24 November with MURAD KARRIYEV, the deputy
chairman of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad, who
declared that the demolition of the Adventist church and two Hare Krishna
temples `was all done in accordance with the law'.

Pastor Fedotov told the Helsinki Commission delegation that while conducting
the Saturday evening service on 13 November, approximately 30 city workers
(Fedotov estimated that there were five actual workers and 25 security officers
in the group) arrived to begin the demolition. None would identify themselves
and no papers were produced indicating governmental permission to destroy
the building. The police blocked all the roads, gardens and back ways out of the
area. Ten people were actually in the church as the destruction began. The
British and American ambassadors attempted to visit the site but were
prevented from entering the area. Representatives of the OSCE Centre in
Ashgabad, PIOTR IWASZKIEWICZ and BESS BROWN, were also notified
of the situation and attempted to visit the area. On the day the destruction
began, Fedotov received a notice from the procurator, which the Helsinki
Commission staff obtained, declaring: `Your appeal to the procurator has been
considered. The questions in your appeal are regulated by the Religion Law of

According to Lord, when the OSCE representatives interviewed the workers
who were engaged in destroying the building they expressed deep concern
because they believed they were destroying `a house of God'. `Apparently it
was well known on the streets of Ashgabad that this church had been destroyed
and there was some concern that because a holy place had been desecrated,
negative things would befall the Turkmen people,' Lord reported. Other sources
told Keston that when a crane being used to knock down the building broke
unexpectedly, the operator said in fear that he was not prepared to continue
with the demolition and left the site. The following day the authorities had
found a new crane and a new operator to continue the work.

The demolition came after months of harassment and threats to the unregistered
community. In September 1999 Pastor Fedotov and other pastors had been
invited to meet officials of the Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs. The
Council suggested to Fedotov that he end all services, saying: `If you do not
stop your services then there will be reconstruction in the city.' Fedotov
indicated that he was gathering documents to apply for reregistration and asked
what documents were needed to complete the application. A month later,
Fedotov was told that his request had been denied, even before he had applied.
Also in October some 15 police officers raided a service at the Adventist
church, ordered parishioners to cease the illegal meeting and forced Fedotov to
sign a statement. The pastor was then summoned to the Administrative Court
and fined at what he described as a `sham' trial. Fedotov reportedly saw the
document with the final decision for the fine before the hearing had even taken
place. Iwaszkiewicz of the OSCE office was present as an observer at the

The Adventist church gathered signatures to petition President
SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV to stop the destruction of the church but they have
had no reply. They also sent a letter to the mayor of Ashgabad requesting
another plot of land and compensation for the destroyed building. They have
not had an official answer to this request, although Fedotov knows that there is
a negative response which the mayor is reluctant to sign. This response,
Fedotov maintains, does not discuss any city construction project but rather
states that the building was torn down because the church did not have the
proper permits.

Construction of the Adventist church in Ashgabad was begun in 1992 with
permission from President Niyazov and completed in 1996. (END)

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(c) Keston Institute 2000