Saturday 18 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Members of the estimated 32,000-strong Armenian community in
Turkmenistan are hoping to be able to establish churches in the
Central Asian state that has so far denied registration to all
religious groups except the officially-sanctioned Muslims and the
Russian Orthodox Church. A pastoral visit to Ashgabad last week by an
Armenian priest will be followed by a further visit next year.

Father VRAM GHAZARIAN - who is based in the Uzbek city of Samarkand
and heads the Armenian Church in Central Asia - spent from 6 to 8
December in Ashgabad at the invitation of the Armenian embassy to take
part in the commemoration of the eleventh anniversary of the
devastating earthquake in northern Armenia. `Father Vram was able to
baptise 73 Armenians, as well as rebaptising 15 people - who had
earlier been baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church - according to
the canons of the Armenian Apostolic Church,' Ambassador ARAM
GRIGORIAN told Keston News Service from Ashgabad on 17 December. `All
the rites took place on a site rented by Armenia where the
construction of the Armenian Embassy will soon begin. He did not
conduct any other rites anywhere at all, as there is at present no
functioning Armenian church in Turkmenistan.'

During the visit Father Ghazarian agreed with the ambassador that he
should make a further pastoral visit to Turkmenistan next year, not
only to Ashgabad but possibly to other towns as needed.

Asked whether Father Ghazarian had held any meetings with officials to
discuss the registration of Armenian Apostolic communities, Ambassador
Grigorian responded: `He had no meetings with the authorities, as the
question of opening Armenian churches here should be resolved at the
highest level.' (The ambassador is presumably referring to discussions
between the Armenian and Turkmen governments.)

Ambassador Grigorian reported that there are Armenian believers in
Ashgabad, Mary, Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou), Nebit-Dag and
Turkmenbashi. `Of course they want there to be Armenian churches,' the
ambassador told Keston, `but for this people will have to donate money
- and the Armenians here do not have money at the moment. The local
authorities likewise have no objection, but again refer to the lack of
finance.' Grigorian reported that in the absence of Armenian Apostolic
churches Armenians sometimes go to Russian Orthodox churches. `They
sometimes even get baptised there, but this is mainly because of
ignorance of the differences between the Orthodox and Apostolic
Churches.' (The Armenian Church is a member of the Oriental family of
Churches, not the Orthodox.) In May 1998 the Russian journalist
NIKOLAI MITROKHIN estimated that Armenians made up between ten and
fifteen per cent of parishioners at Orthodox churches in Turkmenistan.

The ambassador has been trying for some time to regain the Armenian
church in the port city of Turkmenbashi which was built in the early
years of the century, consecrated in 1905 and confiscated by the
Communist authorities in the 1920s (see KNS 22 January 1999). The
Turkmenbashi church is only one of five Armenian churches in what is
now Turkmenistan to have survived the Soviet period. Attributing the
lack of success in recovering the church so far to the lack of money
among the local Armenian population and the local authorities,
Grigorian appealed for outside help. `If you can help us to find a
sponsor, we will be very grateful,' he told Keston.

The ambassador is clearly relying on diplomatic pressure to get round
Turkmenistan's highly restrictive religious legislation, which
requires each religious community to have 500 adult citizen members
before it is even eligible to apply for official registration. Even
minority religious communities that have the required 500 members -
such as the Adventist community in Ashgabad - have been denied
registration. Moreover, officials interpret the legislation to imply
that unregistered religious activity is illegal and pastors and
activists of several Christian churches as well as Jehovah's Witnesses
and Hare Krishna leaders have been fined and detained.

Although the Turkmen authorities must have given Father Ghazarian a
visa to visit the country (all foreigners now require visas, even
visitors from other CIS countries), it is significant that he confined
his pastoral services to territory under the protection of the
government of Armenia. Had he not done so he would have made himself
liable to punishment or deportation. The Vatican is also able to make
use of this diplomatic status to allow a priest, Father ANDRZEJ MADEJ,
to be based permanently in the country and to hold Mass on Vatican
diplomatic territory, thus evading the de facto ban on minority

However, despite the ambassador's claims that the poverty of the local
Armenian community lies behind the failure to regain the church in
Turkmenbashi and establish churches in other Turkmen towns, it is
almost certain that state officials would block any attempt to
register an Armenian church.

Officials in Ashgabad at the government's Gengeshi (Council) for
Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Justice's department that
registers religious communities were not available by telephone on 17
December to comment on whether communities of the Armenian Church
would be allowed to register if they applied.(END)

Saturday 18 December

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

A senior representative of one the dioceses of the Belarusian
Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has denied reports that
priests are leaving the jurisdiction of the Church to join the
fledgling Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Sources in Minsk
told Keston News Service on 15 December that 64 Orthodox priests from
the Brest and Grodno regions have left the jurisdiction of the
Moscow-loyal Church over the past few months and are planning to meet
to establish a formal Autocephalous structure (see KNS 16 December

However, in a telephone interview on 17 December, the secretary of the
diocese of Grodno and Volkovysk categorically denied such claims.
Father ANATOLI NENATOVICH told Keston: `This is absolutely not so.
There have not even been two or three or four cases. There is just one
priest who left to join the Autocephalous Church, Father YAN SPASYUK.
It was just a small schism. However, he has not found a jurisdiction
to join, though he has been in contact with [US-based Autocephalous
leader] Archbishop YURI RYZHY.' Father Nenatovich reported that there
are a total of 83 priests in the Grodno diocese.

Father Spasyuk has been campaigning for his Autocephalous parish in
the village of Pogranichny in Grodno region to be allowed to register
after officials rejected the application on the grounds that the group
is `destructive' (see KNS 10 December 1999). He plans to lay the
cornerstone for a new church on Monday 20 December.

Father Nenatovich said that Father Spasyuk had been temporarily
suspended as a parish priest by the diocese last March but, after he
continued to hold services without the permission of Bishop ARTEMI, he
was defrocked. Father Nenatovich also reported that Father Spasyuk is
being investigated for `financial violations in his parish', adding
that `this is not the first time he has been the subject of a criminal
case'. He reported that Father Spasyuk had been sentenced on 22
January 1996 for financial offences under Article 151 of the Criminal
Code and given a three year conditional sentence. According to
information provided to the diocese by the local executive committee
(ispolkom) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, he continued, Father
Spasyuk had earlier been punished under Article 156 of the
Administrative Code in 1994 for `minor hooliganism'.

Another Autocephalous Orthodox leader, Bishop PETRO HUSHCHA, is in
hiding and is being hunted by the KGB (see KNS 16 December 1999).

Father Nenatovich affirmed that there have been no defections either
among the clergy of the Brest and Kobrin diocese. Keston was unable to
reach representatives of the Brest diocese on 17 December by
telephone. (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 1999