by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Police and officers of the National Security Committee (KNB) are reported to have stepped up their harassment of a Baptist congregation in the eastern town of Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou), according to a report reaching Keston News Service. However, an official of the Turkmen Foreign Ministry denied the information in a telephone interview with Keston.

`On Thursday 23 September and Friday 24 September, members of the local Baptist congregations were subjected to police searches of all their homes and belongings,' a source told Keston. `The search included the seizure of any and all literature. Following this the police demanded that the members sign a statement renouncing their faith and an oath to never again read Christian literature, the Bible nor ever again attend Christian gatherings. The same events were repeated on Friday 24 September. Particularly strong were the demands; do not meet, do not read, do not believe. Ominously, these last interrogations ended with the words, "This is your final warning."'

The Turkmenabad Baptist Church was formerly a member church of the Central Asian Baptist Union, but separated from it at the beginning of the year over theological differences and is now independent. It has suffered continuous harassment, which has especially targeted the small daughter churches that meet in villages around Turkmenabad. In several cases in 1998 and 1999, village authorities, the police and the KNB have summoned church leaders to public meetings, where church members are threatened with expulsion from the village if they fail to halt their Christian activity, although so far these threats have not been carried out as far as is known. However, a number of village groups have closed as a result of this pressure. A number of church members have also been fined by the authorities for their activity. In addition, some members of the church - which is largely made up of ethnic Turkmen converts - have received threats from Muslim relatives.

Contacted by telephone, an official of the Information Department of the Turkmen Foreign Ministry in Ashgabad who did not give his name told Keston that religious minorities had `no problems' in Turkmenistan. Asked to comment on the reports of police raids on members of the Turkmenabad Baptist church the official responded: `This did not happen.' The official also denied other recent cases of state harassment of religious communities, including the destruction in August of a Hare Krishna temple in Ashgabad and a Hare Krishna temple in Mary (see KNS 8 September and 22 September).

Asked more generally how he reconciled the difficulties encountered by minority religious communities in Turkmenistan (none of which have been granted official registration) with Turkmenistan's international human rights commitments which guarantee religious liberty, the official told Keston: `We don't know.' The phone line then went dead.

Keston tried to reach officials at the government's Gengeshi (Council) for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad, but the telephones went unanswered. Turkmenistan is committed to a range of human rights agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the OSCE human dimension commitments and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These guarantee religious liberty, as does Turkmenistan's own constitution.

Registration remains one of the main problems for minority communities. Legislation on religion requires 500 adult citizen members before an individual community can apply for registration. Officials have interpreted that to mean 500 people in any given town or district, making it all but impossible for smaller communities to gain registration. Only communities of the officially-sanctioned Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church have managed to achieve re-registration.

Speaking to the visiting Special Adviser to the United States Secretary for the New Independent States, STEVEN SESTANOVICH, and the US Ambassador to Turkmenistan, JOSEPH HULINGS, in May 1999, President SAPARMURAT NIYAZOV promised to permit registration of almost all religious groups, but to date no action has been taken by the Turkmen government.

According to another report reaching Keston, Protestant churches in Ashgabad experienced continued harassment from the police and KNB officers throughout September, following a summer of raids (see KNS 13 August). There are frequent visits to churches on Saturdays and Sundays and church leaders continue to receive threats from officials. The KNB tells foreign representatives (including diplomats) not to interfere, declaring that their actions follow `national law' which, they say, overrides international human rights commitments.

Meanwhile, Hare Krishna representatives in Moscow staged a protest against recent harassment of their community in Turkmenistan outside the Turkmen Embassy to Russia in Moscow on 24 September and held a press conference afterwards with devotees from Turkmenistan.