Friday 29 October

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Officers of the National Security Committee (KNB) who have been harassing a
Baptist congregation in the eastern town of Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou)
have stepped up their pressure on its pastor. KNB officers arrived during a
service on 24 October, but waited until the service had finished before
detaining Pastor RAHIM TASHOV. He was held for two nights before being
freed on 26 October after a fine was imposed. He was reportedly beaten badly
while in KNB custody.

An official who answered the phone at the government's Council for Religious
Affairs in Ashgabad on 29 October declined to discuss the case with Keston
News Service. Declining to give his name, he referred all enquiries to `the
leadership' of the Council, but said no-one from the leadership was present.

The KNB accused Tashov of holding an illegal meeting and warned him that if
he continued with his religious activity he would face one month's
imprisonment for his next offence; if he still persisted after that, they said, he
would face a criminal case that could result in several years in prison.
However, Tashov refused to accept that he was doing anything illegal.
Although his church does not have registration (Turkmen law requires 500
adult citizen members in a given locality before a congregation can even apply
for registration), the pastor maintains that private worship in small house
groups is not illegal. Tashov asked the KNB officers to show him which legal
provisions he had violated. He is seeking a meeting with the local prosecutor to
try to elucidate the legal position. He is also consulting a local lawyer.

During the interrogation, the KNB also reportedly asked Tashov how it was
that the whole world knew about the case of the church. It appears they were
referring to coverage given to earlier raids on the church, including KNB and
police visits in late September when Christian literature was confiscated and
church members were warned not to meet (see KNS 1 October 1999).

During the 24 October raid the KNB also confiscated all the religious literature
they could find on the premises, 27 books in all, together with two computers
and a printer.

In an ominous sign, the KNB warned parents of children who attend the
church's Sunday school that the children would be expelled from school if they
did not stop attending. Two members of the congregation have lost their jobs as
school teachers because of their involvement with the church.

Keston has also learnt that on 26 October RUSLAN TASHOV, Rahim's
brother, finally received his long-awaited exit visa to be allowed to leave for St
Petersburg. However, as a source told Keston, he and his wife Gulya `were
finally granted permission to exit for a period not greater than 30 days strictly
for the purpose of gathering their personal belongings and returning. Their
conditions stipulated that the Russian visa reflect these limitations and be of the
type which cannot be extended. The appeal process revealed that these
limitations were justified because Ruslan was under investigation for illegal
unregistered religious activity´┐Ż.

Ruslan had been intending to resume his theological studies. He has already
studied for two years at the St Petersburg Christian University. He had
reapplied for a further year's exit visa in July, but was refused one for three
months, thus causing him to miss most of the first semester of the current
academic year.

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 its 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 have been threatened with expulsion from the
village if they failed to halt their Christian activity. Though these threats are
not known to have been carried out, a number of village groups have closed as
a result of the pressure. A number of church members have also been fined by
the authorities for their activities. In addition, some members of the church -
which is made up of ethnic Turkmen converts - have received threats from
Muslim relatives.

Minority religious communities in Turkmenistan have found it impossible to
overcome the hurdle requiring 500 members for registration. Only
communities of the officially-sanctioned Sunni Muslims and the Russian
Orthodox Church have managed to achieve reregistration. However, the law on
religion - last amended in 1996 - does not specifically outlaw unregistered
religious activity as such, although it does outlaw unregistered religious
teaching and allows only officially registered religious headquarters to have
publishing houses for producing religious literature.

Despite this, the Turkmen authorities choose to interpret the law as banning
any religious activity that is not registered. Throughout the summer Baptist,
Adventist and other Protestant groups were raided, as were Bahai and Jehovah's
Witness gatherings. Two Hare Krishna temples were destroyed. Members of
religious groups are frequently fined under the Administrative Code, one of
whose articles, which remains unchanged from the Soviet period, punishes
`Violation of the legislation on religious associations'. Article 205 reads in full:

`Violation of the legislation on religious associations: 1) the refusal by leaders
of religious associations to register associations with the organs of state
administration; 2) violation of the procedure established by legislation of the
organisation and conducting of religious meetings, processions and other cult
ceremonies; 3) the organisation and conducting by cult servants and members
of religious associations of special child and youth meetings, as well as labour,
literature and other circles and groups not associated with the performance of
the cult, - attracts the imposition of a fine of up to fifty roubles.'

The continued existence of this article and its frequent use against believers of
many faiths show that Turkmenistan is ignoring the provisions in its own
constitution that ostensibly protect religious freedom. (END)

Friday 29 October

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

Georgian Evangelical pastor ZAALI TKESHELASHVILI has vowed to take
his cse to the Georgian Supreme Court in his search for justice against his local
branch of the Tbilisi police. Tkeshelashvili, pastor of the Madli (Grace) Church
in the suburb of Gldani, brought the case after the police used brutal methods to
break up a peaceful open air evangelistic rally in May. At a hearing on 20
October, the Tbilisi Regional Court rejected Tkeshelashvili's appeal against the
dismissal of his case against the Gldani police by the Gldani district court on
17 August (see KNS 11 June 1999, 20 August 1999 and 28 September 1999).

However, as Tkeshelashvili told Keston News Service from Tbilisi on 21
October, he was heartened that one of the three judges at the hearing the
previous day had come out in his support even if the other two had ruled that
the police had not violated the law. Although no date has yet been set for a
Supreme Court hearing, Tkeshelashvili said that he was certain he would attain
justice. `The case is open and clear-cut,' he told Keston. `We will win.'
Tkeshelashvili contends that the Gldani police violated the Constitution and the
Law on Demonstrations and Meetings when they broke up the rally in May. `It
was a peaceful meeting. We were simply standing and singing. The police had
no right to break it up.' If he fails in the Supreme Court Tkeshelashvili plans to
take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which now
has jurisdiction in cases concerning Georgia since the country became a
member of the Council of Europe.

Tkeshelashvili noted the raid on a Jehovah's Witness meeting in Gldani on 17
October and the widespread outrage this had caused, even leading President
EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE to condemn the attack and call for criminal
charges against the perpetrators (see KNS 20 October 1999). Tkeshelashvili
reported that in the wake of the incident criminal charges had been filed against
various police officers and against the defrocked Orthodox priest BASIL
MKALAVISHVILI, who is reported to have organised the 17 October raid and
who had been involved in earlier harassment of Protestants and Jehovah's
Witnesses. The defrocked priest has not been arrested, nor has he been charged
for his earlier involvement in raids on minority congregations.

A demonstration was held in central Tbilisi on 19 October to protest against the
attacks on religious minorities. The demonstration brought together some 40
religious figures and human rights activists, including the leaders of the Baptist
Church, the Evangelical Churches and the Jehovah's Witnesses, who marched
along Rustaveli Avenue in the city centre. The demonstrators visited the office
of the Ombudsman (although the post is now vacant since the resignation of
DAVID SALARIDZE in September), where they left a copy of a petition
calling for an end to the violation of religious rights in Georgia. The
demonstrators then went to the parliament building where they handed another
copy of the petition to RUSUDAN BERIDZE, the secretary for human rights
of the National Security Council. She was supportive of their case, telling them
that anyone who violated the rights of believers should be prosecuted.
Television gave the event wide coverage.

The same day the participants in the demonstration attended a conference on
civic rights and the forthcoming elections organised by two non-governmental
organisations, the Liberty Institute and Former Political Prisoners for Human
Rights, at the Tbilisi House of Cinematographers. Also attending was a
representative of the press department of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate.
A resolution drawn up by the conference condemned the attack on the
Jehovah's Witnesses by the defrocked priest of the Georgian Orthodox Church
and his congregation.

PAATA ZAKAREISHVILI, chief of staff of the Committee for Human Rights
and National Minorities of the Georgian parliament, has welcomed the criminal
case brought against Mkalavishvili. `For the two months before the raid on the
Jehovah's Witnesses they had organised raids on the Pentecostals in Tbilisi,'
Zakareishvili told Keston from Tbilisi on 27 October. `I had appealed via my
parliamentary committee to the Ministry of Internal Affairs for them to take
action, but they merely replied that they had discovered no evidence of
violence despite the fact that I have photographs with such evidence.'

It was only after the Jehovah's Witness raid and the public statements by
President Shevardnadze that action was taken against Mkalavishvili. `The
Georgian president himself spoke up for the launching of a criminal case
against him,' Zakareishvili reports. `Until then, no-one had any intention of
reacting to the raid on the Jehovah's Witnesses.'

Zakareishvili notes with regret that Mkalavishvili has been charged under the
old Soviet-era criminal code, as the new code has not yet come into force.
`Action will have to be taken now under the old criminal code and it is likely
he will be charged under the article on hooliganism,' says Zakareishvili. `In the
new criminal code there is a special article that deals with such pogroms.'

Zakareishvili said that he was an `active participant' in the protest against the
attacks on religious minorities held in Tbilisi on 19 October, including an
appeal to the president to prevent such attacks on religious minorities in the

Separately, Zakareishvili told Keston that there has been no movement in plans
to draw up an agreement between the state and the Georgian Orthodox
Patriarchate (see KNS 10 August 1999). `Nothing has yet happened, but on 8
November Pope JOHN PAUL II is due to arrive and at a meeting with him the
speaker of parliament ZURAB ZHVANIA is planning to propose that the
Roman Catholic Church also discuss the question of a concordat, although such
a concordat has not yet been signed with the Orthodox Church.'

There is widespread speculation that the Catholic Church has been forced to
move a public Mass in Tbilisi from a square in the city centre to the Central
Palace of Sport because of Orthodox pressure. Some Orthodox had opposed a
public papal Mass on the streets of the capital. (END)

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