Friday 13 August

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The latest Christian church known to have been raided by the Turkmen secret police in its continuing crackdown on unregistered groups is a Baptist congregation in the capital Ashgabad. The raid - which took place on 8 August - followed earlier raids by officers of the National Security Committee (the KNB, the former KGB) on almost all the known unregistered congregations in the Central Asian republic. Baptists Pentecostals and Adventists have been particular targets. Christian literature has been confiscated and unregistered communities - which include all Turkmenistan's Protestant churches - have been warned to halt their meetings.

The Baptist congregation raided belongs to the Council of Evangelical Christians/Baptists (the group that rejected state registration during the Soviet era) and meets in the home of the pastor, VLADIMIR CHERNOV. According to an 8 August report from church members in Turkmenistan, passed to Keston News Service by the US-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries, two KNB agents K. NURMAMEDOV and N. AMANOV arrived at 11 am during the Sunday morning worship service. They demanded the service stop immediately, claiming that the service violated Article 205 of the Administrative Code (which dates back to the Soviet era and punishes `violations of legislation on religious associations').

`They began to threaten people, demanding personal information (last names, addresses, places of work, etc.) from every one who was present in the house,' the statement reported. `Those who refused to provide the personal information or demanded an explanation for such actions, the KNB agents threatened to take away to the police station. When one brother refused to give his personal information and to go to the police station, KNB agent Nurmamedov ordered Amanov, "What are you waiting for? Grab him by the neck and lead him away!"'

Some of the church members present tried to continue the service and kneeled down for prayer, but the KNB agents began to pull several of them outside by force. `Special threats were addressed to the ethnic Turkmen; the KNB agent warned one brother: "If you come back here once more for prayer, I will force you to suffer."' Two men were taken away to the police station where a protocol was filed against them under Article 190 of the Administrative Code for violation of the passport regime.

`On leaving the house, the KNB agents threatened to return next Sunday [15 August], and if the believers gather again, they will apply harsher measures. Dear brothers and sisters! Based on what you have just read, we ask you to support us in prayers, that believers could assemble to worship God and freely preach the Gospel,' the statement concluded.

The Baptist congregation has suffered repeated state harassment. During a raid by KNB agents on Chernov's home on 9 June, all the church's literature was confiscated (see KNS 15 June 1999). There are some fears that the KNB is seeking to expel Chernov, a Russian citizen, from Turkmenistan.

The 8 August raid followed a series of raids on other churches in the Turkmen capital. On 4 July KNB officers raided a Baptist church affiliated with the Baptist Union. The raid came as the church was finishing a communal lunch held after a members' meeting, a baptism of four new believers and a communion service. At about 2.30 pm four KNB officers arrived by car. Of the four officers, three were in plain clothes and only the driver was in uniform. They first approached the pastor, Deacon VASILI KOROBOV, and said that they wanted to lock and bar the gate, and then take the names, addresses, telephone numbers and places of work of everybody inside. Korobov managed to persuade them that everyone would file outside one by one and give their personal details as demanded by the KNB. All those present, nearly fifty people, then trooped out to have their details written down. The pastor was then ordered to present himself at the KNB office the following afternoon.

Church members passed the names of the four KNB officers - together with the registration number of the vehicle - to the Ashgabad office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The last time the names and addresses of church members were taken after the service at this Baptist church was two years ago, after which the KNB visited the homes of the church members, asking such questions as `Do you want to continue your present job?' and `Do you want to complete your studies at the university?'

During raids on other churches by the KNB over the past months, the Adventists and Pentecostals have been threatened with fines if services continue, and the possibility of eventual imprisonment.

In June, raids concentrated on confiscating stocks of Bibles and other Christian literature. On 2 June the KNB visited Korobov's Baptist Church and confiscated all the literature stocks, including Russian and Turkmen Scriptures, several thousand copies in all.

All the stocks of Scriptures and other Christian literature, as well as audio and other equipment held by Pastor VIKTOR MOKROUSOV of the Pentecostal Church in Ashgabad was confiscated by the KNB on the grounds that they were `contraband'. He was told that the church would be fined because they avoided registration and carried out activities which endanger the health of adults and/or children. Mokrousov denies both counts and refuses to pay.

During another raid in late June the KNB told Pastor PAVEL FEDOTOV of the Adventist church in Ashgabad that there must be no more services at the church, and that the sign outside the building must come down. If not he would be taken to court and fined. If subsequently the church continued to function, he faced the threat of prison. Fedotov refused to comply.

Pastor MICHAEL OBRECHT of the Greater Grace church in Ashgabad was also reportedly visited by the KNB, though they did not confiscate any books apparently.

Under Turkmenistan's harsh legislation on religion, congregations require at least 500 adult citizens as members before they can even apply for official registration. Only the officially sanctioned Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church have managed to achieve reregistration. (END)