Wednesday 8 September

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The Turkmen authorities - who are inflicting the harshest religious policy in the
whole of the former Soviet Union - have turned their attention to the Hare
Krishna community after taking steps to try to halt the activities of Protestant
Christian communities. Two Hare Krishna temples - in the capital Ashgabad
and in the eastern town of Mary - were destroyed in August and the leader of
the Ashgabad community, ALEKSANDR PRINKUR (ACHARYA DAS), was
forcibly deported from the country.

Keston believes this is the first time government authorities in any of the
former Soviet republics have deliberately destroyed places of worship since the
end of the Soviet period, although many places of worship have been forcibly
closed by the authorities in a number of republics. During the 1994-1995
Russian assault on Chechnya, bombing by the Russian air force destroyed the
Russian Orthodox church in Grozny. More recently, St Petersburg authorities
wanted to demolish a Russian Orthodox church to make room for a motorway,
but at last word had dropped those plans after a public outcry which included
the reporting of Sasha Shchipkov for KNS.

Prinkur told Keston News Service on 3 September that on 12 August the
National Security Committee (KNB, the former KGB) and the local authorities
forced the Hare Krishna devotees to pull down their temple in Ashgabad,
which had been under construction for two years on private land belonging to a
devotee and which was almost finished. Two days later a programme attacking
the Hare Krishna community was shown on Ashgabad television. `The
presenters of the programme conducted open propaganda against our
community,' reports Prinkur, `and it was also said that the Hare Krishna temple
in the town of Mary had been destroyed.' (Keston does not have independent
confirmation of this report.) In the wake of the programme, the
woman who owned the land where the temple had been built in Ashgabad was
beaten at the market by another woman who had seen the programme.

`Devotees are periodically summoned to the KNB, where they are interrogated,
intimidated and threatened that their homes will be taken away,' reports
Prinkur. `Very many devotees and those who associate with devotees have lost
their jobs. One woman, Klara, who had just begun to associate with devotees,
was fired from her job. Her boss told her that they were firing her because she
was connected with Krishna Consciousness and also threatened that they could
put her in prison.'

Prinkur himself, who had led the Ashgabad community since 1995, was
deported after the demolition and in the wake of two months of harassment of
the community. In the evening of 14 June two KNB officers and one policeman
conducted an illegal search of the Ashgabad temple - without presenting the
necessary documentation - breaking into locked cupboards and confiscating
both communal and personal property. `They searched through literally
everything,' reports Prinkur, `and left everything in complete disorder.' The
officers focused on the books, confiscating a total of 1,300 volumes as well as
16 video cassettes and 120 audio cassettes. All those present had their identity
documents confiscated, though all but Prinkur were able to get them back the
following day at the local administration.

However, the authorities seem to have targeted Prinkur. All his personal
possessions, including books, two cameras and a tape recorder, as well as all
his documents (internal passport, military book, birth certificate and labour
record book) were confiscated. The republican KNB kept them for two months,
despite Prinkur's repeated attempts to get them back. `One KNB officer, ORAZ
NEPESOVICH, told me that they would keep the documents until my identity
had been established. He told me that I was a citizen of Uzbekistan and that I
was allegedly staying in Turkmenistan illegally, although I was legally
registered in the village of Anau in Ahal region from 2 April 1997. From 2
March 1999 I reregistered in the town of Bezmein in Ahal region, and had a
temporary registration certificate valid until 1 March 2000.'

On 16 August - four days after Hare Krishna members had been forced to pull
down the temple - two KNB officers came by car for Prinkur, but he was not at
the site of the former temple, as he had moved to another home. They said they
had come to talk about registering the community and returning his documents.
The following day Prinkur went to the offices of the republican KNB in
Ashgabad. There they told him that his documents would be passed to the city
KNB for them to deal with the matter. An officer of the city KNB then arrived
and he was handed Prinkur's documents. He then proposed taking Prinkur to
the city KNB, but instead took him to the visa and registration office, where
they drew up documents for his deportation without his knowledge. He was
told his registration had been removed and he was shown a piece of paper filled
in with his name (and with his forged signature) declaring that he was moving
to Uzbekistan. The KNB officer then informed him that his train was leaving in
half an hour and that he had to hurry to catch it. Prinkur asked for time to
collect his things, but this was refused. `They began to threaten me that they
would put me in a cell if I did not leave the country within an hour. I was taken
to the station by police officers and put on the train, accompanied by a guard.'
He was then deported.

The Hare Krishna community has been unable to gain registration with the
Turkmen authorities, despite repeated attempts. Under current Turkmen law,
each religious community needs 500 adult citizen members before it can even
apply for registration. The Ashgabad Hare Krishna community has existed
since 1990, while the Mary community - the bigger of the two - has existed
since 1993. Although both communities were denied registration in the early
1990s, they had been able to function relatively freely until 1996, when
campaigns to close them down began. In 1997, under the new regulations in the
wake of revisions to the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious
Organisations, the Mary community collected the required 500 signatures, but
the application was rejected as some of the signatories lived in the Mary region
but not in the town of Mary. The same year the Ashgabad community tried
again to register. Both the Mary and Ashgabad communities suffered constant
harassment and threats from officials.

Only communities of the officially-sanctioned Sunni Muslims and the Russian
Orthodox Church have official registration. Communities that have been
denied registration include Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists and Bahais. This
summer the Turkmen authorities stepped up their harassment of Protestant
churches in what many believe was an attempt to halt their activity once and
for all. (END)