freedom is shrinking, but disagree where.


Baptists have not been reregistered since the 1996 law on religion

went into effect. Will the Ambassador of Armenia have better success

reopening the pre-Soviet church?

Friday 22 January


By Roman Lunkin, Keston News Service

Which provinces in Russia are the least hospitable to religious

freedom? According to the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, LYUDMILA

ALEKSEYEVA, the worst offenders include Ulyanovsk, Voronezh,

Krasnodar and Mordovia. She also included the city of Moscow on her

list - a judgment disputed by another specialist on church-state

relations in Russia, the Moscow historian SERGEI FILATOV.

'The way is being paved for renewed pressure on and control over

social and religious organisations´┐Ż, Lyudmila Alekseyeva told Keston

News Service. 'There is a real trend towards a hardening of the 1997

law on religion and a danger of returning to the norms of the Soviet

era. People shouldn't wait for their organisation to be banned but

act when they see others being oppressed.' As an example of this

trend in Moscow, she cited the current court case against the

Jehovah's Witnesses (See Tatyana Titova and Lawrence A. Uzzell,


Keston News Service, 20 November 1998).

VASILI KALIN, head of the Administrative Centre of the Jehovah's

Witnesses in Russia, told Keston that some secular officials and

Orthodox clergy still wished to restore the Soviet regime's

oppressive policies towards his confession. Kalin described how he

and his parents had been deported from Ukraine to Irkutsk in the

1940s. Soviet oppression of Jehovah's Witnesses continued until 1986,

when six people from Khabarovsk were the last to receive sentences.

But the same Jehovah's Witnesses whom the Russian government

rehabilitated in 1991 now face the threat that the government may

again forbid them to profess their faith.

SERGEI FILATOV, a specialist on the history and sociology of religion

at Moscow State University, agreed with most but not all of Lyudmila

Alekseyeva's observations. In his opinion the official attitude

towards religious freedom did not depend upon the political

orientation of the government, however paradoxical that might seem.

For example, he has found that the Communists in Krasnodar and the

democrats in Arkhangelsk are displaying equal tolerance towards all

confessions. There are pro-freedom democrats and pro-freedom

Communists, he said - and there are democrats who are antiwestern and

who are strongly sympathetic towards Orthodoxy. In his view the

regions where violations of freedom of conscience are occurring most

frequently include Belgorod, Tula, Tyumen, Khabarovsky krai, Adygea,

Khakassia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Omsk

and Orel. Filatov would not put Moscow even among the worst ten

provinces: he said that violations of religious freedom there were no

more frequent than average for Russia. (END)

Friday 22 January


by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

In what seems set to become an interesting test case of

Turkmenistan's attitude to religious minorities, the Armenian

community in the port city of Turkmenbashi (formerly Krasnovodsk) is

seeking to regain its church confiscated during the Soviet era and to

reopen it as a place of worship. Since the adoption of a revised law

on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations in 1996 and

subsequent compulsory reregistration, all religious groups except the

Muslims and the Russian Orthodox have been denied registration by

Turkmenistan's state authorities.

Much of the impetus for reopening the Turkmenbashi church, the only

surviving Armenian church in Turkmenistan, has come from the Armenian

ambassador to Turkmenistan, ARAM GRIGORYAN. He met the mayor of

Turkmenbashi, CHARI VOVEZKLICHEV, last September to discuss the

restoration of the church and the resumption of its activities.

Vovezklichev told Grigoryan that the restoration would be possible

only if the Armenian side allocated all necessary funds. The

resumption of the church's activities was a more complicated task, he

told the ambassador, and was connected with the registration of the

church community. In October, thanks to assistance from Armenia, an

Armenian Sunday school opened in Turkmenbashi, although this appears

to be a cultural more than a religious venture.

Ambassador Grigoryan told Keston from the Turkmen capital Ashkhabad

about the history of the church, built `to meet the spiritual needs

of the Armenians, who made up a not inconsiderable part of the

population of colonial Krasnovodsk'. The Armenians already had four

other churches in what is now Turkmenistan when the Armenian Synod

decided in 1900 to build the Krasnovodsk church. Imperial permission

was received in 1902 and construction was completed in two years. The

church was consecrated on 15 May 1905. However, it functioned for

only some two decades before being closed in the 1920s on orders of

the Soviet of People's Commissars. Two of the towers were later

demolished and the interior decoration and furnishings were

destroyed. The church was turned over to industrial use. New tall

buildings in surrounding streets hid the church from three sides,

although it is situated on a central square opposite what is now the

local government office.

`The building is still intact today, though minus the towers and

interior decoration,' Ambassador Grigoryan told Keston, `and needs

thorough restoration. We are now making attempts to realise the

restoration jointly with the mayor's office of the city and the local

Armenians.' The ambassador appealed for support from abroad to speed

up this work.

However, while Grigoryan was optimistic over the future reopening of

the church in Turkmenbashi, he was less hopeful about providing

churches in other Turkmen towns. `The construction of Armenian

churches in other towns in Turkmenistan is possible, but is not

feasible because of the lack of funds.'

Before the latest version of the Law on Freedom of Conscience came

into force, religious communities belonging to eight different faiths

had registration. Following compulsory reregistration in 1997, most

religious communities - including up to half the registered Muslim

communities - lost their registration. Under the amendments to the

law adopted in 1996 a religious community needs to have 500 members

to apply for registration. However, many religious communities that

have that number of members have been denied registration.

Unregistered groups, including Bahais, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses

and Pentecostal Christians, have been harassed for holding

unregistered religious gatherings. An application to register the

Armenian church in Turkmenbashi will provide an interesting test


In the absence of Armenian churches in Turkmenistan, religious

Armenians mainly attend Russian Orthodox churches, where they are

said to make up a sizeable minority of those attending. In May 1998

the Russian journalist NIKOLAI MITROKHIN estimated that they made up

between ten and fifteen per cent of parishioners at Orthodox

churches. (END)