KESTON NEWS SERVICE: 20.00, 2 March 2001

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TURKMENISTAN: AUTHORITIES STRIP CLOSED BAPTIST CHURCH
BARE. The authorities of the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital
Ashgabad have today (2 March) broken their own seals on the doors of the
city's Baptist church and confiscated everything inside. Keston News Service
has been able to find no official prepared to discuss the confiscation, despite
repeated telephone calls. The closure of the Ashgabad church represents the
destruction of the last remnants of the Baptist Union's institutional life in
Turkmenistan.

TURKMENISTAN: AUTHORITIES STRIP CLOSED BAPTIST CHURCH
BARE

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service

The authorities of the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad
have today (2 March) broken their own seals on the doors of the city's
Baptist church and confiscated everything inside. The move was timed on
the last working day before nearly a week of public holidays in the country.
Keston News Service has been able to find no Turkmen local or national
government official prepared to discuss why the contents of the country's
last open Baptist church have been carted away in several lorry loads,
despite repeated telephone calls. The closure of the Ashgabad church
represents the destruction of the last remnants of the Baptist Union's
institutional life in Turkmenistan.

On 2 March Keston tried to contact deputy foreign minister Yolbars
Kepbanov, who is also director of the government's National Institute of
Democracy and Human Rights, but he was unavailable as his father had just
died. No official of his department, the secretariat, the protocol department
nor the press department of the foreign ministry was prepared to comment.
One official of the press department, Batyr Khedirov, introduced himself to
Keston, then when Keston raised the closure of the Baptist church and the
confiscation of its internal furnishings and possessions he kept repeating
`Hello?' as if thetelephone line had began to malfunction. When Keston
called back he declined to come to the phone and the secretary then put
down the phone. On two further occasions Keston was told the number was
that of a private flat.

Officials of the khyakimlik (local administration) were also unable or
unwilling to explain the confiscation. The telephone of the deputy khyakim
(administration head), Muhammed Kerimov, went unanswered. The
khyakimlik's administrative department put down the telephone when
Keston began to ask about the case. Maksat Yazmuradov, the official in
charge of the khyakimlik's administrative commission that sealed the church
on 17 February, was out when Keston called, and another official of the
commission declared that he was not familiar with the case. `We're just
officials,' he declared.

Keston decided not to telephone the church's pastor Vasili Korobov in order
not to increase official pressure on him. However, Keston has learnt from
other sources that Pastor Korobov was summoned by the political police, the
KNB, on 28 February. In a conversation with an officer who had worked in
the KNB and its predecessor the KGB since 1968, that was said to have been
calm and lasted about an hour, Pastor Korobov was told not to meet with
other Baptists and that if he did `it would be very bad for him'. The KNB
officer said he could go to the Russian Orthodox Church (the only Christian
church with official state registration in Turkmenistan) and that he is free to
worship at home with his wife and children, but not with other people.

On 1 March, Pastor Korobov reportedly visited the khyakimlik to ask if he
could be allowed into the sealed church to turn off the gas valve. Khyakimlik
officials were very angry with him over enquiries about the case from
England (an apparent reference to Keston's telephone interviews on 28
February - see KNS 28 February 2001) and accused him of passing on their
phone number. He met Yazmuradov to ask if the building might be opened
so that a watchman could sleep there and keep guard on the building.
Yazmuradov told him it would not be opened and not to worry because they
would keep watch on it.

When Pastor Korobov visited the church this morning (2 March) to check on
the building he discovered Yazmuradov was there with the police. The lock
had been broken and the building was open. They had just sent off a lorry
loaded with confiscated furniture and other items from the church and were
waiting for it to come back for a second load. Pastor Korobov reportedly
asked them to show their written authority to do this, but they refused to do
so.

The Ashgabad Baptist Church, which had registration in the later Soviet
period and in the early years of Turkmen independence, lost its legal status
in May 1997 after failing to gain re-registration required under the terms of
the harsh 1996 religion law. Government officials repeatedly claim that
religious activity without official registration is illegal, despite the fact that
no such provision appears in any published law. All other Baptist Union
churches in the country have also been closed down. (END)

Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.