TURKMENISTAN: Fines doubled for Balkanabad Baptists
Already fined some 48 US dollars each (at the inflated official exchange rate) for participating in "illegal religious meetings", the members of a Baptist church are now seeing their fines doubled. "At present the local authorities of the town of Balkanabad are prohibiting the Baptists from meeting for worship, in violation of the rights guaranteed in Turkmenistan's Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," church members complained in a 3 October statement reaching Forum 18 News Service. "And they have increased the level of fines to 500,000 manats." No officials of the regional or town procurators' offices or the regional or town administrations were prepared to tell Forum 18 why the Baptists have been handed down such heavy fines for meeting for worship in private homes.
Forum 18 reached the regional and town procurators' offices, as well as officials of the regional and town khyakimliks (administrations) but no officials were prepared to tell Forum 18 why such heavy fines were being handed down on the Baptists for meeting for worship in private homes.
The Balkanabad church - most of whose members are people surviving on invalidity benefits - has seen a wave of raids and threats this year, beginning in the spring. The fines in July and August came amid increased police action. In the wake of a raid during the Sunday service on 24 August, all those present were taken to the 6th division of the regional police department, the division that combats terrorism and religious extremism. They were threatened with fines every time they met for worship.
The procurator for Balkanabad, Berdy Shirjanov, tried to justify the fines on church members to Forum 18 on 29 August. He claimed that there is complete freedom of religion in Turkmenistan, but added that according to the country's law on religion every religious community has to register. He insisted that as the church refuses to do so, they had to fine the Baptists (see F18News 1 September 2003).
The Balkanabad congregation belongs to the Council of Churches (or unregistered Baptists), which split from the All-Union Council of Baptists in 1961 when further state-sponsored controls were introduced by the then Baptist leadership. It has refused state registration ever since in all the post-Soviet republics where it operates. According to one of its pastors in Moscow, it has 3,705 congregations throughout the former Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan has enacted one of the harshest systems of state control over religious life of any of the former Soviet republics. Under the highly restrictive 1996 religion law, only two religious faiths have been able to gain registration: communities of the state-approved Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church. The government treats all other religious activity as illegal. Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestant churches, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna communities are among those whose activity is de facto banned and punishable under the administrative or criminal law.
Religious meetings have been raided (with a spate of raids against Protestant and Hare Krishna communities since May), places used for worship have been confiscated or demolished and believers have been beaten, fined, detained, deported and sacked from their jobs in punishment for religious activity the government does not like. Some believers have been given long prison sentences in recent years for their religious activity (all the current known prisoners are Jehovah's Witnesses) or have been sent into internal exile to remote parts of the country (see F18News 2 October 2003).
10 October 2003
Oguljan Jumanazarova, a Jehovah's Witness lawyer serving a four year sentence in the women's labour camp in the northern town of Tashauz, was freed early on 20 September, the Jehovah's Witness centre in St Petersburg has told Forum 18 News Service. Jumanazarova, from the town of Seydi, was sentenced in July 2001 on fraud charges that the Jehovah's Witnesses insist were imposed in retaliation for helping fellow Jehovah's Witnesses with their legal problems. "Nothing more is known about the terms of her release – only that she has been freed," a Jehovah's Witness spokesman told Forum 18. The Jehovah's Witnesses – like all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities – have been denied registration and are treated as illegal.
2 October 2003
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the complete lack of freedom to practice any faith except for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity in a limited number of registered places of worship. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are de facto banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up (with a spate of raids on Protestants and Hare Krishnas since May), believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Religious activity is overseen by the secret police's department for work with social organisations and religious groups, which recruits spies in religious communities.
1 September 2003
In the wake of the latest raid on a Baptist Sunday service in Balkanabad on 24 August, police have banned church members from meeting for services and threatened that if they do so they will be fined for each meeting. In July and August, all its members had already been fined 48 US dollars each. "The Baptists refuse to be registered, citing the fact that they are forbidden from having contact with the secular authorities," Balkanabad's procurator Berdy Shirjanov told Forum 18 News Service. "The law is the law. We have to fine the Baptists."