TURKMENISTAN: Finding Nemo, hunting Adventists
Just three days after a Baptist service in a private home was raided in Abadan, across the country in Turkmenabad [Chärjew] police raided an Adventist home on 7 August. The family's children and guests were watching a video of Finding Nemo, but police confiscated all the literature they could find, confiscated the owners' identity documents and pressured the husband to sign a statement that an "illegal" religious service was underway. The Adventist pastor in the capital Ashgabad has complained that his congregation cannot hold public worship as it cannot rent premises for worship, despite having state registration. "All hall managers turn us down as soon as they learn that we are looking for premises for a Church," Pastor Pavel Fedotov told Forum 18 News Service. "Even though we have registration we can't do anything."
The raid in Turmenabad came three days after a raid on a Baptist home in Abadan (formerly Bezmein) near Ashgabad, where a prayer and Bible reading service was underway (see F18News 9 August 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=390 ). Like the Adventists, the Baptists also once again have state registration, but this did not protect them from the raid and a warning never to meet again.
Yet the Adventist family in Turkmenabad were simply relaxing at home when the police raided their home. "The family's five children were there together with children of the neighbours, and the mother was in the kitchen preparing supper," the Protestant told Forum 18. "No service was underway at that time." As well as all books, compact discs were also seized. The police took the owners of the flat to the police station, where they forced them to write statements and confiscated their identity documents (internal passports). Neither the identity documents nor the confiscated books and compact discs have yet been returned.
Police pressured the husband to sign a statement that an "illegal" religious service was in progress when the police arrived. He showed them a copy of the Adventists' registration documents, which show that the Church has registered status in the whole of the country.
Since the Church received registration again on 1 June for the first time since 1997, the Ashgabad congregation has sought somewhere to meet in vain. "All hall managers turn us down as soon as they learn that we are looking for premises for a Church," Pastor Fedotov told Forum 18. "We appealed to the authorities to help us find premises to rent but they refused. The hyakimlik [local administration] refused to talk to us, declaring that all communication should be through the government's Gengeshi [Council] for religious affairs."
Forum 18 tried to contact officials at the Gengeshi on 11 August to find out why religious communities – even those with registration – cannot rent public buildings for religious services, but all the telephones went unanswered. No official of the registration department of the Justice Ministry was prepared to talk to Forum 18 on 11 August.
"Even though we have registration we can't do anything," Pastor Fedotov told Forum 18. "We have got the impression that no officials consider us to be an independent legal entity."
For more background, see Forum 18's Turkmenistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=296
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme
9 August 2004
Despite gaining state registration under the much-trumpeted "liberalisation" of the religion law, secret police raids and threats against a Baptist congregation in Turkmenistan have not stopped, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Last Wednesday (4 August), NSM secret police raided a meeting for prayer and bible study, arrested participants for three hours, confiscated bibles and hymn books, and threatened a "big problem" if meetings continued. Another state registered community, the Hare Krishnas, have been told by state officials that they do not know whether the community should be allowed to operate. A wide range of religious communities have either been unsuccessful with registration applications, or do not want to apply because of the harsh controls they would be subjected to. Asked about making a registration application, one Jehovah's Witness said to Forum 18 "Why should we when persecution continues?"
1 July 2004
Abadan's deputy police chief has told Baptist Svetlana Gurkina that "in Turkmenistan only two faiths are allowed, Islam and Orthodoxy, while the rest are banned", local Baptists have told Forum 18 News Service. She was also subjected to crude remarks and threats to imprison her and confiscate her flat, if she continues to meet her fellow-Christians. Although criminal penalties for unregistered religious activity were formally lifted in May, unregistered Baptist communities have been hard-hit by the government's continued refusal to lift the ban on unregistered religious activity. Baptists in the capital Ashgabad have appealed to President Saparmurat Niyazov and government agencies to halt the ongoing persecution of Svetlana Gurkina.
28 June 2004
In an apparent sign that they intend to keep tight control of religious communities, officers of the police sixth department, which fights organised crime and terrorism, summoned at least four religious leaders in early June. Officers demanded full information about current and planned activities, and names and addresses of all members, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Intermittent raids on religious communities continue as unregistered religious activity remains illegal. One Protestant told Forum 18 of serious threats in repeated raids on a church in Dashoguz in May. A Jehovah's Witness elder said five local officials confiscated two Bibles in a 10 June raid on a private home, adding that it is too early for them to apply for registration. "Can we apply when some of our lads are still in prison? We won't lodge an application until our community can function freely." Only four minority communities – the Adventists, the Baha'is, the Baptists and the Hare Krishnas – have gained registration since March.