TURKMENISTAN: Are Baptists terrorists or organised criminals?
Plain-clothes police, from the "department for the struggle with terrorism and organised crime," broke up last Sunday morning's worship of the registered Baptist church in the eastern town of Mary, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. All those present were subjected to filmed separate interrogations, starting with the women and children. Forum 18 was told that the police made statements in the interrogations such as "we know you're a non-believer and just come for the money, you get money from Americans, write that you won't come here again, your meetings are unauthorised, you are law-breakers, registration doesn't cover you." Local Baptists insist to Forum 18 that their state registration certificate is for the "Church of Evangelical Christians and Baptists of Turkmenistan" and therefore covers congregations across the country. This is the latest attack in ongoing official attacks on both registered and unregistered religious communities.
This is the latest attack on members of the officially-registered Baptist church, whose congregations and members have continued to be attacked even after gaining state registration (see eg. F18News 31 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=535 ), along with pressure directed against other registered communities (see F18News 1 March 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=522 ).
This is not the first time that police officers supposedly concerned with terrorism and organised crime have instead attacked religious minorities (see eg. F18News 9 December 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=208 and 31 January 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=501 ).
All those who had been present at Sunday's Baptist service - including children - were interrogated in separate rooms, one by one, and their answers were filmed, in a clear attempt to bully worshippers. "The questions were the same: about place of birth, place of work, residence, religious affiliation, how you ended up here [at church], why you come here, why you don't speak Turkmen, who pays you, how much they pay, we know you're a non-believer and just come for the money, you get money from Americans, write that you won't come here again, your meetings are unauthorised, you are law-breakers, registration doesn't cover you."
Church members were not freed until 1 pm in the afternoon, nearly three hours after the service had been broken up. "They demanded that each one promise not to come to services in future," Protestants reported. "They wanted to invite the teachers of the children present with their parents, but because teachers are now off on holiday they were not able to summon them to the police."
Protestant sources told Forum 18 that local Baptists inisist that their registration certificate issued by the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry on 25 June 2004 is for the "Church of Evangelical Christians and Baptists of Turkmenistan" and therefore does cover congregations across the country. «Notice it doesn't say "Ashgabad," but "Turkmenistan," one local Protestant pointed out to Forum 18.
Continued strong official pressure has been used against registered communities of Baptists, as well as other officially registered religious communities, such as Seventh day Adventists, Pentecostals and Hare Krishna devotees (see eg. F18News 10 June 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=582 ). Strong official pressure also continues to be used against unregistered - and de facto illegal – communities, such as those from the Baptist Council of Churches, whose congregations refuse on principle to register with the state authorities in post-Soviet countries (see F18News 29 July 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=621 ).
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
29 July 2005
Police raiding a private home in Turkmenabad, where Baptists gather regularly for Bible study and prayer, beat the host, Asiya Zasedatelevaya, with her own Bible and even threatened to hang her, local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service. She has now appealed for the return of Christian literature they confiscated from her. Zasedatelevaya stated that "they started to interrogate me, despite the fact that I'm a third-category invalid unable to hear and speak," and that when she did not reveal where she had got her Christian books, one of the policemen hit her over the head with her Bible, while the second hit her in the face. "The local policeman threatened to hang me," she added. "During all this my four-year-old child was present in the flat." Forum 18 has been unable to reach the police to question them about the raid. There have been reports that, since President Niyazov issued a call for the country to adopt one set of religious rites, pressure on religious minorities has increased.
22 July 2005
President Niyazov has ordered "a virtual catastrophe" for Turkmenistan's only official institution for training Muslim imams, a local staff member has told Forum 18 News Service. All Turkish staff members must return to Turkey, 20 students are being expelled, and the Muslim Theological Faculty's status is to be downgraded. Forum 18 has been told that "many staff don't want to work with the new teachers and would rather leave the university." The move is possibly part of an overall government attempt to tighten the already harsh controls over the country's officially registered religious communities, as there have recently been attempts to increase Turkmen state control over the Russian Orthodox Church and isolate the church. Other officially registered religious communities, such as the Baptists, Seventh day Adventists, Pentecostals and Hare Krishna devotees, also face strong official pressure and restrictions, as do the unregistered - and de facto illegal - communities.
11 July 2005
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi II has politely sidelined Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov's attempt to split the dozen or so Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan away from the Central Asian diocese, and subordinate them directly to the Patriarch. A Moscow-based priest familiar with the situation, who preferred not to be identified, insisted to Forum 18 News Service that the Church itself has to make such decisions, not the state. The priest told Forum 18 that he believes President Niyazov "wants the Orthodox Church to exist, but a Church that is in his hand, just as he has done with Islam." Stressing that the Moscow Patriarchate is keen to see an end to the tensions between the Church and the Turkmen government, the priest deplored the denial of visas to three or four priests who the diocese wished to send to serve in Turkmenistan, and the refusal of the Turkmen government so far to re-register Russian Orthodox parishes.