TURKMENISTAN: Demolition of places of worship continues
In large-scale demolition projects in Turkmenistan, those expelled from their home get no compensation and often nowhere to live. Amongst the buildings demolished are religious communities' places of worship. The last surviving pre-revolutionary Armenian Apostolic church and a family-owned Sunni mosque in the Caspian port of Turkmenbashi have been destroyed, Forum 18 News Service has been told. Exiled human rights activist Vyacheslav Mamedov told Forum 18 that the mosque "was used on Muslim festivals and for family events like weddings, funerals and sadakas [commemorations of the dead]." The former Armenian church "was a very beautiful building," Mamedov recalled. He told Forum 18 that there is widespread anger and fear over the destruction of the town's historic centre. Amongst places of worship in Turkmenistan, known to Forum 18 to have been demolished in the past, are mosques, an Adventist church, and a Hare Krishna temple.
Although many long-established local Armenians have left Turkmenistan since independence, estimates put the Armenian population of Turkmenbashi at about 2,000.
The Armenian embassy in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] confirmed to Forum 18 News Service that it had been informed about the destruction of the historic church in Turkmenbashi, but the ambassador Aram Grigoryan was out of the country on 22 May and unable to comment on the destruction. No-one was available for immediate comment at the Armenian Foreign Ministry in Yerevan on 22 May, or at the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin near the Armenian capital.
Also demolished amid the wholesale destruction of the century-old heart of Turkmenbashi, which began in 2004, was a family-owned Sunni Muslim mosque. Human rights activist Vyacheslav Mamedov told Forum 18 on 22 May that the local Etrekov family started building the mosque on their own land, near the Turkmenbashi Hotel, in 1993 and began using it for prayers in 2001 as it neared completion. "Until its demolition in July 2005, it was used on Muslim festivals and for family events like weddings, funerals and sadakas [commemorations of the dead]," Mamedov told Forum 18. He himself left Turkmenbashi in 2004, as the campaign was beginning, and is now a refugee in western Europe.
The former Armenian church, built a century ago and consecrated by the then Catholicos (head of the Armenian Apostolic Church) in 1904, was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and turned into a warehouse. In 1993, Mamedov – as a local journalist and human rights activist – had supported attempts by the local Armenian community to form a cultural and religious centre in the town and regain possession of the church. He said the authorities consistently refused to register the community or allow it to function. "It was a very beautiful building," Mamedov recalls. "When we were trying to get it back in 1993, I remember looking inside and it was just used as a store for the local administration's old furniture and car parts."
Mamedov – who has obtained a copy of a secret local administration order from November 2005 detailing which streets are to be destroyed – said there is widespread anger and fear in Turkmenbashi over the destruction of the town's historic centre, reactions confirmed by the exile Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation. But Mamedov said the town's main Sunni Muslim mosque and the Russian Orthodox church are located close together in the newer parts of the town and are not in immediate danger of demolition.
In massive construction redevelopments in Ashgabad and elsewhere in Turkmenistan, those expelled from their homes ahead of demolition get no compensation and often nowhere else to live. Among places of worship bulldozed in Ashgabad was the Seventh-day Adventist church, built in the 1990s and which was destroyed in 1999 at only one week's notice. The authorities claimed the land was needed for a road-widening programme, but for some years the site was derelict. The Adventists have never been given any compensation and are not allowed to build a new church to replace the one destroyed. Shortly before Ashgabad's Adventist Church was demolished, in August 1999 a Hare Krishna temple outside the eastern town of Mary was demolished.
A mosque was among buildings in an entire settlement, Darvasa in the central Kara-Kum desert, which was destroyed in autumn 2004 after President Niyazov flew over in a helicopter and regarded the settlement as unattractive. Darvasa's mainly ethnic Uzbek residents were given just two hours to leave. One visitor to the settlement before its destruction told Forum 18 that the mosque had only just been completed when it was destroyed.
Other mosques in Turkmenistan have also been destroyed, apparently in some cases for failure to honour the President Niyazov's books of alleged "spiritual writings" (see F18News 4 January 2005 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=481 and 19 November 2003 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=187). (END)
For a personal commentary by a Protestant within Turkmenistan, on the fiction - despite government claims - of religious freedom in the country, and how religious communities and the international community should respond to this, see http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=728
For more background, see Forum 18's Turkmenistan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=672
A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/atlas/index.html?Parent=asia&Rootmap=turkme
5 May 2006
A court in north-western Uzbekistan has sentenced a Jehovah's Witness to ten days' jail, Forum 18 News Service has found. Three days later, on 30 April, about fifty police raided a banned Protestant church and detained church members during Easter celebrations. Simultaneously, police raided the church's land and broke the caretaker's arm in a bid to force the church to give its land to the state. Following the raids, Forum 18 has learnt that the Prosecutor's Office intimidated and threatened children, in a bid to force them to sign statements that they would no longer attend Christian services and that they were renouncing their Christian faith. Parents were also pressured to write statements that they would not "attract their children to Christianity" and warned that failure to comply could see them deprived of their parental rights. A state religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "the police simply have to stop the church's members from holding illegal religious meetings."
3 April 2006
Shortly after her failed appeal against her seven year jail sentence for illegally crossing the border - charges her supporters reject - Hare Krishna devotee Cheper Annaniyazova was transferred from the women's prison in the capital Ashgabad to the women's labour camp in Dashoguz in northern Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Work in the labour camp is reported to be hard, while bribery to escape the worst work is rampant. Even acquiring a decent place to sleep requires bribes. Annaniyazova's state of health and situation in the labour camp remains unknown. Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox church in Dashoguz, the only Orthodox place of worship in northern Turkmenistan, still cannot complete construction of a new church begun some years ago. Officials are questioning the parish's right to use the land, while the church's registration application has been denied.
29 March 2006
Two recent reports based on testimony from North Korean refugees – one by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom - have confirmed earlier findings that religious freedom does not exist in North Korea, that local people are aware of state-sponsored acts of religious persecution and that the only state-approved religion is Juche, or self-reliance, which is closely allied to the cult of the deceased leader Kim Il-Sung. Some interviewees claimed they had witnessed or heard of extreme punishments, even death, meted out to religious believers, others recounted how some religious believers were spared such punishments. Christian organisation Open Doors has noted that North Koreans arriving in China are usually very opposed to religion in general and Christianity in particular as a result of the long-term and regular state indoctrination to which they had been subjected. Visitors to Pyongyang have told Forum 18 News Service that no regular worship takes place at the three official Christian churches in the city and that Buddhist monasteries elsewhere are neglected cultural relics.