TURKMENISTAN: "We'll put you away for twelve years," Baptists told
A Baptist church in Turkmenabad has become the tenth religious community known to have been raided since the authorities began their latest crackdown on religious minorities in early May. On 13 June, 11 officials raided a prayer meeting in an apartment, local Baptists reported in a statement reaching Forum 18 News Service. All those present were questioned for several hours. "We have been on your tracks for three months now, and we'll put you away for 12 years," officers warned church members Yeldash Roziev and Aleksandr Frolov. Head of the city police Alaverdy Khudoberdiev defended the raid, telling Forum 18 the police had done nothing unlawful.
"All the believers were taken outside and were escorted by the soldiers to a strong point, the police station," church members reported. "After several hours of questioning and threats some believers were released, leaving Aleksandr Frolov, Yeldash Roziev, Aleksei Zasedatelev and Yelgiz Ilyasov still in custody." The Baptists say Frolov and Roziev were threatened during the questioning, with officers warning them: "We have been on your tracks for three months now, and we'll put you away for 12 years." The two were also threatened with being exiled from Turkmenistan.
Officers also tried to recruit Roziev as a spy within the church. "They tried to talk Yeldash into co-operating with them, hoping for information about the internal life of the church," the Baptists reported. "The brothers were released at around 2 o'clock in the morning, but their passports were retained and they were told that they should report to the police department on the morning of 14 June for further questioning." It is not yet known whether further action was taken against the church members on 14 June.
Reached by telephone on 17 June, the procurator of Turkmenabad, Nurmukhamed Nurmamedov, admitted to Forum 18 that the Baptists had been detained and questioned, but refused to make "any comment" until he received a written request.
The head of the city police, Alaverdy Khudoberdiev, strongly defended the police action, telling Forum 18 that there was nothing unlawful in what they had done because under Turkmen law "the activity of unregistered organisations is forbidden". (Turkmenistan's religion law does not in fact forbid the activity of unregistered religious organisations.) Khudoberdiev refused to give any information about the 14 June questioning of the Baptists.
Forum 18 had an even more peculiar conversation with Yagshimurat Atamuradov, head of the government's Gengeshi (Committee) for Religious Affairs in the capital Ashgabad, who is answerable to the country's president. Atamuradov recognised the voice of Forum 18's correspondent and immediately hung up.
Turkmenistan has the harshest religious policy of all the former Soviet republics. No faiths except for the officially-approved Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church have been allowed to register any communities. The government treats all unregistered religious activity as illegal. Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists and other Protestants, as well as the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Lutherans, the Jews, Hare Krishna communities, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is and others are thus denied the opportunity of worshipping legally.
Since May, pressure on religious minorities has intensified with a series of raids in six different locations on various communities, including Baptist and Pentecostal churches, as well as Hare Krishna communities (see F18News 10 June 2003). In all these cases, the police burst into private apartments where representatives of religious minorities had gathered, and took them to the police station. The fact that these police actions took place in various parts of the country at one and same time gives reason to think that they had been planned earlier by Ashgabad.
Dieter Matthei, political officer at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) centre in Ashgabad, told Forum 18 on 18 June that the centre had "no information" about the latest raid on the Baptist church in Balkanabad. He said it was difficult following up reports of such incidents. "Our possibilities are limited by manpower, resources and other factors," he declared.
12 June 2003
Days after being fined for attending meetings of a non-denominational Protestant church in Abadan, Guzelya Syraeva is fighting to keep her job as a teacher in a local kindergarten. Procuracy officials came to the kindergarten and told director Tazegyul Nurieva that her own job would be under threat if she did not sack Syraeva. The two were also pressured at the education department. "I do not preach to the children, because I know it is against the law," Syraeva insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "They are trying to sack me simply because of my religious beliefs." Officials denied to Forum 18 trying to have Syraeva dismissed.
10 June 2003
The crackdown against Protestant congregations in Turkmenistan has now widened to include the Hare Krishna community. Within a two day period in late May, two Hare Krishna meetings were raided by the authorities. During the raid in a village near Mari, officials confined themselves to filming the devotees, but in the capital Ashgabad, the raid was more severe. Hare Krishna sources told Forum 18 News Service that three devotees were detained, one was badly beaten and two were fined. One was threatened with a criminal case, while another was threatened with deportation from the capital. But the policeman who led the raid, Colonel Byashim Taganov, denied all involvement. "I know nothing about the incident," he told Forum 18.
6 June 2003
Five members of a non-denominational Protestant church in Abadan fined on 4 June for meeting as an unregistered community have vowed they will continue to practise their faith. "The authorities found us guilty of meeting without permission, but we are still going to meet, and they know this," one church member told Forum 18 News Service. The fines followed a raid on a private flat four days earlier where they were meeting. OSCE officials have been too busy to meet the Protestants so far. At least seven Protestant churches across Turkmenistan were raided in May in a new crackdown. One Protestant has written an open letter to President Saparmurat Niyazov, calling for sweeping changes to Turkmenistan's religious policy, an end to the repression of believers and an end to the system whereby an Orthodox clergyman can restrict the rights of other faiths and denominations.