TURKMENISTAN: Baptists to be fined for each service
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."
The threats came 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. "There, over three hours, conversations were held individually in separate offices with each one, demanding that they write statements," the 25 August Baptist statement declared.
The procurator for Balkanabad, Berdy Shirjanov, admitted that he was "aware" of the incident. "I'm also aware of the similar press releases issued by the Baptists after every police intervention," he told Forum 18 from the town 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. "The Baptists refuse to be registered, citing the fact that they are forbidden from having contact with the secular authorities," Shirjanov told Forum 18. "The law is the law. We have to fine the Baptists. I understand perfectly well that they are absolutely harmless people - they don't smoke or drink."
Despite Shirjanov's claims, the religion law makes no mention of any requirement for religious organisations to register.
The Balkanabad Baptist church has suffered several raids this year, including one on 11 May after which church members were threatened and insulted (see F18News 23 May 2003). The church complains that in the course of July and August, all its members were fined 250,000 manats each (363 Norwegian kroner, 44 Euros or 48 US dollars at the inflated official exchange rate).
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. According to one of its pastors in Moscow, it has 3,705 congregations throughout the former Soviet Union.
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 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.
4 August 2003
Two signing deaf and speech impaired Baptist women are the latest victims of Turkmenistan's campaign against religious minorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Olga Shchedrova has been fined, had money stolen from her by officials, and suffered the same officials' attempts to humiliate her. But she still refused to deliver court summonses to other Christians. Nezire Kamalova has been threatened with 15 days' imprisonment for non-payment of a fine and her mother is now threatening to send her to non-Christian relatives in a distant village, to prevent Kamalova attending Christian services in Turkmenabad.
18 July 2003
High Turkmen visa fees make it prohibitively expensive for many Uzbek Muslims living close to the western border with Turkmenistan from crossing over to visit family graveyards and places of pilgrimage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt in the Khorezm region of western Uzbekistan. "We can see our forebears' graves through the barbed wire, but if we want to reach them and perform religious rituals, we have to pay money to the Turkmens," the imam of Manak village, Nodyr Formanov, told Forum 18. "The visa regime between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan clearly encroaches on believers' rights," complained Vladimir Artemyev, director of the Uzbek branch of a UNESCO project for the preservation of ancient monuments.
9 July 2003
Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.