TURKMENISTAN: Threats and fines follow break-up of Baptist Sunday service
Angered by the presence of many children, secret police, police, procuracy and city administration officials broke up the Sunday morning service of a Baptist church on 11 May, held in a private flat in the city of Turkmenbashi. They threatened to confiscate the flat and deprive the parents of their parental rights. One official who participated in the raid has rejected Baptist complaints about the raid and said he expected the Baptists to be fined. "There were no violations of the law in the actions of the authorities," administration official Shanazar Kocheev insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "This was an illegal meeting and we broke it up." The Baptists have called on the procuracy "to defend our constitutional rights to believe in God and to confess our religion".
Kocheev told Forum 18 that by participating in an "illegal meeting", the Baptists broke Article 205 of the Administrative Code, which punishes "violation of the law on religion". He said the Baptists' "violations" are now being considered by the administrative commission of the city khyakimlik (administration), of which he is a member. He added that he expected them each to be fined 250,000 manats (340 Norwegian kroner, 43 Euros or 50 US dollars), the average monthly wage, by the end of today (15 May).
When Forum 18 pointed out that Turkmenistan's laws do not ban meetings by unregistered religious communities, Kocheev responded: "First of all, the Baptists make no secret of the fact that they're not prepared to register. Secondly, they regularly hold such meetings, which is not acceptable."
A 12 May report from church members reaching Forum 18 declared that the church had gathered for "joint prayer and reading of the Bible" at the flat of church member M. Sheldkret. At about 10.30 am, the five officials burst in "under the guise of verifying the passport regulations". In addition to Kocheev, the Baptists named the other officials as local police officer Esen Berdyev, Araz Tekaev, who handles religious affairs at the khyakimlik, secret police officer Dovlat Charyev, and procuracy official Murad Amanov.
"They checked the identity document of the host and then began a search of the flat: the bathroom, toilet, cupboards, shelves, and other rooms," the Baptists complained in their 12 May letter to the procuracy. Kocheev then asked Sheldkret to introduce her guests. "After greeting them, they broke up the service, very angry at seeing many children. They threatened to deprive the parents of their parental rights, summon people to an administrative commission and deprive the owner of her flat." The officials accused the Baptists of holding an "illegal gathering" and told them they were breaking article 205 of the administrative code.
They then ordered Sheldkret to send her guests away, although not before asking who was the leader of the church and writing down personal details of all those present, including children. They threatened to take one of those present, Vladimir Lemeshko, to the police station and to take "appropriate measures" against him if he did not stop serving the church.
While five officials conducted the raid, a further twelve were waiting at the ground floor entrance to the block. The Baptists reported that they had been summoned by Amanov of the procuracy "to break up the meeting".
The Turkmenbashi congregation belongs to the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration on principle in all the former Soviet republics where it operates. Its congregations in Turkmenistan face constant harassment from the authorities, which regard all their activities as illegal.
The Baptist church in Balkanabad was raided by the National Security Committee and the police in March and April and children of church members were interrogated and threatened in school (see F18News 11 April 2003).
Even had these Baptist congregations wished to register that would have been impossible: the highly restrictive religion law requires each individual religious community seeking registration to have 500 adult citizen members who live in one district of a city or one rural district. In addition, there is an unpublished ban on registering congregations of any faiths other than Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox.
Some believers have been imprisoned, while others have been forced either to hide in their own country or leave for exile abroad. Protestant Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, Baha'is, Jews and even the Armenian Apostolic Church have been denied any public religious activity (see F18News 17 March 2003).
22 April 2003
Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.
11 April 2003
Raided by the secret police, the police and the procuracy on 16 March, the Baptist church in Balkanabad is facing new pressure. Children have been interrogated in school about "internal church life and their Christian education in their families", a statement from the church reaching Forum 18 News Service complains. They were banned from attending services and the older ones threatened with prison. A church service in a private flat was again raided on 1 April. Forum 18 was unable to reach the secret police (which the church claims organised the interrogations) or the police in Balkanabad to find out why the Baptists are being threatened for attending unregistered religious services, which are not technically illegal in Turkmenistan.
21 March 2003
Eight officers raided the Sunday morning worship service on 16 March in the unregistered Baptist church in the city of Balkanabad. A statement from the church reaching Forum 18 News Service reports that the officers were led by Kadyr Meredov, the local officer of the National Security Committee (NSC, the former KGB) responsible for controlling religious groups. "They accused us of holding an unapproved meeting and violating the law on religious cults," the church complained. "They banned us from meeting until we had registered our church with the justice authorities, and warned us that otherwise, a police officer would be present at each of our services." Forum 18 was unable to find out from NSC or procuracy officials why the church had been raided.