By Felix Corley
OXFORD, England (BP)--The wife and children of Baptist prisoner Shageldy Atakov in Turkmenistan have been told by the local mullah, administration officials and officers of the country's political police, the KNB (former KGB), that they may not believe in Jesus Christ and must convert to Islam. According to a statement from local Baptists -- passed on to Keston News Service by the German-based Friedensstimme mission -- officials in the town of Kaakhka, close to Turkmenistan's southern border with Iran, also warned Atakov's wife, Artygyul, that the family home would be confiscated if Christians continue to meet there.
Keston has been unable to obtain the telephone numbers of the KNB, the mullah and the local administration in Kaakhka to ask why they are pressuring Artygyul Atakova and her children to convert from one faith to another.
According to the March 25 statement from local Baptists, the local policeman and a KNB officer visited the family on March 12, where the passport details of Artygyul and her five children were taken. Then on March 14 a car with five officials arrived and took her to the local administration, where the mullah, a lawyer, a district official and a KNB officer named Narly (surname unknown) were already present, together with the director of studies of Kaakhka's school No. 12.
"They banned her from believing in Jesus Christ, forcing her to convert to the Muslim faith and insisting that she write a statement dictated by KNB officer Narly," the Baptists wrote. "They insisted she give her children over to the school, where attention is mainly focused on reading the oath [of loyalty to the president and country] and kissing the flag." They then issued the threat to confiscate her home if Baptists continue to meet there and to revoke the family's registration in the village.
Local Baptists are asking for prayer and appeals on the family's behalf.
Artygyul Atakova and her five children have been left without a breadwinner since the arrest of her husband, Shageldy, in December 1998 for his activities with the Baptist church in the port city of Turkmenbashi. He is serving a four-year sentence and -- since March 1 -- is back in the labor camp in Seydy in northeastern Turkmenistan after a time in a prison hospital in the town of Mary. He is currently in a punishment cell for one month.
The Atakovs' church -- whose activities the Turkmen authorities claim are illegal -- is a member of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration in all the former Soviet republics where it operates.
Members of Turkmenistan's minority faiths are frequently pressured to convert to Islam. Although no religions have any kind of official status, the government regards Islam as the country's primary faith and Russian Orthodoxy as the one permitted minority faith. Government officials -- from local administrators, the police to the KNB -- work closely with mullahs (who are appointed and paid by the government) to pressure believers of other faiths to convert, with such pressure often accompanying punitive action against the minority faith whose activities the government is trying to suppress. Protestant Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have complained of similar pressure to convert to Islam.
On March 15 the European Parliament issued a resolution condemning the "discrimination and often persecution" faced by non-Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities in Turkmenistan. The resolution in particular condemned the "unjust treatment of Shageldy Atakov" and called on the Turkmen authorities to release him immediately.
Felix Corley is news editor of Keston News Service, which reports on religious liberty issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. For recent stories and subscription requests, please visit the website at http://www.keston.org