Turkmenistan's Persecuted Christians Reluctant about New Decree

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

President seeks "new control", says Protestant Christian

By: Stefan J. Bos
Eastern Europe Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

ASHGABAT / BUDAPEST (ANS) -- Persecuted Christians in Turkmenistan began an uncertain week Monday, March 15, after autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov announced he would allow all religious communities "to gain official registration" regardless of how many members they have.

Yet some Christians and other religious groups still fear attacks in Turkmenistan, which human rights workers say has one of the harshest systems of state control over religious life of any of the former Soviet republics.

"The new decree (from President Niyazov on March 11) makes no mention of decriminalizing unregistered religious activity," said the Forum 18 News Service (F18News) of the Oslo based religious rights watch dog Forum 18.

Especially Evangelical Christians, including Baptists, have reportedly been suffering under Turkmenistan's religious legislation, ASSIST News Service (ANS) monitored. In one of those recent incidents. F18News said officials in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi seized property from members of a local Baptist church, to pay a fine imposed last year for unregistered worship in a private flat.


One Baptist family's properties, including even a carpet and wall clock, has already been seized and officials have threatened to seize other items from others who were fined for participating in the service, F18News said .

The family was identified as Yelena and Vladimir Lemeshko who have four young children. Yelena Lemeshko received a court summons on January 22 for non-payment of her fine of about $12, a huge amount in a country where average monthly wages hover around $30 She refused to come to court, saying she did not commit any offence. The fine is now deducted from the salary of her husband, who works at the local factory, said F18News, citing Baptist sources.

Bibi Agina, an official of the department that registers social organizations at the Adalat (Justice) Ministry, suggested to F18News that despite the new decree on registration, unregistered religious communities can not start to meet freely in private homes. "As before, religious communities can only function after they get registration," she said. "The decree simply gives religious communities like the Baptists and others the possibility to work legally."


Yet some Baptist groups and other Evangelical communities have refused to register with the Turkmenistan government, saying that God is the ultimate authority over their lives.

However Armenia's Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Aram Grigorian, was more optimistic about the decree as the local Armenian community has been seeking the return of its church in the Caspian port city of Turkmenbashi, which was confiscated during the Soviet period. "This is a very progressive decree," he was quoted as saying. "We will try to make use of it."

The government has not allowed any Armenian Apostolic churches to reopen or open in Turkmenistan. If they wish to attend services, Armenian Apostolic believers are forced to go to the only legal Christian denomination, the Russian Orthodox Church, although the Armenian Church is of the Oriental family of Christian Churches, not the Orthodox, F18News commented.

Radik Zakirov, a Protestant from Ashgabad, said his community is not preparing to register under the new decree. "The authorities have tried up till now to use repressive measures and have understood this is unsuccessful," he told F18News. But he warned that "they seem now to be trying to bring religious communities under state control – perhaps a cleverer policy."