By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent at Worthy News News Center in Budapest
ASHGABAT/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) -- A Baptist pastor in Turkmenistan who was released after spending eights months of a three-year labor camp sentence faced new problems Sunday, November 25, amid pressure from authorities to stop his worship services.
"Officials summoned me for what they said was a conversation, but at the end presented me with a pre-written statement saying that I agreed not to meet with my fellow-believers," said pastor Vyacheslav Kalataevsky in a statement released by human rights group Forum 18.
Kalataevsky was detained in March 2007 and sentenced to three years' imprisonment in a labor camp in May for "illegally crossing the border." Supporters and fellow Christians denied the charges saying Kalataevsky attempted to regularize his status as he is a Ukrainian citizen, although born and raised in Turkmenistan.
The pastor was transferred in late June to an ordinary regime labor camp in Turkmenistanâ€™s Eydi area. Amid international pressure he eventually received amnesty and was released from a police holding centre on the edge of the capital Ashgabad on November 6.
However to secure his release, Kalataevsky's wife Valentina was apparently required to sign a document that he "would abide by the law." Shortly after returning to his home town Turkmenbashi, Kalataevsky said he was told by a commission of a city official and representatives of trade unions a youth movement and the Muslim community to end his church activities because they were â€œnot registered.â€
While his congregation does not oppose state registration, officials allegedly kept telling him his congregation does not have enough adult citizen members to apply for registration and therefore religious activity is banned.
"I asked them to show me what part of the law bans unregistered worship and they were unable to do so," Kalataevsky said, adding that under 2004 amendments to the Religion Law, only five adult citizens are required to register a "religious group".
"At the end of the meeting, the imam told me that if I continued my religious activity he could promise me an unpleasant fate. It was a sort of threat," the pastor said in a statement. "When I asked if he was trying to intimidate me, he insisted he was not. But he explained that gathering people to pray without state registration violates the Religion Law."
The pastor said he has refused to sign a declaration stating that he would no longer meet fellow Christians and that he would continue his work. Officials refused to comment on the case. However religious affairs official Guzel Orazurbieva reportedly denied there are any Protestant churches in Turkmenbashi saying: "We have only the Russian Orthodox church."
Rights groups say the pastor's troubles are no isolated incidents in Turkmenistan. "This autumn, a congregation in a remote village which they asked not be identified was raided during a worship service. Officials held the leaders, questioning and threatening them, before releasing them with fines," for meeting without state registration, Forum 18 said. It added that Muslim groups experienced similar difficulties.
"Throughout Turkmenistan, Muslims and people from other faiths have been stopped from exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Sources often wish to remain anonymous, for fear of state reprisals."
Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who was sworn in as president of the former Soviet republic this year, has been under international pressure to allow more political and religious freedom than his autocratic predecessor Saparmyrat Niyazov who died in December 2006. However analysts say Berdymukhamedov aims to follow in Niyazov's footsteps, although he has promised limited reforms.
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