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Back to Newspaper articles archive: 2001


By Felix Corley

Their faith may be the only thing sustaining Christians in Turkmenistan this year, a community which--with the exception of 12 Russian Orthodox parishes - has now been almost completely crushed.

All other Christian groups there have had their legal status revoked since 1997, when all the country's religious communities were barred from retaining legal status under harsh amendments to the religion law, except for Muslim communities aligned with the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox.

In 1999 the authorities in the capital Ashgabad spent a week destroying the newly-built Adventist church with bulldozers while Western ambassadors looked on helplessly. To this day a pile of rubble is all that remains. Officials insisted the site was needed for a new road, but it has never been built.

This month saw a court order the confiscation of Ashgabat's Pentecostal church, a ruling its pastor Viktor Makrousov is now desperately challenging.

The Turkmen authorities have done nothing to mask their policy of destroying the country's religious minorities, at least from the locals (they have consistently refused to justify their policy to outsiders). When raiding the Ashgabad Baptist church in 1999, one of the Committee for National Security (KNB, formerly KGB) officers openly announced, "First, we'll deport all foreign missionaries, then we'll strangle the remaining Christians in the country."

During a raid in December 1999 on the home of Vyacheslav Shulgin, a Baptist in Mary, senior lieutenant Davlet Yazykuliev of the Mary KNB told him: "We will hang you." Shulgin and his family escaped this fate: they were instead deported to Russia.

This past year saw the Turkmen authorities complete their self-imposed task of expelling all foreigners known to have been engaged in religious activity. Hundreds of Iranian Islamic preachers and dozens of Westerners (mainly Protestants) were forced to leave the country, as well as numerous citizens of other CIS states. In August 1999 the Hare Krishna leader Aleksandr Prinkur was expelled to Uzbekistan, while in December of that year Ramil Galimov, a member of a Jehovah's Witness group in Kyzyl-arbat who held dual Russian-Turkmen citizenship, was summarily deported. Six Baptist missionary families were deported between December 1999 and May 2000, mostly to Russia.

With the expulsions completed, the Turkmen authorities are close to completing their second goal: crushing all religious minority activity. Two believers are known to be serving four-year prison terms for their faith - Shagildy Atakov, a Baptist, and Yazmammed Annamamedov, a Jehovah's Witness. Several Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors are also imprisoned.

Those isolated believers who remain live in a state of fear. Believers of many faiths have been expelled from their jobs, condemning them to poverty in a country where the state dominates the economy. Four Protestants, led by Pastor Shokhrat Piriev, were detained in November 2000, tortured with electric shocks and beaten. They were freed after being fined one month's average wages and being forced to make over their homes as "gifts to President Niyazov". Piriev's home in a village near Ashgabad was seized on 9 December.

Officials at all levels - whether in the KNB, the police, local administrations or the Council for Religious Affairs - repeatedly declare that only Islam and Orthodoxy are allowed in the country, despite the fact that nowhere is this stated in law. The Turkmen constitution guarantees religious freedom, and the country has signed a range of human rights conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As a member of the OSCE it is also committed to respect human rights.

Turkmenistan's violations of religious liberty have been carefully documented by a range of institutions, including the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial, Keston Institute based in Oxford, UK, and Amnesty International.

The world is beginning to take notice. OSCE chairwoman in office Benita Ferrero-Waldner called on President Saparmurat Niyazov to free Atakov when she visited Ashgabad last May, but her appeal fell on deaf ears. In December 2000, Amnesty International chose Atakov as a featured prisoner, while campaigning group Christian Solidarity's Austrian branch also focused on Turkmenistan. The World Evangelical Fellowship has also campaigned on the country. Adventists throughout Russia and Central Asia observed a day of prayer and fasting on 23 December "in response to ongoing persecution of Adventists and other religious groups in Turkmenistan".

But only pressure from the United States is likely to lead to greater success. Although in September 2000 Turkmenistan escaped being labelled one of the US State Department's "countries of particular concern," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging that Turkmenistan be designated as such. The Commission likens the Niyazov regime to Stalin's.

Many believe the illusion that the situation in the region is improving should be dispelled. "We look at the year 2000 as the decisive turning-back point - the point at which it should be clear to everyone around the world that these countries are not engaged in democratic transition," declares Cassandra Cavanaugh, a researcher on Central Asia for Human Rights Watch. "They are engaged in a transition to authoritarianism."

Some say Turkmenistan's move to authoritarianism requires drastic action, such as expulsion from the OSCE. But Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, argues that expelling any member for failing to meet up to its human rights commitments would not help. "You can't solve these problems by closing the door on a state's ability to participate in the Organization," he reasoned>

For Turkmenistan's religious minorities, this authoritarianism has brought them to the brink of official extinction. Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran and Armenian Christians cannot legally meet. Bahais, Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews are likewise denied the right to meet to practice their faith peacefully.

Felix Corley is editor of Keston News Service


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