But concern remains about plight Christians
By: Stefan J. Bos
Eastern Europe Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
ASHGABAD / BUDAPEST (ANS) -- The leader of a persecuted Baptist community in Turkmenistan has been freed after six days of detention at the feared secret police headquarters of the former Soviet republic, a human rights watchdog said Monday, Dec. 22
Forum 18 News (F18News), the religious rights monitoring service of human rights group Forum 18 citing unidentified "Protestant sources" said Baptist Geldy Khudaikuliev was freed in the afternoon of December 20 amid mounting international pressure.
"The good news is that Geldy is free, but we don't know how he was treated during his six-day detention," the Protestants were quoted as saying amid concern about widespread torture in the troubled nation. "Geldy thanked all those around the world who supported him and helped to secure his release," following publicity about his case.
RETURNED TO FAMILY
Khudaikuliev, who F18News said has returned to his family, leads a small Baptist community in the town of Geok-Tepe, 50 kilometres (apr. 30 miles) west of Ashgabad.
"Like all non-Sunni Muslim and all non-Russian Orthodox communities it does not have state registration and the government treats all its activity as illegal," F18News explained.
He was reportedly arrested after traveling to Ashgabad to collect money that had been transferred to him from an office of Western Union, an international money transfer company.
It remains unclear whether he withdrew the money, believed to be from church supporters, although Western Union told those who had sent the money that it had been withdrawn.
"...For several days his family did not know what had happened to him (and) was later told that he was being held at the main headquarters of the National Security Ministry in Ashgabad, though no-one was allowed access to him," said F18News.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic of over 4 million people, is already among the world's toughest countries for Christians, according Open Doors, an international ministry supporting the suffering church world-wide, with North Korea topping the list. Human rights groups say the Turkmen society is characterized by the personality cult around President Saparmurat Niyazov.
BOWING FOR PORTRAIT
Having re-named himself 'The Father of all Turkmen', the country's president has been accused of running an oppressive regime and those who refuse to bow down to his portrait are reportedly harshly punished.
Analysts say there is increased pressure on Baptists and other Christians who refuse to obey these orders and are meeting without permission for worship.
Apart from Sunni Muslims and the official Russian Orthodox Church, the Baptists and all other religious communities are denied state registration by the Turkmen authorities under new religious legislation adopted last month.
"RELIGIOUS ACTIVITY CRIMINAL"
"This means that all their religious activity are regarded as criminal offences... The definition of unregistered religious activity as criminal activity defies the international human rights agreements Turkmenistan has signed," said F18News.
The new religion law is seen by human rights activists as "the harshest" in formerly Soviet states.
"Unregistered Christian churches have been raided and had their literature confiscated," even before the new legislation was enforced, confirmed the human rights watchdog Barnabus Fund in a recent statement send to ANS. "Their members have been imprisoned, beaten, tortured, thrown out of their homes and pressurized to convert to Islam."
"Churches have been closed and buildings confiscated. Hundreds of Protestant Christians have been fired from state jobs. Religious education can be given by Sunni Muslim or Orthodox Christian teachers, but only registered mosques are allowed to teach outside school hours, " the organization added. There are fears the situation will worsen in 2004.
Erika Dailey, director of the Open Society Institute's Turkmenistan Project based in Budapest, said in a recent interview that the new anti religion measures are consistent with a larger government effort to bring Turkmen society even further under its control.
Yet President Niyazov has reportedly defended his human rights record saying his country has never had religious prisoners of conscience and cooperates fully with international human rights bodies.