Last remnants of institutional Baptist life destroyed
By Felix Corley, Keston News Service
Special to ASSIST Communications
ASHGABAD, TURKENISTAN (March 4, 2001) -- The authorities of the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad broke their own seals on the doors of the city's Baptist church on 2 March and confiscated everything inside. The move was timed on the last working day before nearly a week of public holidays in the country. Keston News Service has been able to find no Turkmen local or national government official prepared to discuss why the contents of the country's last Baptist church have been carted away in several lorry loads, despite repeated telephone calls. The closure of the Ashgabad church represents the destruction of the last remnants of the Baptist Union's institutional life in Turkmenistan.
On 2 March Keston tried to contact deputy foreign minister Yolbars Kepbanov, who is also director of the government's National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, but he was unavailable as his father had just died. No official of his department, the secretariat, the protocol department nor the press department of the foreign ministry was prepared to comment. One official of the press department, Batyr Khedirov, introduced himself to Keston, then when Keston raised the closure of the Baptist church and the confiscation of its internal furnishings and possessions he kept repeating `Hello?' as if the telephone line had began to malfunction. When Keston called back he declined to come to the phone and the secretary then put down the phone. On two further occasions Keston was told the number was that of a private flat.
Officials of the khyakimlik (local administration) were also unable or unwilling to explain the confiscation. The telephone of the deputy khyakim (administration head), Muhammed Kerimov, went unanswered. The khyakimlik's administrative department put down the telephone when Keston began to ask about the case. Maksat Yazmuradov, the official in charge of the khyakimlik's administrative commission that sealed the church on 17 February, was out when Keston called, and another official of the commission declared that he was not familiar with the case. `We're just officials,' he declared.
Keston decided not to telephone the church's pastor Vasili Korobov in order not to increase official pressure on him. However, Keston has learnt from other sources that Pastor Korobov was summoned by the political police, the KNB, on 28 February. In a conversation with an officer who had worked in the KNB and its predecessor the KGB since 1968, that was said to have been calm and lasted about an hour, Pastor Korobov was told not to meet with other Baptists and that if he did `it would be very bad for him'. The KNB officer said he could go to the Russian Orthodox Church (the only Christian church with official state registration in Turkmenistan) and that he is free to worship at home with his wife and children, but not with other people.
On 1 March, Pastor Korobov reportedly visited the khyakimlik to ask if he could be allowed into the sealed church to turn off the gas valve. Khyakimlik officials were very angry with him over enquiries about the case from England (an apparent reference to Keston's telephone interviews on 28 February) and accused him of passing on their phone number. He met Yazmuradov to ask if the building might be opened so that a watchman could sleep there and keep guard on the building. Yazmuradov told him it would not be opened and not to worry because they would keep watch on it.
When Pastor Korobov visited the church on the morning of 2 March to check on the building he discovered Yazmuradov was there with the police. The lock had been broken and the building was open. They had just sent off a lorry loaded with confiscated furniture and other items from the church and were waiting for it to come back for a second load. Pastor Korobov reportedly asked them to show their written authority to do this, but they refused to do so.
The Ashgabad Baptist Church, which had registration in the later Soviet period and in the early years of Turkmen independence, lost its legal status in May 1997 after failing to gain re-registration required under the terms of the harsh 1996 religion law. Government officials repeatedly claim that religious activity without official registration is illegal, despite the fact that no such provision appears in any published law. All other Baptist Union churches in the country have also been closed down.
`Looking at the authorities' actions,' the Baptist Union in Moscow declares, pointing to more than a century of Baptist activity in Turkmenistan, `one can conclude that the authorities of totalitarian Turkmenistan have decided to put a full stop to the activity of the community, with this obliterating the whole glorious history of this "little light" on Turkmen soil.'
Turkmenistan is the worst violator of religious freedom of all the former Soviet republics. Only communities of the Sunni Muslim Board and the Russian Orthodox Church have been allowed to gain state recognition. Almost all Protestant churches - including the Baptists, Pentecostals and Adventists - as well as communities of Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees and Bahais have faced severe pressure in the past four years in a bid to stamp out their activities. Groups that have been prevented from reviving their activity in the country include the Lutherans, Jews and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Catholic Church is only able to conduct religious activity on Vatican diplomatic territory.
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