F18News: Turkmenistan – Police control of believers set to continue


The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

Monday 28 June 2004

In an apparent sign that they intend to keep tight control of religious
communities, officers of the police sixth department, which fights
organised crime and terrorism, summoned at least four religious leaders in
early June. Officers demanded full information about current and planned
activities, and names and addresses of all members, Forum 18 News Service
has learnt. Intermittent raids on religious communities continue as
unregistered religious activity remains illegal. One Protestant told Forum
18 of serious threats in repeated raids on a church in Dashoguz in May. A
Jehovah’s Witness elder said five local officials confiscated two Bibles in
a 10 June raid on a private home, adding that it is too early for them to
apply for registration. “Can we apply when some of our lads are still
in prison? We won’t lodge an application until our community can function
freely.” Only four minority communities – the Adventists, the
Baha’is, the Baptists and the Hare Krishnas – have gained
registration since March.


By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service

Despite government claims that it has eased restrictions on religious
practice and despite the early release in mid-June of six of the country’s
nine religious prisoners (see F18News 25 June 2004
), religious leaders
report continuing police harassment of their communities. Although fines
are not known to have been levied on believers since April, Forum 18 News
Service has learnt that intermittent raids, threats and pressure to convert
from minority faiths continue. Several religious leaders have told Forum 18
they have been summoned by officers of the sixth department of the police,
which tracks organised crime and terrorism, and asked for full information
on all their community’s activities and plans. Officers are also demanding
full lists of members and their addresses, as well as the names of people
who live in the same buildings as their members. Unregistered religious
activity remains illegal.

Of the four religious leaders known to Forum 18 to have been summoned to
the sixth department in the capital Ashgabad in early June, some refused to
go while others went but refused to write a statement about their
activities or to present the list of members the police were demanding. One
of those summoned told Forum 18 that the officers’ demands indicated that
the police intend to continue keeping tight control over religious
activity, especially for communities that gain official registration.

The most serious harassment came in May, when secret police and police
officers threatened members of a Protestant church in the town of Dashoguz
[Dashhowuz] in north-eastern Turkmenistan. “Police and secret police
officers took the believers and threatened them,” one Protestant, who
asked not to be identified and requested that the denomination likewise not
be identified, told Forum 18. “This happened several times in
May.” The Protestant also reported harassment of the church in other
towns, including in the southern town of Tedjen. “Elsewhere the
situation is fairly normal.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses report that the last time any of their members were
sacked from work because of their faith was in March. In April one
Jehovah’s Witness was fined a large sum in Turkmenabad (formerly Charjou).
But an elder in Ashgabad, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18
on 25 June that their communities still cannot meet together in large
numbers without being harassed and such harassment has continued since

Police visited one Jehovah’s Witness’ home on 8 June, while on 10 June five
officials of the hyakimlik (local administration) raided the Ashgabad home
of a female Jehovah’s Witness. “They treated her like a
criminal,” the elder complained. “They also confiscated two

The Jehovah’s Witness elder says the community cannot apply for
registration while such harassment continues. “Can we apply when some
of our lads are still in prison? We won’t lodge an application until our
community can function freely,” the elder told Forum 18. “What is
registration anyway?”

Although the government eased registration restrictions, at least in
theory, back in March the registration process is going very slowly. While
Ashgabad’s Baha’i and Adventist communities gained registration in early
June, the first non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities to
get registration since 1997 (see F18News 3 June 2004
), only weeks later
– at the end of June – did two more of the other groups that
have applied for registration receive it.

Pastor Vasily Korobov told Forum 18 on 25 June that his Baptist Church had
received its registration certificate earlier that day, though he says he
has to return this week to the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry to
“correct and complete” the application. Forum 18 has also heard
reports that about the same time the Hare Krishna community received

The Adalat Ministry has consistently refused to give Forum 18 any
information about the registration process since Shirin Akhmedova was moved
from her post in the department that registers religious organisations
several months ago. Contacted by Forum 18 in June, Bibi Tagieva and
Svetlana Maltseva, two officials from the same department, have either put
down the phone or have insisted that while information on the registration
process is “not a state secret” and that “we’re not afraid
to give information”, all requests have to be channelled through the
Foreign Ministry.

However, Maltseva did confirm to Forum 18 on 16 June that the Armenian
Apostolic Church had not applied to register any communities, before
refusing to discuss individual faiths any further. She denied suggestions
that no minority religious communities will be allowed to register in towns
outside Ashgabad.

Fr Ioann Kopach, Russian Orthodox dean of Ashgabad, told Forum 18 on 16
June that neither the Adalat Ministry nor the government’s Gengeshi
(Council) for Religious Affairs has yet told his Church whether it will
have to re-register its 12 parishes as demanded by last October’s revised
religion law.

Catholic priest Fr Tomasz, one of two foreign priests based in Ashgabad who
have diplomatic immunity as Vatican diplomats, told Forum 18 the Catholic
Church is waiting for a letter from the Vatican and other documents before
submitting its registration application. “Hopefully we will soon have
registration,” he told Forum 18 on 25 June. He said the Church would
apply for registration to cover the whole country. “We have a few
Catholics in other parts of Turkmenistan, but no organised communities. We
hope to organise parishes in other towns once we have registration.”

Armenia’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, Aram Grigoryan, confirmed to Forum 18
from Ashgabad on 16 June that there had been no progress in regaining the
historical Armenian Apostolic church in Turkmenbashi. “We’re still
waiting,” declared the ambassador, who has long been spearheading
attempts to get back the church and reopen it for worship.

Pastor Viktor Makrousov of Ashgabad’s Pentecostal Church told Forum 18 he
has not yet lodged his community’s registration application, though he has
been preparing the documents.

A member of another church, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum
18 his community was optimistic it would soon get registration and be able
to restart public worship. The church lodged its registration application
some weeks ago. Asked why registration was taking so long Forum 18 was
told: “A woman doesn’t give birth immediately but carries her child
for nine months.”

It remains unclear whether Christian Churches will try again to register a
Bible Society. Attempts in the late 1990s were unsuccessful. Officials of
the International Religious Liberty Association outside Turkmenistan told
Forum 18 it is “too early” to think of forming a branch of the
association there, though they believe this is desirable as soon as it is

Forum 18 has been unable to find out if any Muslim communities plan to seek
registration again for the medrassahs (Islamic colleges) closed down by the
authorities in the 1990s. Sources have told Forum 18 a few private
medrassahs function quietly, led by Muslims who believe current Islamic
education is inadequate. A respected Turkish-run set of private schools in
Turkmenistan have been banned from teaching Islam, although this is a
routine part of their curriculum in Turkey and other Central Asian

Fr Kopach told Forum 18 that the Russian Orthodox Church does not have
Sunday schools for children, though he glossed over whether this was
because of state restrictions or lack of resources on the Church’s part.

Pastor Korobov told Forum 18 that the Baptist Church’s registration covered
the whole of Turkmenistan. The Baptists have congregations in Turkmenbashi
(formerly Krasnovodsk), Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag) and Mary as well as
Ashgabad. All four of its churches were closed after the communities lost
registration in 1997. The Ashgabad church was confiscated, while the other
three were sealed by the authorities. “It’s relatively simple to
reopen the three churches in other towns, but here in Ashgabad it will be
more complicated,” Pastor Korobov told Forum 18. “Other people
are living there now.” He said they would now start to work to recover
the confiscated Ashgabad church.

After 1997, when all non-Sunni Muslim and non-Russian Orthodox communities
lost registration, the authorities destroyed the Adventist church in
Ashgabad, two Hare Krishna temples in Mary region, Ashgabad’s Baha’i temple
and several mosques. Moscow-based researcher Nikolai Mitrokhin told Forum18
the authorities also destroyed a dilapidated Orthodox church in Mary in
1997 (the priest was reportedly unconcerned as the town’s other church was
large enough to accommodate worshippers even at Easter), while Moscow
journalist Arkady Dubnov told Forum 18 an unused Russian Orthodox chapel
dating back to 1913 in the southern border town of Kushka was demolished
some time between 1999 and 2003 as part of government schemes to destroy
old Russian monuments.

However, rebuilding or getting back former places of worship may be
difficult. Veronika Annaklycheva, deputy hyakim (head of administration) of
the Kopetdag district of Ashgabad where the Adventist church was bulldozed
in November 1999 remained unrepentant. “Schools and flats were
destroyed to make way for reconstruction and a road,” she told Forum
18 from her office in Ashgabad on 9 June. She seemed uninterested that the
Adventist community had regained its registration. “I don’t know
anything about that – I haven’t seen the certificate.” She
brushed off suggestions that the Adventist community should be given
compensation for the destruction of their place of worship to help them
rebuild it. “That’s not a question for me.”

Just as the Baptists’ church in Ashgabad was seized, so was the city’s
Pentecostal church. “We want it back – it’s my private property,”
Pastor Makrousov told Forum 18. “It would be difficult to function as
a community without somewhere to meet for worship.”

One Protestant pastor, who preferred not to be identified, remained highly
suspicious over registration. “Honestly, it would be wrong to dance
for joy at getting registration as the law and regulations are so
restrictive,” he told Forum 18. “Registration means being obliged
to abide by all the regulations, asking for permission to hold services,
invite foreigners, conduct educate or import literature. Maybe it’s worse
than not having registration.” The pastor pointed out that conditions
for registered communities are now much harsher than before harsh
registration restrictions were adopted in 1996. “At least there was
some freedom back then.”

A representative of the Council of Churches of Evangelical
Christians/Baptists, which rejects state registration on principle and has
several congregations in different towns of the country, told Forum 18 that
the police are still watching their activity. “They are showing they
still have teeth. The law may have changed but what has changed on the
ground?” The congregations regularly have to change the places they
hold services to avoid police raids. The representative pointed out that
until unregistered religious activity ceases to be illegal their
congregations will not be free to function openly.

The representative cited a police summons to the local court to Valentina
Kalataevskaya in Turkmenbashi on 25 May. Kalataevskaya, whose husband
Vyacheslav was deported from Turkmenistan into neighbouring Kazakhstan in
June 2001 by the secret police, was not at home when the police called.
Despite threats that if she failed to go the police would arrive in force
and seize her, she refused to attend on the basis of a verbal summons.

The government appears to have maintained the ban on registering
specifically Shia Muslim mosques. Reportedly the only Shia place of worship
that functions legally is a prayer room attached to a registered Sunni
mosque in Ashgabad (which, like most schools and factories and some places
of worship, has a “Ruhnama room” honouring the president’s book
that is forcibly imposed on the country). The Iranian embassy in Ashgabad
also runs its own Shia mosque under diplomatic auspices, though this is
apparently inaccessible for local citizens. Elsewhere such Shia mosques
have been denied registration.

Others whose worship remains illegal include the Lutherans and several
other Protestant denominations, Jews, New Apostolic believers and Molokans
(an early Russian Protestant group with communities in Ashgabad and
Bairam-Ali, a small town near Mary).

For more background see Forum 18’s latest religious freedom survey at

A printer-friendly map of Turkmenistan is available at

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