Despite gaining state registration under the much-trumpeted “liberalization” of the religion law, secret police raids and threats against Christian communities in the nation of Turkmenistan have not stopped, according to a Norway-based news agency. In the majority of cases, Christians and other minority religious communities have either been unsuccessful with registration applications, or do not want to apply because of the harsh controls they would be subjected to.
In the most recent incident, Forum 18 reported that six National Security Ministry (NSM) secret police officers raided a private flat in the town of Abadan (formerly Bezmein) the evening of August 4, near the capitol city of Ashgabat, where a small group of Baptists were meeting to pray and read the bible. The meeting, led by Pastor Korobov from Ashgabat, had only just begun when the authorities raided the apartment. The Baptists reported that the authorities were initially “very aggressive”, ordering Korobov and the group not to undertake any religious activities in the town. Korobov pointed out that the Baptists had received state registration from the Justice Ministry on June 25, 2004, and told the authorities that he could show them the registration documents the following day. However, two of the officers both stated that even if the religious communities have registration, they still need 500 members to be able to meet.
The authorities then held the entire group for three hours and confiscated their Bibles and hymnbooks. The officers then threatened the Baptists saying that any attempt to meet again in Abadan would cause a “big problem” for the group.
According to Forum 18, Abadan is a particular “religious freedom blackspot.” Although the much-trumpeted “liberalization” of the harsh law on religion reduced the theoretical threshold for religious communities to gain registration from 500 adult citizens to five, few have been able to gain registration.
A wide range of religious communities say they would like state registration in order to function legally in the eyes of the government, including the Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Pentecostals, and Shia Muslims. However, all have either been unsuccessful with their registration applications, or have declined to apply because they are unhappy with the harsh controls they would be subjected to. And those who are successful in registering must suffer from high registration fees and reportedly still suffer difficulties.
Meanwhile, unregistered religious activities remains illegal and punishable by fines, contrary to international human rights agreements. Although fines for religious activity seem to have eased in recent months, life for religious communities is still difficult. “Our church is in a desperate situation,” one Protestant pastor said.
The pastor, who preferred not to be named, told Forum 18, “The authorities have more than once and very brutally resisted our earnest desire to meet and preach the Gospel among the population. Our brothers and sisters have repeatedly been interrogated and threatened by the secret police, while many brothers and sisters have been kicked out of their jobs for their faith.”
Sources report that there has been no change in the government’s strongly expressed hostility to any form of religious freedom.