Police launched another major crackdown on a Baptist congregation in Turkmenistan recently, threatening church members that if they meet for worship again they will be fined, reports a Norway-based human rights watch-dog. In the third known set of raids on religious communities in August, police interrogated and threatened members of an independent Baptist church in the western town of Balkanabad (formerly Nebit-Dag), warning a house church leader that any further unregistered services in his home would lead to fines.
An officer of the criminal investigation department arrived at the Balkanabad home of Nikolai Matsenko in the afternoon of August 20, Baptists in Turkmenistan told Forum 18, a Christian agency which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states. After questioning him about the church's activity, the officer warned him that if any further services took place in his flat he would be fined.
The following evening, at 11 p.m., a group of individuals knocked on Matsenko's door, at least one of which claimed to be a local police officer. "They insistently demanded that he open the door and let them into the flat," the Baptists told Forum 18. "But as it was night, brother Nikolai didn't open the door. Threatening dire consequences, they left."
The Baptists reported that police visited several other church members in the town, including new converts, at the end of August. One young man was forcibly dragged from his home to the police station. "All were asked exactly the same questions about the internal life of the church," the Baptists reported.
The Balkanabad Baptist congregation belongs to a Baptist network of churches that refuse to register on principle in any of the former Soviet republics where they operate, regarding such registration as unacceptable state interference. Matsenko was among a large group of church members in Balkanabad given heavy fines at the beginning of the year for participation in the church.
August saw several other raids on religious communities. The secret police raided a Baptist home on August 4 in Abadan (formerly Bezmein) near Ashgabad, where a prayer and Bible reading service was underway. And several other religious minorities have also reported similar incidents.
According to a September 5th-report by the Germany-based Central Asian Press Agency, President Saparmurat Niyazov had issued an instruction to the Adalat Ministry at a conference of law-enforcement officers that it should tighten up "the rules for registering religious sects and non-governmental organizations", as well as to work closely with the National Security Ministry "to stamp out any illegal actions". Forum 18 has been unable to confirm that Niyazov issued such an instruction from any other source.
On September 10, Forum 18 was unable to reach Maifa Sarieva, who has headed the department at the Adalat (Fairness or Justice) Ministry which registers religious communities for the past two months. No other ministry officials could tell Forum 18 whether the president had given such an order for the registration rules to be tightened up, what was holding up the registration of religious organizations and why religious communities that have registration cannot in practice function openly.
According to the Open Door's "World Watch" List, Tukmenistan has been listed at No. 6 among countries where Christians suffer most.