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Police Break Up Church Meeting in Turkmenistan

Scathing U.S. report calls independent religious activity ‘impossible.’

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL , May 6 (Compass Direct) – Police in Turkmenistan ’s capital city broke up a Christian house group meeting on Wednesday (May 3), confiscating personal belongings and subjecting the group to extensive interrogation.

More than 15 officials busted the unregistered gathering of 13 members of the Soygi (Love) Church in Ashgabat just hours after U.S. officials recommended that Turkmenistan be labeled one of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.

At 8 p.m., members of the secret police, Hyakimlik (local administration), foreigner registration office, Committee for Religious Affairs, and regular police force entered the house without a warrant and searched the premises. The officers seized Bibles, discipleship texts and videos, as well as personal pictures and a notebook computer.

Church members were then forced to reenact their meeting activities while police videotaped them.

The Christians said they remained calm while police interrogated them over the next two and-one-half hours. “We all praise the Lord, and we thank him about all the things [that] happened,” one of the church members said.

One of the group’s leaders even asked her interrogators to help the Soygi Church register with the government, reported a Christian who requested anonymity. “That was a very bold move,” the Soygi member said.

Expecting continued police harassment, the Turkmen congregation appealed to fellow Christians around the world to pray for them. “We are now being investigated. We want prayer desperately.”

‘Pervasive State Control’

By holding unregistered meetings, the 35 Christians who attend Soygi Church ’s Sunday services are technically breaking the law. But registration in Turkmenistan can be extremely difficult, and repressive government interference often cripples the activities of registered religious communities.

“Registered communities have difficulties renting property for worship services, and building a new place of worship is almost impossible,” Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18 News Service and an expert on religious freedom issues in Central Asia , told Compass Direct. “There are stringent government controls and financial reporting, making independent [registered] activity almost impossible.”

This week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Turkmenistan be added to the U.S. State Department’s list of violators of religious freedom as a Country of Particular Concern.

The commission said that Turkmenistan ’s new registration of religious groups since 2004 had actually become “a method of more pervasive state control over religious communities.”

Its annual report also noted that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov’s “increasingly oppressive personality cult” had effectively become “a state-imposed religion.”

Niyazov, who calls himself Turkmenbashi (Father of the Turkmen), recently announced that everyone who read his spiritual work, Ruhnama, three times would automatically go to heaven.

In the wake of its 1992 independence from the former Soviet Union, the majority Sunni Muslim population of Turkmenistan experienced an era of religious tolerance that saw several hundred Turkmen convert to Christianity.

But in December 1996, the government demanded that all religious groups re-register. Only Muslims and the traditional Russian Orthodox Church were granted legal status under new requirements that religious groups have 500 members to be official.

In the late 1990s, all foreign Christians suspected of missionary activity were deported or denied renewal of their residence permits. Holding unregistered religious meetings was declared a criminal offense, and even registered Muslim groups were brought under tight government control.

Since the government eased registration requirements in March 2004, nine religious minority groups, including seven evangelical Protestant churches, have registered.

But Turkmenistan ’s religious communities and international human rights organizations have remained unimpressed by the largely cosmetic changes to the law.

Greater Grace Church in Ashgabat waited nine months for its registration to be approved, and even now, as a legally recognized church, they still have nowhere to meet.

According to a report by Forum 18, the church began holding services in a rented public hall in November 2005 but was stopped by an official in the city administration’s Religious Affairs Office.

At a round table discussion with registered churches and government representatives in October 2005, Turkmen officials made it clear that churches cannot meet in government-owned buildings, private residences and commercial and residential districts, Forum 18 said.

That leaves the churches with very few options. Forum 18 has reported that only two of seven registered Protestant churches, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ, are known to be able to meet for public worship in rented facilities.