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By Felix Corley

(Forum 18) The demolition of historic 19th century buildings in the central part of the Caspian port town of Turkmenbashi [Türkmenbashy, formerly Krasnovodsk], including the last surviving pre-revolutionary Armenian Apostolic Church in Turkmenistan, has been completed this month on the orders of President Saparmurat Niyazov. The authorities completed demolition of the church in February 2005, having previously refused to hand it back to the local Armenian community for worship.

The Armenian embassy in the capital Ashgabad [Ashgabat] confirmed that it had been informed about the destruction of the historic church in Turkmenbashi, but the ambassador Aram Grigoryan was out of the country on 22 May and unable to comment on the destruction. No-one was available for immediate comment at the Armenian Foreign Ministry in Yerevan on 22 May, or at the headquarters of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin near the Armenian capital.

The former Armenian church, built a century ago and consecrated by the then Catholicos (head of the Armenian Apostolic Church ) in 1904, was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and turned into a warehouse. In 1993, Mamedov – as a local journalist and human rights activist – had supported attempts by the local Armenian community to form a cultural and religious centre in the town and regain possession of the church. He said the authorities consistently refused to register the community or allow it to function. “It was a very beautiful building,” Mamedov recalls. “When we were trying to get it back in 1993, I remember looking inside and it was just used as a store for the local administration’s old furniture and car parts.”

Mamedov – who has obtained a copy of a secret local administration order from November 2005 detailing which streets are to be destroyed – said there is widespread anger and fear in Turkmenbashi over the destruction of the town’s historic centre, reactions confirmed by the exile Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation. But Mamedov said the town’s main Sunni Muslim mosque and the Russian Orthodox church are located close together in the newer parts of the town and are not in immediate danger of demolition.

In massive construction redevelopments in Ashgabad and elsewhere in Turkmenistan , those expelled from their homes ahead of demolition get no compensation and often nowhere else to live. Among places of worship bulldozed in Ashgabad was the Seventh-day Adventist church, built in the 1990s and which was destroyed in 1999 at only one week’s notice. The authorities claimed the land was needed for a road-widening programme, but for some years the site was derelict. The Adventists have never been given any compensation and are not allowed to build a new church to replace the one destroyed.