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Turkmenistan Christians Pray For More Freedom After Presidential Poll

Stefan J. Bos, Eric Leijenaar

Many people live in darkness and want something more than the ideology.

3/1/07 Turkmenistan ( Christians in Turkmenistan were praying for a radical change of government following presidential elections on Sunday, February 11, but observers now caution that it was unlikely as current interim President Gurbanguli Berdymukhammedov was expected to easily defeat his five lesser-known challengers.

Berdymukhammedov would replace the late autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov, who was accused of cracking down on Christians and dissidents. Niyazov died last December after ruling his isolated predominantly Muslim nation for 21 years.

Although Berdymukhammedov announced reforms, Christian rights group Open Doors said it was not optimistic about the future of Turkmenistan , a gas-rich Central Asian country.

“He already changed the constitution to make his election possible and reportedly enjoys support from the state-run media, high-level officials and the [feared] secret service.”

Persecution Continues

Under Turkmen ‘President-for-life’ Niyazov, who unexpectedly died December 21, the country became a “police state with almost no freedoms for its citizens,” Open Doors told BosNewsLife in a statement. The country’s Christian minority was especially persecuted, despite a constitution that guarantees “freedom of religion and faith,” among other freedoms, the Netherlands-based group said.

Protestant house churches have been raided by police who confiscated Bibles, songbooks and other Christian literature and detained believers, Open Doors and other groups have reported.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one pastor noted that while “the law supports” his church, “officials don’t care and are doing what they want.”

Berdymukhammedov “has so far been silent about “political changes, press freedom and the release of political prisoners,” instead limiting his reforms to education and promises of a higher living standard and access to information via the Internet.

Mistrust remains

Turkmen Christian believers reportedly do not trust these promises and especially ethnic Turkmen Christians fear authorities will continue to mark their churches as “sects” and refuse to recognize them.

Under Turkmenistan’s regulations church leaders are forced to hand over their notes of church meetings to the Ministry of Justice, send money of collection plates to an official bank account and allow the secret service to control all financial transactions.

Many churches are for these reasons forced underground, although even recognized congregations have been raided by police during worship services.

In the last two years several official churches were reportedly raided during services by Turkmenistan ‘s security forces, who also filmed all believers, confiscated Christian literature and detained Christians for long interrogations.

Several church leaders were fined while foreigners were expelled from the country, rights watchers said. Open Doors estimates there are about 5,000 Turkmen Christians in the country, many of whom apparently became Christian shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union during a brief period of religious freedom.

Churches growing

Despite current difficulties, churches are growing and every year people are baptized. “Recently a congregation of 70 people began in one village” after former drugs addicts said God freed them from their dependency on drugs”. “Many people wanted to become Christian.”

Although evangelistic activities are forbidden, Christians continue to distribute Bibles and other Christian literature. “Many people live in darkness and want something more than the ideology” preached by the government, a church leader said in remarks distributed by Open Doors. “We always celebrate when we receive Christian literature,” as it is almost impossible to openly purchase that, the church leader added.

The international Human Rights Watch (HRW) group has urged Western governments to make clear to Turkmenistan ‘s next government that it will be judged on solid evidence of human rights progress. HRW characterizes Turkmenistan as “one of the most repressive countries in the world.”

However the Director of the independent Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office, Yevgeni Volk, stressed he fears Berdymukhammedov’s presidency will not mean people will see these demanded changes soon.

“Whoever comes to power, will have to try to re-instate himself as the new leader and it will be very difficult because everyone remembers Turkmenbashi [the late President Saparmurat Niyazov] and his cult of personality,” he said. “And of course there will be a very tough struggle for power among various groups who all believe they are better to rule the country.”