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3/16/2011 Turkmenistan (Forum18) – The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, has noted that Turkmen government controls on importing religious material for use in the dozen Russian Orthodox parishes in Turkmenistan have been lifted. “Until recently, a major problem was the import into the country of church articles and religious literature,” he told the Archbishops’ Council in Moscow on 2 February in a speech published in full on the Patriarchate website. “However, with the help of the Lord, this problem has at present been resolved positively.” Members of many other religious communities have complained to Forum 18 News Service of continuing confiscations of religious literature both inside the country and from travellers entering or leaving Turkmenistan.
Religious literature is still routinely confiscated at the border. Tight control of the country’s borders includes frequent, often thorough searches for religious literature.
Any traveller with more than a handful of books is almost certain to have them confiscated, religious believers from Turkmenistan of a variety of faiths have told Forum 18 in early 2011. No more then one copy of any one title is likely to be allowed through, as officials believe any extra copies are for distribution, which is illegal.
Nearly a dozen people Forum 18 has spoken to between November 2010 and the end of February 2011 who passed through Ashgabad [Ashgabat] airport – both Turkmen residents and foreign visitors, even those invited by the Turkmen government – have said that almost the first question customs officers ask is whether they have religious literature with them.
Searches and confiscations are conducted by border guards, customs officers and officers of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) secret police. “It’s difficult to say which officer is from which agency,” one individual who has had religious literature confiscated told Forum 18.
Confiscations on exit too
In what some local religious believers say is a new development, border guards and MSS secret police officers at Ashgabad airport searched the luggage of known religious believers leaving the country in early 2011. A number had religious literature confiscated from them, sources who asked not to the identified told Forum 18. “This is a definite turn for the worse, if we cannot even take religious materials out of the country now,” one complained.
Only occasionally in the past have religious believers complained to Forum 18 of confiscation of religious literature on departure from Turkmenistan.
The duty officer at the Border Service headquarters in Ashgabad referred all enquiries on the confiscation of religious literature to the duty officer at the airport. However, each time Forum 18 called on 11 March the telephones were engaged or went unanswered. Telephones at the State Customs Service went unanswered the same day, while the MSS secret police refused to answer any questions.
Also unwilling to answer questions was the government’s Gengesh (Committee) for Religious Affairs in Ashgabad. The man who on 9 March answered the telephone of Gurbanberdy Nursakhatov, the Deputy Chair, put the phone down as soon as Forum 18 began asking questions.
Religious publishing barely exists within Turkmenistan, and the little religious literature that is occasionally published requires prior approval from the government’s Gengesh for Religious Affairs. Religious literature, audio recordings and DVDs are often confiscated during raids, and possession of such materials can lead to further harassment, as reportedly happened to two Muslim students in Ashgabad in February.
Confiscation of Orthodox books, baptismal crosses and incense at an end?
In his Moscow speech, Patriarch Kirill did not specify what difficulties there had been for the Church to import literature and church objects. However, Russian Orthodox clergy have complained for some years to Forum 18 that importing religious literature, copies of the Church’s official Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, baptismal crosses and incense has been restricted or impossible. Russian Orthodox books have been confiscated at customs, along with other Christian, as well as Muslim literature and publications of other faiths.
However, if Russian Orthodox priests can now import religious literature and church objects, it remains unclear if Russian Orthodox laypeople have the same possibility.