Amid the continuing crackdown on unregistered Christian churches in the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan, the secret police have raided four Baptist congregations and arrested two senior Baptist leaders. The two—Vladimir Chernov and Anatoly Belyayev—are pastors of the Ashgabad congregation of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian/Baptists in the Turkmen capital.

According to information from Baptist sources in the country reaching the U.S.-based Russian Evangelistic Ministries, the two pastors, together with Chernov's wife Olga, were seized in what appears to be a concerted campaign to stamp out their church. The location of the three is unknown.

Fifteen agents of the National Security Committee, the KNB (formerly the KGB) raided the Baptist church in Ashgabad on December 16 at 11 p.m. The facilities were guarded by a 17-year-old local believer, Dmitry Milnichenko. After breaking down the door of the sanctuary, the KNB agents reportedly assaulted Milnichenko while others searched the premises, turning everything upside down.

When they had completed their search and realized that Milnichenko was the only person there, the KNB agents took him to their headquarters for interrogation, during which he was reportedly beaten and threatened. The KNB warned him that when he reaches the age of 18 and has to perform compulsory military service, he would be "repaid for his faith in Jesus."

The KNB reportedly tried to induce Milnichenko to collaborate, but he declined. He was released at 6:30 p.m. today, exhausted and suffering from the beatings.

Belyayev was also arrested before dawn this morning. The four men that came to his house refused to show any identification papers. Forcing their way in, they said, "You are under arrest!" The minister's wife responded, "Have we returned to the Stalin era? What is going on?" The men replied only that as soon as Chernov was in custody, Belyayev would be freed. Although legally registered in Marakh, Belyayev ministers in the Ashgabad congregation.

The KNB finally tracked down Chernov and his wife Olga late today while they were traveling by train to visit Baptists in the Caspian port town of Turkmenbashi. They were taken off the train by police and handed over to the KNB.

Also during the night of December 16-17, KNB officers raided other Baptist churches, including congregations in Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou), Mary and Turkmenbashi, the church that the Chernovs were due to visit. An unknown number of Baptists had their identity documents confiscated.

The congregations of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christian/Baptists have suffered relentless persecution over the past years in Turkmenistan as the government has stepped up its campaign to crush unregistered religious activity. Facing similar harassment, which includes fines, interrogations, beatings, detention and expulsion from the country, have been other Baptist communities not affiliated with the Council of Churches. Adventists and other Protestants, as well as non-Christian groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishna devotees have also been harassed.

Ironically, sources in Turkmenistan reported that just a few days before the raids and his own arrest, Pastor Chernov had been sharing with fellow Baptists his joy at the apparent relaxation of the persecution of believers after a spate of raids in November and the first week of December.

Related Elsewhere

See our coverage of an earlier arrest of a Baptist pastor by Turkmen authorities here.

The U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom examines Turkmenistan religious freedom from political and societal perspectives, and remarks on what the U.S. government has done in response to human rights infringements in the country.