LONDON, November 8 (Compass)—Turkmen pastor Rahim Tashov, who has long faced harassment for work with his Baptist congregation in the eastern town of Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou), is due to go on trial Thursday, November 11, sources close to the case told Compass today. He was arrested October 31 and has been in detention since then. It is not yet known which criminal code article he is being tried under.

"There has been no official announcement of the charges," the source reported. It is feared the case will center on his work with children.

Over the last few months, officers of the National Security Committee (KNB) have been pressuring parents of children who attend Sunday school groups to sign statements that Pastor Tashov has been teaching them religion without parental consent. Several parents have been threatened into signing such statements.

Tashov has found it difficult to locate a lawyer willing to take his case. Several are reported to have refused, knowing the government's sensitivity to such a religious case. However, the latest report says he has found one.

KNB officers raided a service of his church on October 24 and detained Tashov. He was freed the following day. During this initial detention—in which he was reportedly beaten—he was threatened with imprisonment if he continued what the KNB considers his illegal religious activity.

This time it seems the KNB is determined to take strong action to prevent him continuing his ministry in his almost entirely ethnic Turkmen church.

Tashov's church does not have registration (Turkmen law requires 500 adult citizen members in a given locality before a congregation can even apply for registration), but the pastor maintains that private worship in small house groups is not illegal. During his initial detention, Tashov asked the KNB officers to show him which legal provisions he had violated.

The KNB also reportedly asked Tashov how it is that the whole world knows about the case of the church. It appears they were referring to coverage given to earlier raids on the church, including KNB and police visits in late September when Christian literature was confiscated and church members were warned not to meet.

The independent Turkmenabad Baptist Church was formerly a member church of the Central Asian Baptist Union, but separated from it at the beginning of the year over theological differences. The church has suffered continuous harassment that has targeted small, daughter churches that meet in villages around Turkmenabad.

In several cases in 1998 and 1999, village authorities, the police and the KNB have summoned church leaders to public meetings, where church members are threatened with expulsion from the village if they fail to halt their Christian activity. It is not known if these threats have been carried out. However, a number of village groups have closed as a result of the pressure.

Several church members have also been fined for their activity, and some have received threats from Muslim relatives.

The church has tried unsuccessfully to seek registration. With the requirement for 500 members, minority religious communities in Turkmenistan have found it impossible to overcome the registration hurdle. Only communities of the officially sanctioned Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church have managed to achieve re-registration.

Copyright © 1999 Compass Direct.

Related Elsewhere

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.

The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is this Sunday, November 14. To find out how you can be involved, check out the "Shatter the Silence" web site.