Baptist pastor Rahim Tashov and a colleague were hauled into police headquarters in their hometown of Turkmenabad (formerly Chardjou) last Thursday, February 3. There officers of the National Security Committee (KNB, the former KGB) gave Tashov and another Turkmen identified only as Arslan "a final warning that if they ever gather people again in any place, then they will be put in prison," sources close to the case told Compass over the weekend.
Located in eastern Turkmenistan, Tashov's independent Baptist church—which like all non-Orthodox Christian churches has been refused state registration—has already been forced to halt all public activity, even worship services. Over the past year, Turkmen authorities have moved to crush all unregistered religious practices.
During the interrogation, the KNB also asked Tashov about his brother Ruslan, who is studying at a Christian college in Russia. "If they don't return, or try to continue their education at the Christian university, we will make life difficult for them," the KNB officers reportedly told Rahim. "Turkmenistan has no need for people with that type of education. If they don't come back, then let them take Russian citizenship and stay there forever!"
The pastor has faced constant police pressure. "Rahim was again recently taken to the police and forced to write a statement about what had happened," sources had told Compass on January 30. At the same time, Tashov is still being refused the return of his passport, which was taken from him at the time of his arrest last October. Despite repeated attempts, he has been unable to get it back.
"Each time Tashov goes to the procuracy to ask for the passport back he is told: 'The person you need is not here, come back this afternoon or tomorrow,' or given some other excuse," sources close to the case report. A passport is vital for any transaction in Turkmenistan, serving both for internal identification and foreign travel.
Pressure is still being put on church members, although the church has halted its activity. Two female teachers were fired from their jobs in January. One of them, identified only as Gulbakhar, was banned even from visiting Tashov's home."
They recently noticed that she visited Rahim at home and they accused her of attending the church meeting," sources told Compass. "When she said she was just going to visit, they banned her even from visiting Rahim as a guest. They told her: 'Write a statement saying that you have left your job voluntarily or we will be forced to sack you.'"
Children who used to attend the church's Sunday school, which has likewise been forced to halt its activity, are being put under pressure at school. "They organize meetings in the schools, single them out for disgrace and ban all of them from visiting Christians."
Tashov was first detained on October 24 last year after National Security Committee (KNB) officers raided his church during the Sunday service. He was freed the following evening after being severely beaten. He was again arrested on October 31 by the local chief of the KNB in Turkmenabad, and was held in the investigation prison. He was freed on November 12 after being given an administrative fine of 200,000 manats, one month's minimum wage, under the law on unsanctioned meetings.
In the interval between the two arrests, Tashov had once again tried to register his church with the authorities. He received no written response to his application, but was told verbally that the authorities would never allow a Protestant church to be registered in Turkmenistan.
Tashov was warned that if he continued to hold meetings of his unregistered congregation, he would face charges under the criminal code and much heavier penalties. It has been Tashov's consistent position that the Turkmenistan Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and that he is merely exercising this right.
The continuing pressure on Turkmenabad Baptists appears to be part of a national plan to destroy minority religious faiths in Turkmenistan. Apart from the officially-approved Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church, all religious groups are illegal, even if they have the 500 minimum adult citizen members they need to apply for registration under current Turkmen law. Registration was cancelled for all minority faiths with a change in the law in December 1996. KNB and police raids on meetings and active believers of a variety of faiths have been used to stamp out religious practice. Many believers have been fined. Places of worship have been demolished, including two Hare Krishna temples and one Adventist church last year.
Christian leaders from other CIS states who were not citizens of Turkmenistan have been deported. Just before Christmas, Baptist pastor Vladimir Chernov and his wife Olga from Ashgabad were summarily expelled by plane on December 23, and Aleksandr Yefremov and his wife from Turkmenabad were deported by train the previous day.
On February 2, two members of Chernov's Ashgabad congregation, Mikhail Kozlov and Antoli Belhahev, were put under arrest. According to Keston News Service, the following day the wife and five children of Turkmen Baptist prisoner Shagildy Atakov were also forcibly removed from their home in Mary by KNB authorities and transported to Kaakha, 120 miles away.
Back in November, Atakov was reportedly subjected to 15 days in a punishment cell in the Seydy labor camp where he is serving four years' imprisonment for what his church says are fabricated swindling charges. Atakov's case was taken up in January by Amnesty International as the only known Christian prisoner of conscience in Turkmenistan.
An ongoing number of foreigners with formal residence and work permits whom the Turkmen authorities accused of involvement in Christian activities have also been deported, together with their families, in recent months.
Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct. Used with permission.
See our earlier coverage of Christianity in Turkmenistan: Turkmenistan Deports Two Baptist Pastors (Dec. 29, 1999)
Two Baptist Pastors Arrested by Secret Police in Turkmenistan (Dec. 28, 1999)
Turkmen Authorities Fine, Release Baptist Pastor (Nov. 18, 1999)
Pastor Faces Thursday Trial In Turkmenistan (Nov. 10, 1999)
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.
For more on Turkmenistan in general, see Britannica.com's article on the country.
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