The authorities of the Niyazov district of the Turkmen capital Ashgabad have sealed the city's Baptist church without warning. The church's pastor Vasily Korobov told Keston News Service from Ashgabad that two seals were placed on the church doors on Saturday, February 17, although no official gave the church any notice of the impending action or even informed them of it. The sealing of the doors may be a prelude to moves to confiscate the church, the latest phase of Turkmenistan's attempts to crush its Protestant minority.

"We avoided the trouble earlier—they were not so harsh on us as they were on the others," Pastor Korobov declared, referring to raids on other Protestant churches and attempts to confiscate the city's Pentecostal church. "But now they've turned on us."

Keston has been unable to reach officials at the Niyazov district administration to enquire why the church has been sealed and what further action is intended.

"The night-watchman left on the Saturday morning as usual," Pastor Korobov reported, "and no one was in the church during the day. The seals were discovered when the night watchman arrived again in the evening. We were not told this had been done—I was here at home and no-one called me."

The church decided not to break the seals to gain entrance the following day to hold the Sunday service, as it feared being accused of breaking the law. The church was forced to meet in a private home.

Pastor Korobov reported that he intends to go to the local administration of the Niyazov district to find out why the church has been sealed and why the authorities have given no explanation of the action. "But I'm not hurrying to go to meet them as they will only find new excuses to cause problems. I'm inclined to wait for them to come," Korobov told Keston.

Baptist sources say the sealing of the church came a week after the Sunday service on February 11 was raided by the political police, the KNB (former KGB). KNB officers swooped in the middle of a hymn, but the 20-strong congregation continued to sing despite the interruption and went on to complete the service. KNB officers took the names and passport details of all those present and told them not to attend the church again. "Next time we will take more serious measures," they warned church members.

Pastor Korobov rejects any suggestion that the state authorities have the right to determine the fate of their building, which is owned by the congregation. The authorities are reportedly claiming that because the church does not have registration its use for religious worship is illegal. (Like all Protestant churches in Turkmenistan it lost state registration in the compulsory re-registration drive in 1997 that followed the adoption of a harsh new law on religion in 1996.)

The authorities claim that if the church does not dispose of the building within three years the property will revert to the state, something the church vigorously rejects. The Ashgabad Baptist church - which is a member of the Central Asian Baptist Union—has functioned for more than a decade.

Last year the authorities closed all the other Baptist Union churches in the country, including those in Mary and Balkanabad. The Police have previously attempted to close down the Ashgabad church too by disputing its ownership. However, Pastor Korobov insists any legal quibbles over ownership were settled some years ago and the congregation is the full owner.

Related Elsewhere

Learn more from the U.S. Department of State's "2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom: Turkmenistan."

Previous Christianity Today stories about religious persecution in Turkmenistan include:

Turkmen Police Beat and Interrogate Two Christians |Beaten Baptist threatened with deportation from Turkmenistan. (Feb. 20, 2001)

Tortured Baptist Prisoner Near Death in Turkmenistan | Meanwhile, More Protestant churches are raided in an attempt to crush Christian activity around Ashgabad. (Feb. 5, 2000)

Turkmenistan Police Evict Christians | Families punished after four men are arrested for owning Christian videos. (Dec. 21, 2000)

Turkmenistan Police Torture Four Christians | Crackdown on Protestants includes beatings, interrogations, and electric shocks. (Dec. 7, 2000)

Turkmenistan Refuses To Register Bible Society | Government confiscating Turkmen, Russian Scriptures. (March 16, 2000)

Turkmen Secret Police Deports Baptist Couple | More expulsions expected as efforts continue to stop 'illegal' religious activity. (March 15, 2000)

Turkmen Baptist Pastor Threatened with Prison | Two church members in Turkmenabad fired from jobs

Turkmenistan Deports Two Baptist Pastors | Christians arrested last week sent to Ukraine (Dec. 29, 1999)

Two Baptist Pastors Arrested by Secret Police in Turkmenistan | Crackdown on Unregistered Minority Communities Continues (Dec. 28, 1999)

Pastor Faces Thursday Trial In Turkmenistan | Baptist minister accused of teaching children religion without parental consent. (Dec. 10, 1999)