Turkmenistan is making life miserable for religious minorities. On November 10 last year, the government in the former Soviet Central Asian state passed a religion law even more restrictive than the one in place since 1991. All religious groups must be registered, but registration is now restricted to those with at least 500 adult members. This represents an insurmountable obstacle to all but Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox.

"The nation is ruled with Soviet-style oppression by President Saparmurat Niyazov, a totalitarian nationalist dictator who has created a personality cult around himself," said Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. "Those who share the gospel do so at great risk to their life and liberty."

The law states that those who violate its provisions a second time within one year face "a fine of between ten and thirty average monthly wages, or corrective labor for a term of up to one year, or deprivation of freedom for a term of up to six months, with confiscation of illegally received means." The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said it is deeply concerned about the "harshly repressive new law."

The 5 million people of Turkmenistan are 91 percent Muslim and 2.6 percent Christian (mainly Orthodox). Operation World estimates annual evangelical growth at above 14 percent. Christians say they will try to keep meeting without drawing attention to themselves. Authorities broke up a Baptist Sunday service on November 30 in Balkanabad, taking all those present to the police station.

Still, one Baptist told the Forum 18 news agency, "The rulers of Turkmenistan are not in charge. God is still in his place."

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