29 February 2000 (Newsroom) -- Turkmen authorities raided a Protestant house-church meeting on February 23 in Bezmein near the capital Ashgabad, according to the Keston News Service.
Worshipers at the service told Keston that they were interrogated and warned not to meet again under threat of criminal prosecution. Witnesses say that National Security Committee (KNB) police and local police officers and officials conducted the raid.
Keston reports that in a phone call on Tuesday an official at the KNB headquarters in Ashgabad denied that the raid took place. Church members at the meeting, however, said that police abruptly entered the house and began searching without a warrant. Literature was confiscated, and the worshipers were taken to another building for interrogation, Guzelya Syrayeva told Keston. The officials told the worshipers, she said, that the meeting violated Article 205 of the Administrative Code -- a law dating back to the Soviet era that punishes "violations of legislation on religious associations."
Under the Central Asian republic's 1996 amendment to its law on religion, a congregation must have at least 500 adult Turkmen citizens before it can even apply for reregistration. Only the Russian Orthodox and the officially sanctioned Sunni Muslims have been able to reregister under the new law. Religious minorities, including Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Baha'i faith have been frequent targets of raids, and many believers have been fined. Authorities destroyed two Hare Krishna temples and an Adventist church last year.
At least four Baptists were arrested in February for their activities with unregistered churches. Last August an ethnic convert to Christianity in the port town of Turkmenbashi was fined and sentenced to four years in prison on charges that members of his Baptist congregation say are fraudulent. Local Christians insist that Shagildy Atakov's punishment was designed to halt his preaching activity in the congregation.
Last year President Niyazov promised to permit registration of almost all religious groups by September 1999, but no action has been taken. Promises also were made by senior officials to press for reduction of the requirement that all groups have at least 500 members.
According to the U.S. State Department's 1999 human rights report, released last Friday, Turkmenistan applies its 500-member standard on a local and regional basis. A representative of a major Christian religious group was told in 1998, for example, that the group must have 500 adherents in Ashgabad and another 500 in Turkmenbashi to be legal in each of those cities.
Reliable statistics on religious affiliation are not available, the State Department report said, but about 88 percent of Turkmenistan's 4 million people -- mostly ethnic Turkmen -- are nominally Muslim. Recent figures indicate that about 9 percent of the population is Russian, but many Russians have left Turkmenistan since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Most Russians belong to the Orthodox Church.
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