Authorities threaten with harsh fines and persecution
By Stefan J. Bos
Special Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
Monday, September 1, 2003
BALKANABAD / MINSK / BUDAPEST (ANS) -- Baptists and other Protestant groups in two of the most oppressive republics of the former Soviet Union faced fines and possible liquidation Monday, September 1, unless they stop church meetings, reports said.
In Turkmenistan police banned members of a Baptist congregation in the town of Balkanabad from gathering for services while a law on demonstrations in Belarus, which came into force August 29, could liquidate religious groups if they harm "the public interest."
Local Baptists in Balkanabad told Forum 18 News Service (F18News), which is linked to a human rights watch-dog, that they will be fined for each meeting, following a raid during a Sunday service on August 24.
All those present were reportedly taken to the 6th division of the regional police department, which combats terrorism and religious extremism, following previous attacks this year when several Baptists received up to 48 dollars fines.
"There, over three hours, conversations were held individually in separate offices with each one, demanding that they write statements," Baptists said in a statement.
The procurator for Balkanabad, Berdy Shirjanov, told F18News that he defended the police action, saying the decision was taken as the Balkanabad Baptists refuse to register themselves with Turkmenistan's authorities.
However the religion law makes no mention of any requirement for religious organizations to register, said F18News.
Balkanabad's Baptist congregation belongs to the Council of Churches (or unregistered Baptists), which split from the All-Union Council of Baptists in 1961 when further state-sponsored controls were introduced by the then Baptist leadership.
The organization has refused state registration ever since and is said to have grown to 3,705 congregations throughout the ex Soviet Union.
Turkmenistan's harsh policy came as Christians in another ex-Soviet republic, Belarus, faced potential difficulties Monday, September 1, after harsh anti religious meassures proposed by President Aleksandr Lukashenko came into force over the weekend.
He reportedly removed proposed exemptions for religious events from the text of the new law which was approved by the lower and upper houses of parliament on June 5 and June 30.
Human rights watchers say the provisions could especially target Protestants and other minority groups. The situation in both Belarus and Turkmenistan resembles the Communist era, when the secret service KGB closely monitored religious organizations.
Critics have expressed concern that the international community's efforts with the war against terrorism and America's need to have allies could take away global attention for human rights issues such as the persecution of Christians.