Christians in Turkmenistan beaten & fined for worship

OSLO, Norway — Authorities in Turkmenistan continue to crack down on religious freedom, violently raiding a church, beating an elderly woman and fining 11 church members for unregistered religious worship.

Police and government officials in the former Soviet satellite in Central Asia raided a meeting of Path of Faith Church in Dashoguz at the home of the Shirmedov family on Sept. 21, according to Forum 18, a Norway-based religious freedom monitor. Officials seized all the Christian literature they could find and dragged Begjan Shirmedov, a 77-year-old and the father of the family, out of the house by his collar.

"I am very sad that this lawless behavior took place without regard for the individual," a Protestant Christian who asked not to be identified for fear of state reprisals told Forum 18. "They treated an elderly man like a tramp in front of his wife, his children, church members and neighbors without fear of having to answer for their actions."

When Shirmedov's 68-year-old wife, Kerime (Klara) Ataeva, complained about the seizure of literature and the disrespect shown to her husband, officials swore at her and beat her hands until they bled, Forum 18 reported. When she showed them to another official, he said, "I saw nothing."

Authorities hauled away about 15 church members for questioning, fingerprinting Begjan Shirmedov and his son Shohrat.

Later, on Oct. 1, 11 church members were summoned to a police station where they each faced a 15-minute hearing with a judge and a police officer, Forum 18 reported.

"Questions were all about why they believe, why they had abandoned Islam, where did they get their Christian books from and why they didn't go to a registered religious community," Forum 18 reported from reports by local Christians.

Religious communities in Turkmenistan — and a person's participation in one — must be registered with the state. According to Forum 18, Path of Faith Church filed registration documents in 2005, which were rejected because of "mistakes." It applied again in 2008, but its application was returned by the Justice Ministry two years later. It has since tried a third time to register.

No one listened when they said they had repeatedly lodged registration applications, local Christians told Forum 18.

All the summoned church members were found guilty of violating Turkmen law for refusing to register a religious community or participating in one that is not registered. The members were fined the equivalent of $260, which is about two months' average wages for a worker in Dashoguz.

According to Forum 18, the verdicts state that the fines cannot be appealed, so the church members are seeking help from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which Turkmenistan is a participant.

Forum 18 also reported that some church members tried to have their fines overturned at the religious affairs department of the Hyakimlik administrative district. They met the deputy head of the department, Hudainazar Artykov. The church members showed Artykov the verdicts and explained how difficult it would be for many of them to pay the fines, but he showed no sympathy, instead threatening the church members further.

Christians have not been the only targets of oppression by Turkmen authorities. The government imposes strict limits on the number of Muslims who can embark on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, allowing only one airliner of people to depart out of thousands of people who apply. In 2009, the government did not allow any hajj pilgrims to depart at all.

One religious affairs official told Forum 18 that pilgrims from her region who may be selected for a spot on the plane had put in their applications in 2004 or 2005.

"We check first to make sure they are still alive," the official told Forum 18.

The state also has persecuted Jehovah's Witnesses, and since 2009, 12 have been imprisoned for refusing military service, according to the State Department's 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.

The report, which says the government has "low" respect for religious freedom, says authorities continue to restrict the activity of some registered and unregistered groups.

"In practice when the government suspected individuals of unauthorized or unregistered activity, they were subjected to search, detention, confiscation of religious materials, verbal abuse, pressure to confess to holding an illegal meeting, and beating," the report states.

Forum 18 also notes a wide array of religious freedom violations in Turkmenistan, including exit blacklists that prevent some religious believers from leaving the country, including church leader Shagildy Atakov and his wife, children and brother.

"The interlocking nature of Turkmenistan's human rights violations appear designed to impose total state control of all of society," Forum 18's March 2012 religious freedom survey on Turkmenistan reported.

It has Christians like an anonymous Protestant, who wrote to Forum 18, wondering why they cannot freely worship.

"Why don't officials just leave religious communities alone to practice their faith calmly and without interruption?" the Protestant wrote. "Christian faith is not just closing the doors and windows of my home and reading the Bible."

Turkmenistan is bordered by Afghanistan to the southeast, Iran to the south and southwest, Uzbekistan to the east and northeast and Kazakhstan to the north.
Published, October 10, 2012
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