WASHINGTON (BP)–Less than a month after Baptist pastor Rahim Tashov was released from prison in Turkmenistan, authorities arrested two pastors and raided four of the five Baptist churches in the west-central Asian country Dec. 16 and 17.
Pavel Peychev, president of the Union of Evangelical-Christian Baptists of Uzbekistan and Middle Asia, in a letter to the Baptist World Alliance, has stated, “We are disturbed about the future of the churches and Baptist leaders in the country.”
Baptists in Sweden, meanwhile, have appealed to the president of Turkmenistan, a former republic of the Soviet Union, and the United Nations Center for Human Rights, asking specifically for the release of a Baptist layman, Shageldy Atakov, currently imprisoned on charges of embezzlement of a car. The Swedish Baptists also protested the razing of a Seventh-Day Adventist church in Turkmenistan.
Speaking from reliable sources, Sven Lindstrom, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Sweden, said the charge against Atakov was influenced by local religious leaders who were angry with him about his conversion to Christianity and his outspokenness in discussing his new faith.
By imprisoning Atakov on charges not related to his faith, Lindstrom said from his sources, authorities in Turkmenistan are using tactics of the former Soviet Union in which the state claimed imprisoned pastors were incarcerated for legitimate criminal activity. “However, by 1988, the Soviet authorities acknowledged all of these pastors to be victims of political repression and subsequently released and apologized to them for the persecution they endured for their faith,” Lindstrom said.
The BWA has joined with Swedish Baptists in protesting the situation, especially with Turkmenistan now being a member of the United Nations and thus having signed the universal Declaration of Human Rights and other agreements that call for religious freedom for all people.
Before he was released from prison, Tashov was severely beaten and his church is still in danger, according to the BWA.
“We are very concerned about the arrest of Baptist pastors, refusal of authorities to register churches and the bulldozing and destruction of a Seventh-Day Adventist church,” said BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz. “We appeal to the United Nations … to do all in their power to plead the cause of religious freedom in Turkmenistan. We request Baptist leaders to contact their governments and insist on the safety and freedom of all people of faith.”
Urging prayer for believers who are denied religious freedom and are persecuted for their faith, Lotz added, “As we enter the 21st century, we are disappointed that there are still countries which have not recognized the United Nations’ many resolutions on religious freedom and human rights. It is a shocking reminder that even in the next millennium we must be vigilant for the rights and freedoms of all peoples, religions and cultures.”