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Turkmenistan authorities quash Baptist meeting, Islamic schools

LONDON (BP)–A Baptist church in Turkmenistan was raided by secret police officers during a July 7 service, according to a Newsroom-online.com report. The news comes amid reports that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov recently launched a campaign to stop the spread of Islamic schools. Newsroom based its news story on reports by Keston News Service, a British-based religious liberty monitor.

Keston said five officers of the KNB, the former KGB, disrupted the meeting of Baptists in the western Turkmen town of Balkanabad. The officers recorded personal information about the people in attendance and warned them not to meet again under threat of confiscation of their church building.

The Balkanabad church was registered in 1968 but was forced to reregister after Turkmenistan passed a restrictive religion law in 1996. Because of the stringent requirements for registration, only two groups have been able to reregister: Sunni Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Published law does not ban religious activity without registration in Turkmenistan, but the government treats all unregistered religious activity as illegal and subject to administrative and criminal punishments, Keston said. Religious activists have been imprisoned and places of worship have been confiscated and destroyed among various groups, including Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Hare Krishnas.

During the July 7 raid, police warned the Baptists to not take their case to court. The officers referred to the case of a Pentecostal church in the capital Ashgabad that mounted an unsuccessful legal challenge to the confiscation of its building.

Meanwhile, Niyazov has instructed the government’s religious affairs council to quash the spread of Islamic schools. In late June, Niyazov complained that Islamic schools were “unreasonably expanding,” particularly in the northern Tashauz region near the border with Uzbekistan, according to Keston. Niyazov claimed that “in Turkmenistan, religion is separated from the state, and in principle we have nothing against spiritual education.”

Earlier in June, Niyazov ordered the Islamic school in Tashauz to be closed. Students will instead attend a government-approved Islamic school in Ashgabad, according to Yagshymurad Atamuradov, the religious affairs council chairman.

About 88 percent of the former Soviet republic’s nearly 5 million people are nominally Muslim.

In the past, Niyazov and other leaders in Central Asia have pointed to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as justification for authoritarian policies. But last month the acting head of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Mircea Geoana, warned that such policies could trigger Islamic extremism in Central Asia, according to news reports. After a six-day trip to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Geoana said every leader he met showed a lack of interest in human rights, basic freedoms and the rule of law.

“In gagging their opponents, they risk driving them to terrorist organizations, and there exists in Central Asia a real danger of extremism, notably Islamic fundamentalism,” Geoana said.

Niyazov, who had been appointed “president for life,” announced earlier this year he would step down by 2010. He has ruled Turkmenistan for 15 years.
Used by permission of Newsroom-online.com.

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