Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Sam Brownback
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission


Turkmenistan continues to engage in numerous infringements of religious
liberty which I would like to briefly describe. There is a continuing
crackdown on religious groups, including the actual bull-dozing of a
church to the ground by the government, the deportation of peaceful
missionaries, and the arrests and incarceration of people because of their
faith. Given this troubling litany, now is the time for the government of
Turkmenistan to enter into a new era of tolerance for religious minorities.

In this era of dramatic change throughout the former Soviet Union, this is
an opportunity for Turkmenistan to embrace religious freedom, which is
one of the litmus tests for a truly civil society. A first positive step would
be to change the present law which requires a religious congregation to
have at least 500 adult members before it can legally register. Without
registration, it becomes an outlaw organization, with members subjected
to numerous abuses, such as these recent events described by Keston
News Service and Newsroom:

•I have a stone in my office which is a chunk of rock from
the Seventh Day Adventist Church which was bull-dozed on
November 13th by Turkmen authorities. This church was
authorized by the government in 1992.

•On March 3rd, Turkmen authorities arrested Mr. Charyiar Atakov, a Baptist Christian
whose brother, Shageldy, is serving a 4-year sentence in a labor camp, reportedly for
his religious beliefs. A Baptist colleague, Anatoli Belyayev, was arrested on February
2nd and is still imprisoned in Ashgabad. Last April, the government confiscated their
Bibles, declaring that their religious beliefs were "forbidden." Reportedly, during
extensive interrogation by the KNB (former KGB), Mr. Atakov was severely beaten
after refusing to reveal information about the church.

•The brother mentioned above, Shageldy Atakov was sentenced in August to 4 years
in a labor camp on false charges because of his work with a local Baptist church, the
members report. Immediately after arrest, the government forced his wife, Artygul
Atakov, and 5 children from their home. She is presently under house arrest in another

•Also on March 3rd, a respected elderly mullah of the Muslim faith was transferred
from prison into internal exile after appealing to the president for a pardon of reportedly
trumped-up charges. It is also reported that the president ordered his Turkmen
language Koran to be burned, which is a significant loss since he is a religious scholar
and translator.

•In February, reportedly 4 Christians were arrested for their work with churches
lacking registration.

•On Feb. 2nd, another Christian, Vitali Tereshin stated that KNB officers burst into his
home while he was meeting with church members. The government officers recorded
the names of everyone there, and issued a fine for the "unlawful" meeting.

•Missionaries have been deported in the last few months even though their religious
activity was peaceful. An additional 2 pastors were incarcerated in December, at the
same time that the government raided 4 of the 5 Baptist churches in one region of

•Turkmen authorities raided another church in Bezmein, on Feb. 23rd, interrogated the
worshipers and warned them to not meet again under threat of criminal prosecution.