By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
ASTANA/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– Authorities in three Central Asian nations have launched a crackdown on evangelical Protestant churches and several believers are reportedly mistreated, fined and detained, BosNewsLife learned Wednesday, October 24.
In Kazakhstan, security forces raided Astana’s Grace Church after a mother of a church member claimed the congregation harmed her daughter’s health, Christians and rights activists said.
Masked police searched the Church and seized computers, valuables and religious books they insisted were “extremist”, explained advocacy group Forum 18, which investigates reported religious rights abuses.
Police requested church members to give blood specimens to see if the Church uses “hallucinogenic” substances for Communion, Christians said.
Also this month, the evangelical New Life Church in the city of Uralsk was reportedly raided over similar allegations.
Authorities denied allegations they threatened church members. “We did not threaten anyone, we just made a search,” Senior Investigator Vyacheslav Glazkov said in published remarks.
Local Christians of both churches fear authorities will use the case to end their operations after Thursday, October 25, by preventing them gaining the compulsory re-registration for religious communities.
The news follows reports that in neighboring Turkmenistan security forces violently raided a Baptist house church in Dashoguz city beating an elderly woman and fining 11 Baptists each $260, about two months’ average wages for a worker.
The September 21 raid interrupted the worship meeting of Path of Faith Church in Dashoguz at the home of the Shirmedov family, Forum 18 reported. Officials also seized all Christian literature they could find and dragged Begjan Shirmedov, a 77-year-old Baptist leader and the father of the family, out of the house by his collar, Christians said.
When Shirmedov’s 68-year-old wife Kerime (Klara) Ataeva complained, officials allegedly swore at her and beat her hands until they bled. Authorities hauled away about 15 church members for questioning, fingerprinting Begjan Shirmedov and his son Shohrat, Christians said.
Later, on October 1, the 11 church members, including a , including a teenage schoolboy, were summoned to a police station where they each faced a 15-minute hearing with a judge and a police officer before being fined, Forum 18 reported.
Rights activists also observed exit blacklists that prevent some Christian believers from leaving Turkmenistan, including Baptist leader Shagildy Atakov and his wife, children and brother.
Authorities also target evangelical Christians in nearby Uzbekistan where police reportedly raided the home of a 74-year-old disabled Protestant Nina Chashina in Almalyk, Tashkent Region, while a neighbor was beaten.
Forum 18 said seven officials, three of whom were in police uniforms, broke into her flat and confiscated her Christian books, including seven Bibles, three New Testaments and three Bible commentary books, 100 brochures, 25 DVD disks as well as 20 audio-cassette tapes.
The September 4 raid was no isolated incident.
In Khorezm Region, for instance, a court ordered a Bible and New Testament destroyed after an “expert analysis” by an official of the local Muslim Board, even though the government’s Religious Affairs Committee is the only body authorized to conduct such analysis, Forum 18 said.
Locals also say other Christians have been mistreated and fined for unauthorized worship as high as 40 times the official minimum monthly wage of roughly 300 dollars, though most people earn less.
Among those fined several months wages were four Baptists who were among families attending a Christian holiday camp in the village of Yangikurgan in Bostanlyk District, which was raided by security forces in August, Forum 18 said, citing local Christians.
Earlier, Baptists from several other unregistered Baptist congregations were fined.
Not paying is not an option: Recently court bailiffs seized a washing machine and other property from a Christian couple in Navoi because they refused to pay the fines, Forum 18 reported.
The latest crackdown is seen as part of a wider campaign against evangelical groups in the former Soviet Union, where church raids have also been reported in Russia and Belarus.
In Turkmenistan, Christians have not been the only targets of what Baptists have called “oppression by Turkmen authorities”.
The former Soviet state has also persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses, and since 2009, 12 have been imprisoned for refusing military service, noted the U.S. States State Department’s 2011 International Religious Freedom Report.
Additionally, 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.
Officials in the three autocratically ruled nations have denied wrongdoing or put down telephones when asked by reporters to explain raids.
Church observers have linked the crackdown to concern by autocratic leaders over religious groups they do not control amid fears they undermine their power base.