In 1985 USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev appointed a colourless Soviet apparatchik Saparmurat Niyazov to head the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. When Turkmenistan became independent in 1991, Niyazov — who automatically became president — transformed into an eccentric and reclusive megalomaniac. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan became one of the world’s most repressive and Stalinist states. The all-pervasive cult of Niyazov — rivalled only by North Korea’s cult of Kim — led to jokes about ‘Wierdistan’. But life under Niyazov was anything but a joke. Suffocating religious repression, backed up with violent systematic persecution, was the norm.
When Niyazov died suddenly on 21 December 2006, many Christians hoped that a new era had dawned. Initially the signs were positive, and relief mingled enthusiastically with hope. (Rigged) elections were held in February 2007. There was constitutional reform. The ‘elected’ president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (formerly Niyazov’s dentist), was talking to the West. There was a new openness. However, as time has passed it has become increasingly evident that the only difference between Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov is that Berdimuhamedov is a smarter politician. He immediately moved to erect facades and create illusions so as to attract investment and avoid sanctions. However, as new (post August 2008) geo-strategic realities kick in, he realises he no longer needs to play these games.
As Turkmenistan’s President for life, Berdimuhamedov violates the constitution with impunity. According to Annasoltan, the ‘neweurasia’ chief blogger for Turkmenistan, the cult of Niyazov is being replaced with the cult of Berdimuhamedov. While the famous rotating gold statue of Niyazov was recently dismantled, a larger and more expensive new monument devoted to Berdimuhamedov will soon be erected in another part of the capital. Niyazov’s portraits are being replaced with portraits of Berdimuhamedov, who presents himself as the divine saviour of all Turkmen. World leaders, he maintains, are insanely jealous. Accordingly, everything ‘foreign’ and non-traditional is treated as seditious. Despite being gas-rich, the country is wracked with poverty. Yet Berdimuhamedov invests in grandiose building projects designed to create the illusion of success and prosperity. (Currently planned is a $2 billion Olympic Village in Ashgabat — not that the Olympics are coming to Ashgabat any time soon.) Criticism is treason. All religion that is ‘foreign’, non-traditional and not centred on Berdimuhamedov is repressed and persecuted, most commonly through the imprisonment of religious leaders on false criminal charges. There can be no justice for, in violation of the constitution, Berdimuhamedov has personally appointed the judiciary to do his bidding.
Forum 18 reports that on 22 July Turkmen police raided a church-run summer youth camp in Sekiz-Yab, taking 47 Christians into custody on the pretext of investigating a local murder. Once inside Geoketpe police station the pretext evaporated, Bibles were confiscated and the believers were interrogated about who converted them and who funds their activities. They were photographed and fingerprinted while copies were made of their passports. After being detained overnight, the group left feeling greatly intimidated. Also in July, members of a Baptist church in Dashoguz (or Dashhowuz) were pressured to sign statements that they would no longer attend the church. Elsewhere, two Protestant Christians were sacked from their employment because of their faith. On 27 August Protestant pastor Ilmurad Nurliev was arrested and charged with swindling more than US$2.4 million from three church members who were coerced into making false statements against him. Large-scale swindling attracts a sentence of up to five years’ imprisonment. Another church member, Kristina Petrova, has been ordered to testify against Pastor Nurliev or else her husband (who is not a church member) will lose his job, leaving them destitute.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT GOD WILL:
* provide Pastor Nurliev with words in court and in detention that will bring glory to God; may he know peace through trusting God, and may God bring justice and glory into the situation.
‘You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.’ (Isaiah 26:3 ESV)
* draw close all those Christians who have been threatened, intimidated and afflicted by the regime; may they grow in faith and sanctification as they find sanctuary in God’s presence.
* use these situations, where injustice and cruelty are juxtaposed with innocence and grace, to awaken many Turkmen (89 percent Muslim) to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
* intervene and deal with President Berdimuhamedov and his repressive regime, that religious liberty might become a reality in long-suffering Turkmenistan.