By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
ASHGABAT/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)– A Pentecostal pastor remained in police custody Tuesday, August 31, in Turkmenistan where he faces five years imprisonment and confiscation of properties for “large-scale swindling”, charges his wife and church members strongly deny, rights activists said.
Ilmurad Nurliev was detained August 27 at his home in the city of Mary in south-eastern Turkmenistan after police pressured three female church members to write statements that he took money from them, added the news service of religious rights group Forum 18.
Police also took a certificate in preaching he gained at a Ukrainian Christian college in March 2006, and confiscated $150 from his pocket, his wife Maya Nurlieva said in published remarks. She said she has not been allowed to see her husband since his arrest.
Police officials have refused to comment.
Investigators reportedly allege that Pastor Nurliev “swindled” three women out of 7,000,000 Manats ($2,456), which they call “large-scale swindling”.
Maya Nurlieva, was quoted as saying however that police or the MSS secret service pressured the women to write false complaints as a basis to arrest her husband.
She said one of the women involved was already prosecuted after attending up to four church meetings in 2009, some of them with her mother.
Both were reportedly imprisoned for causing “a disturbance” where they lived, but were freed from jail later that year in a prisoner amnesty.
Another church member, Kristina Petrova, was summoned by police Sunday, August 29, and pressured to testify against the pastor, Nurlieva said. When Petrova refused, she was allegedly threatened that her husband would be sacked from his job in the military, although he is no church member.
“If they sack her husband, the family will have nothing to eat,” Maya Nurlieva was quoted as saying. Yet, only if the women renounce their accusations against the pastor the case can stop, Forum 18 said, citing his lawyer.
The pastor’s ‘Peace to the World Pentecostal church’ has faced more prosecution, including in 2008 when Pastor Nurliev was reportedly fined for illegal religious activity.
His congregation applied for the required state registration in 2007, but officials demanded “corrections” on the church’s document, and since early 2010 no progress appears to have been made, Forum 18 said.
Several other Protestant churches have also complained about harassment by authorities in the autocratically ruled former Soviet republic. “Despite constitutional religious freedom, unregistered worship gatherings are frequently raided by police,” said Open Doors, a group supporting Christians who it says are persecuted for their faith.
“Christian literature is confiscated and believers interrogated, threatened and fined by police. They risk losing their homes, their jobs or being sentenced to jail, labour camp or psychiatric hospital,” Open Doors said about Turkmenistan. “Their children may face expulsion from school. Some Christian leaders have to attend the local police station every week for a ‘chat’.
Additionally Islamic leaders have been detained, with Radio Free Europe reporting that a 73-year-old imam Shiri Geldimuradov died in prison apparently in early June. At least five Jehovah witnesses are also held in prison for refusing the compulsory military service, Forum 18 said.
Turkmenistan, which has a heavily Muslim population, is under international pressure to improve religious rights and to protect its tiny Christian minority.
The government is seen as the region’s most autocratic. Christians and other devoted religious groups are often seen as a threat to its power base, rights groups have suggested. The government has made clear however it wants to distance itself from former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. Last week, a prominent 12-meter golden statue of Niyazov was taken down in the capital Ashgabat — a move further eroding the personality cult around the late Central Asian leader.
Workers removed the statue on August 25 and were dismantling the base on August 26, said Radio Free Europe. The Arch of Neutrality was a centerpiece of the capital, Ashgabat, and the most distinctive monument built in honor of Niyazov.
The statue stood on a 70-meter white tile-clad tripod and rotated to face the sun. Niyazov — who renamed himself the Great Turkmenbashi, the “Father of All Turkmen” — died in 2006 after two decades of iron-fisted rule.