Regional Adventist Leader Visits
After Eight-Year Visa Wait
Trip viewed as sign of country's movement toward increased religious freedom
hurch leaders are calling Seventh-day Adventist regional president Artur Stele's recent visit to Turkmenistan a sign that the Central Asian nation is beginning to relax its stance on religious minorities.

Stele, who leads the church in Euro-Asia, and his wife, Galina, were granted work visas and permission to speak on health and family issues during a September 4 to 8 stay in the former Soviet state, which borders the Caspian Sea.

Their visit is the first time in eight years an Adventist leader has visited Turkmenistan under a work visa.

In 2004, the Adventist Church became the first Protestant denomination registered by the country's Ministry of Justice. Legal status allowed members to worship, hold meetings and conduct outreach. Until then, the government-controlled branch of Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity were the only successfully registered religious groups, according to the 2006 International Religious Freedom Report.

Years of collaborating with international organizations are generating positive results, said John Graz, director for the world church's department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty.

"We are encouraged that the state of religious freedom [in Turkmenistan] is progressing," Graz said. "We hope that the next steps will follow -- that we will be able to build churches and recover land."

During Stele's visit, eight people joined the church through baptism.

Stele, who spoke with government officials during his visit, said the Adventist Church is regarded as "part of the [country's] society," which he called a testament to church members' prayers and an encouraging sign of "the improving of religious liberty" in the country. Under the regime of then-President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died in 2006, both Adventist and Hare Krishna communities had their houses of worship destroyed.

Adventists operate a medical center in Ashgabat, where the church's health ministry is well received by the local population and recognized by government officials, church leaders said.

Some 80 Seventh-day Adventists worship in space rented from a Baptist church in Turkmenistan.

-- Reported by Adventist News Network and AR staff

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