04/09/2020, 15.05
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Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan resistant to coronavirus, a Catholic bishop is ill

by Vladimir Rozanskij

In Ashgabat, a large sports festival was held with bike races, horses, gymnastics, acrobatic performances, judo and boxing. But the capital is surrounded by checkpoints. In Dushanbe protective masks have been handed out. In Kazakhstan prisons are affected by a viral outbreak. The liturgy of the "sacred fire" in Jerusalem has changed for Orthodox Christians.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – On Tuesday, World Health Day, Turkmenistan, one of the most closed and isolated countries in the world, held a series of mass sporting events despite the coronavirus threat. According to official sources it has no case of coronavirus infection.

Last week, its strongman, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, mentioned COVID-19 only once, whilst state television showed him at the sports festival riding a horse, then cycling, along with other officials. Large groups of cyclists were also shown, dedicated “to a healthy life regime” (picture 1), this according to media accounts.

In the capital of Ashgabat, some 3,500 people participated in the outdoor event; more than 7,000 in other provinces. Various activities were held in parks, including gymnastics, acrobatic performances, judo and boxing.

But Radio Svoboda correspondents in the Central Asian country noted however uniformed agents stopping people in the streets and arresting them for speaking openly about the coronavirus. In fact, since 20 March anyone entering or leaving Ashgabat must provide an official reason. Restrictions have also been imposed on travelling between the capital and the provinces, with roadblocks monitoring movements.

A state of emergency has been introduced In Kyrgyzstan, another of the countries of the “Mongolian triangle,” apparently spared from the pandemic. Instead of counting cases, local authorities are happy about the drop in the crime rate. In the last ten days of March, 1,351 crimes were recorded compared to 2,194 for the same period in 2019.

Some sources did note that Kyrgyzstan had 228 coronavirus cases as of last Tuesday. In Karakol, the city administration went so far as to lock down a block of flats by welding the entrance door after a case was reported among the residents (picture 2).

Tajikistan also sees itself as above the COVID-19 pandemic, with no case reported. In fact, the country’s main football league has already started. No public event or gathering has been banned or cancelled. Nevertheless, matches are played in empty stadiums as few fans are eager to attend. In the capital Dushanbe, despite government assurances, one of the city’s main eateries, the Max biff burger, has heeded concerns handing out about 10,000 free protective masks to customers and passers-by (picture 3).

Kazakhstan, the biggest of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics, had reported 709 coronavirus cases as of last Tuesday with seven deaths. However, the authorities have not stopped manufacturing and other regular business activities.

Because of the danger of infection in prisons in a country still under a state of emergency, anti-government dissidents have called for political prisoners to be released. According to protesters, the authorities have jailed more than thirty people for crimes of opinion against the regime, still controlled by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Russian Orthodox Christians, who are still present in great numbers in the former Soviet republics, are particularly concerned about the possible cancellation of the "sacred fire" rite on Easter night in Jerusalem, an exclusively Orthodox devotion, deeply felt by Russians.

In this regard, Akiva Tor, head of the Department for the Diaspora and other religions at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, released a statement, saying that the ceremony would take place as scheduled on the night of 18 April, Orthodox Easter, but "without the presence of pilgrims and with a limited number of participants”.

The Moscow Patriarchate is sending a delegation that will immediately bring the sacred fire to Moscow, where there will be no traditional vigil at the airport with large crowds. Easter torches will nevertheless be distributed to all Russian Orthodox churches.

In Saratov, southern European Russia, the local Catholic bishop, 58-year-old German-born Clemens Pickel (picture 4), has contracted the coronavirus. He wrote to the faithful on social media, saying: “Dear brothers and sisters, today 7 April my test came back and I'm positive for the coronavirus. For this reason, I remain in total isolation at home in Saratov. I will not be able to preside over Easter liturgies. I have no symptoms of the disease and I feel good, but I ask you to pray for me.”

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