Published: 11:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 06 September 2011
Kazakh government bids to tighten grip on religious freedom
Country/Region: Kazakhstan, Central Asia
The government of Kazakhstan is renewing its efforts to restrict religious freedom in the country under proposed changes to legislation that would require all religious groups to re-register with the state.
President Nursultan Nazarbaev told Parliament on 1 September that amendments to the religion law will be adopted in the current session, which ends in June 2012. The details have not yet been made public, but the head of the new state Agency of Religious Affairs, Kairat Lama Sharif, said that the law will require all currently registered religious organisations to re-register.
The government previously tried to amend the religion law, in 2008, increasing the harshness of penalties for unregistered religious activities. But the move was blocked by the Constitutional Council the following year. Officials vowed that they would try again, and it is feared that the new amendments will be essentially the same as those rejected then.
Christians and other religious minority groups are concerned that the move is a further attempt by the government to restrict their activities. One Protestant told Forum 18 News Service:
We are not expecting anything good from these new developments. When we had a more or less normal Religion Law, we still experienced problems from the authorities. Now they want to make it stricter we can expect really unpleasant things.
Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, who actively opposed the previous attempted amendments, expressed concern over the re-registration element of the latest plans. She said, “I see re-registration as an effective tool the government is using to get rid of religious groups it dislikes and regards as undesirable.”
“One nation – one religion”
There have been worrying noises from the government over recent months on the subject of religious freedom in Kazakhstan. President Nazarbaev has called for increased surveillance of religious communities and for unspecified “extremist religious ideology” to be “strictly suppressed”.
And in June, Mr Sharif raised alarm when he said the country had chosen “one nation – one religion”, referring to moderate Islam. The statement was criticised in the Lower House of Parliament for giving “state support to one religion to the detriment of all others” in a “multi-confessional country”.
The government has presented its moves as necessary to defend the state from Islamist extremism, but the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission suggested that this could be a pretext, saying the government “seems to be fostering the fear of Islamist extremism to further restrict civil rights, including religious freedom”.
All religious groups in Kazakhstan are required to register with the government. Many churches chose not to because doing so gives the authorities the power to interfere in the running of a church and its activities. But being unregistered means that they may face harassment, fines or even detention for unauthorised religious practice.
There have been a number of recent examples of Christians being penalised in this way. On 18 August a member of a small unregistered Baptist church in the town of Martuk was fined for “participation in unregistered religious activity”. And in March, a Baptist pastor was fined 100 times the monthly minimum wage for holding religious worship in Taraz.
The Kazakh population is around 70 per cent Muslim and 26 per cent Christian.
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