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Repression in Kazakhstan belies president’s claims of religious freedom

Country/Region: Kazakhstan, Central Asia

Reports of raids on church services in Kazakhstan, restrictions on meetings and on sharing one’s faith, and censorship of religious literature contradict the president’s claim that the country has religious freedom.

Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, claims the country enjoys full religious freedom
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, claims the country enjoys full religious freedom
CC BY-SA 3.0 / www.wpfdc.org

President Nursultan Nazarbayev claimed on 17 April that “Kazakhstan is an example to the world of equal rights and freedoms for all citizens” and that “religious freedom is fully secured” in the country. In contrast, a recent tightening of already stifling controls on religious groups has led human rights defenders and religious communities to conclude that religious free speech does not exist in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan’s Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) has instructed people to report any individuals who speak about their faith with others in public to the police. Marat Azilkhanov, an ARA official, said:

It is not allowed simply to go and preach your religious ideas on the streets, stopping people and talking about your faith… This must be done [only] in approved places.

The ARA considers that talking about one’s faith with others constitutes missionary activity, which requires personal registration.

The proposed new penal code, due to reach parliament later this year, is set to introduce a maximum penalty of four months’ imprisonment for people convicted of sharing their faith. Currently, a person doing so can be fined up to the equivalent of almost two months’ average wages.

Services raided and literature censored

Christians who meet in private are also at risk of prosecution. Seven mostly elderly Christians received fines on 18-19 April after an Easter Sunday service held in a private home in Zhaskent, East Kazakhstan, was raided by police. Galina Gileva, a 73-year-old church member, subsequently suffered a heart attack that she attributes to the stress of the raid and the six-hour interrogation to which the church members were later subjected.

In a letter in which she recounted the incident, Galina said that the police “have decided to use fear to separate us from God, something they can never achieve – they cannot ban me from my Christian faith”.

A 15 year-old girl who was also present at the raid was later visited at her home by a police officer who pressured her not to attend services again.

Aleksandr Balaev (66), who was regarded as the leader of the small congregation, was fined the equivalent of six months’ worth of his pension for “leadership of an unregistered or banned social or religious organisation”. He and the other believers were also initially accused of storing illegal drugs, and were threatened with 24 hours’ imprisonment when they refused to sign a statement that referred to this activity.

A Baptist church in Oskemen was also raided on 20 March. The pastor of the church was fined the same amount as Aleksandr, despite insisting that that he had not caused any harm to the state, to society or to individuals. His church refuses to seek official registration on principle.

These penalties follow those meted out in early April to seven Christians, including two elderly women, for participating in an unregistered religious meeting in Ayagoz.

Restrictions on who can lead or address religious meetings are also used to crack down even on state-registered churches. Another Easter Sunday service, this time at a church in Stepnogorsk in Akmola region, was also raided and the visiting pastor told he should have sought local state permission to preach.

Compulsory prior censorship of all printed and imported religious literature is another way in which the state controls Christian activity. Confiscation of religious books appears to be increasing, with Christians amongst those most likely to be targeted. Kazakhstan’s National Library in Almaty recently had all its religious books checked by the government, although no further action was taken.

A court recently ordered the destruction of 121 pieces of Christian literature, including Bibles, but its decision was overturned by an appeal court following widespread outrage. This was the second instance of such a decision being overturned.

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