8 july 2020

Central Asia news

Kazakhstan: with the law on religion amended, a campaign was launched against followers of non-traditional confessions

09.06.2007 12:32 msk

Rinat Saidullin (Alma-Ata)

Religious life Kazakhstan

Followers of non-traditional confessions in Kazakhstan worry that the authorities are about to put them under an even greater pressure this year. As far as official Astana is concerned, everyone who does not belong to the Kazakh Religious Administration of Moslems is non-traditional, and that even applies to some Moslem organizations not to mention Krishnaits, Scientologists, Witnesses of Jehovah, and numerous Protestant churches. These fears are corroborated by administrative prosecution of the heads and activists of the worship communities lacking official registration. The authorities are even trying to deprive Krishnaits of their legitimate property which only shows that they would balk at nothing.

Whoever does not belong to three principal confessions (namely Orthodoxy, Sunni Islam, and Judaism) has found himself in trouble with amendment of the law on the freedom of worship and religious organizations on the National Security Committee's insistence. Until then, the state and worshippers from small religious groups interacted but infrequently - at meetings and roundtable conferences that did not commit anyone to anything. Launching all sorts of pompous actions like world religious forums, construction of the Temple of Peace and Consent, and so on, Kazakhstan clearly strives for a positive image in the eyes of the international community. The impression of religious tolerance is what it is trying to leave. In the meantime, 1,911 warnings were issued to worshippers in 2006 that they were standing in violation of the amended legislation. One hundred and seventy-eight administrative cases were instigated against non-registered worship groups and missionaries.

This March, the Aktyubinsk court sentenced Baptist Andrei Grigoriev to a fine (109,000 tenges or about $900) for worshipping and singing of hymns at home. The Baptist community was never registered with the local office of the Justice Ministry. Since Grigoriev lacked this sort of money, the court ordered confiscation of his old car and dishwasher.

Baptists are on the black list in Kazakhstan because their faith does not permit them any official interaction with state structures. They are tolerated throughout the world because Baptists' peace-loving faith never foments any problems with other confessions. It is different in Kazakhstan, however, where Baptists are outlawed.

Baptist pastor Faizi Gubaidullin in the city of Chimkent was sentenced to three days in a cooler as the head of a non-registered religious community. His colleague in Karaganada Andrei Penner spent a day behind the bars for the flat refusal to pay a fine to the amount of 50,000 tenges. Involvement with a non-registered religious community cost a Baptist family from Taldykurgan two hogs. The police regularly raid private households where worshippers meet.

Baptists wouldn't give up. They are prepared to stand up to everything the Kazakh state may throw at them. As a matter of fact, the devices the state resorts to are sometimes comical. Children of Baptists near Aktyubinsk, for instance, are forced to work Saturdays and sing the national anthem - an inevitable procedure before the school-day may begin.

Witnesses of Jehovah from Atyrau on the coast of the Caspian Sea are facing problems of a different sort. Five years of attempts to obtain official registration being an exercise in futility, they operate illegitimately now - at least from the standpoint of the acting legislation.

This May, the police raided a private apartment in Atyrau where six Witnesses of Jehovah were worshipping. All religious literature was confiscated, worshippers themselves tried... Their leader Fyodor Zhitnikov says that worship in private households is the only option left Witnesses of Jehovah now. When some community activists finagled a meeting with Amanbek Mukashev, Chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs of the Justice Ministry, his very first words explained everything. "Why would you want to go to Atyrau in the first place?" the official asked. "That's a Moslem region, you know."

In the meantime, a great deal of worship groups wouldn't even apply for official registration because the application forms are extremely complicated. Applicants are expected to provide exact information on their numbers, with names, residential addresses, jobs, passport numbers, and sometimes even ethnic origins.

Proliferation of Christian literature and missionary activity are regarded as administrative violations too. Whenever a foreigner is involved, he is immediately expelled from the country. It is what happened to two Russians and an Englishman who paid a hefty fine and were told to leave Kazakhstan for lectures on some obscure religious school.

There is more to the campaign against worshippers than police raids. The Kazakh state adopted a Patriotic Upbringing Program, and the Justice Ministry had a brochure "Ways to escape religions sects" printed and circulated. Along with everything else, patriotic upbringing stipulates support of traditional confessions while Witnesses of Jehovah and Krishnaits are mentioned in the state program as brainwashing sects. In fact, both these worship groups are listed together with Hizb-ut-Takhrir, an organization outlawed in Kazakhstan as extremist. The Justice Ministry brochure lists these and some other worship groups as something young Kazakhs should stay away from - and makes a reference to Hizb-ut-Takhrir too. Ethnic Kazakhs who belong to Witnesses of Jehovah are even branded in the brochure as "traitors to the faith". Witnesses of Jehovah themselves believe that statements like that are an encroachment on constitutional rights of citizens and that authors of the brochure stand in violation of the Criminal Code.

"The brochure in question provides state officials with a pretext for their unlawful actions against non-traditional confessions," to quote Yevgeny Jovtis, Director of the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights and Law.

"Where state policy with regard to confessions is concerned, we see a clear discrepancy between what is being said at the official level and done in practice," Ninel Fokina of the Alma-Ata Helsinki Committee said. "The Constitution and the law proclaim equality of all confessions. Real life shows that equality is out of the question... The Interior Ministry even set up a special unit for worship groups. The prosecutor's office established a similar division... The situation in Kazakhstan these days is what it was in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan a year ago."

Krishnaits alone have gone to the international level with their problems so far. All the rest keep their troubles to themselves. Do they hope that Kazakhstan aspiring for OSCE chairmanship will change its attitude? It is unlikely. "Kazakhstan will become the OSCE chairman," Mukashev told Witnesses of Jehovah, "but we have our own norms to stick to." In other words, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future unless state officials dealing with religious affairs get an order from the president himself.