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8 May 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: How many religious books await compulsory state censorship?

With new state Censorship Regulations for almost all religious literature and objects produced in or imported into Kazakhstan now in force, only some religious books – all Muslim – have so far successfully undergone the censorship process, Forum 18 News Service notes. As of 8 May, 182 Muslim works had gained the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) approval required before they can be distributed. Those distributing uncensored religious literature risk fines. Although the maximum period the ARA has to conduct its censorship is 60 days, some religious communities complain they have had no response to applications "for months". No ARA official was immediately available to say how many books or religious items are awaiting approval, if any have so far been refused, why no non-Muslim books have yet been approved and whether religious books already in use are legal or not. Officials have already confiscated religious books – including children's books on the lives of Russian Orthodox saints – from libraries for checking.

30 April 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictions on and punishment for spreading religious literature and faith

In separate cases in three of Kazakhstan's Regions since February, police have stopped Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Hare Krishna devotees from spreading their faith, questioned them and threatened them with punishment. Two of the five Baptists detained in Akmola Region in March were treated "as though they were criminals", another of the five told Forum 18 News Service. They were questioned and entered into police records, with their personal data, shoe size, and photographs in profile and full face taken. Police accused the Hare Krishna devotees of handing out "extremist literature". Baptist and Hare Krishna literature was sent to the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), which conducts the compulsory state censorship of all religious literature. "The Religion Law necessitates the ARA to authorise all religious literature before it is used or distributed by religious communities," ARA spokesperson Svetlana Penkova told Forum 18. Several religious communities – some anonymously – complained not only about the censorship itself, but that literature sent to the ARA for approval has languished there "for months".

24 April 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Ahmadi Muslims closed down everywhere, Methodist congregation next?

The enforced closure of the Ahmadi Muslim community in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty leaves the community unable to worship legally anywhere in the country, community members lamented to Forum 18 News Service. Their place of worship was closed amid a continuing official campaign against religious communities which use private homes for religious worship and followed a fine by Land Inspectors. Community member Nurym Taibek told Forum 18 they see no point in appealing against the decision and said that they "have given up hope" of resuming worship in their building. The Ahmadi Muslim community's place of worship in Shymkent was forcibly closed in 2011. Also threatened by Land Inspectors is a small Methodist Church which meets in a private home in Taldykorgan near Almaty, the Church's legal address. The home owner was fined in April. Land Inspectors from both Almaty City and Almaty Region defended their moves to Forum 18. They said they are inspecting all religious communities' properties to see if properties and land are used for their proper purpose.

11 April 2012

UZBEKISTAN: Continuing freedom of movement bans

Uzbekistan continues to impose bans on entry and exit from the country on people exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. The authorities also use the border crossing points for confiscating religious literature. Referring to bans on people taking part in the haj and umra pilgrimages, human rights defender Shaira Sadygbekova described the authorities, especially the Religious Affairs Committee, as "creating artificial barriers for ordinary Uzbeks". Khaitboy Yakubov of the Najot human rights organisation stating that such barriers are widespread. Among other violations are bans on exit visas for Muslims who have passed the stringent state approval procedures for going on state-organised pilgrimages, bans on Muslims joining waiting lists for these pilgrimages, bans on individual Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses leaving the country, and bans on Hare Krishna devotees and Christians entering the country. Officials have refused to discuss these human rights violations with Forum 18.

29 February 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: "Illegal use" of property, meetings for worship stopped, independent mosque pressured

Kazakhstan has started moves to close down an independent mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learned. State officials have also re-started using claims of allegedly "illegal use" of property to harass religious communities the authorities dislike. For example the mosque of the Ahmadi Muslim Community in the Medeu District of Almaty, and the church of Grace Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Turkestan in South Kazakhstan Region, are both facing challenges from local Prosecutor's Offices as to whether they can be used as places of worship. The action against Grace Church was initiated by the KNB secret police. The leaders of both communities have been told by both regional Departments of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) and Prosecutor's Office officials to stop worship in the buildings while investigations are conducted. Officials have stated – contrary to the Religion Law - that homes may not be used for worship, and have also used the Land Code to argue that communities' own places of worship are not places of worship. No official Forum 18 has spoken to could say how the authorities will interpret the concept of place of worship in the Religion Law. Almaty's Ahmadi Muslim community has also been targeted by the state-controlled mass media, and the ARA has also been supporting the establishment of more so-called "anti-sect centres".

22 February 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Small religious communities "banned under new Law"

Kazakhstan's senior state religious affairs official, Kairat Lama Sharif, has described the 13 per cent fall in the number of registered religious communities as a "positive dynamic" after 579 small religious groups (with fewer than 50 adult citizen members) were stripped of registration. He said the number of registered communities "will probably" fall further following the new Religion Law. In a letter seen by Forum 18 News Service, Akmola Region's senior state religious affairs official wrote to District officials that "the activity of small religious groups in the territory of Kazakhstan is now banned since there is no such form of religious association of citizens". Regional officials of the state Agency of Religious Affairs are now warning such groups that they must stop any activity. Imams of independent mosques and Grace, Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist leaders have been summoned to be stripped of registration and warned not to meet. "Now our believers are afraid each time they gather for worship," one church leader told Forum 18.

14 February 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: First known use of harsh new punishments

In Kazakhstan's first known use of expanded and increased punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief, a Baptist in eastern Kazakhstan has been fined what local people estimate to be a year and a half's average local wages for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Shoe-repairer and father of ten Aleksei Asetov was fined 485,400 Tenge (18,725 Norwegian Kroner, 2,486 Euros or 3,273 US Dollars), for leading the small congregation that meets in a fellow church member's home, under a provision introduced in new Amending and Religion Laws local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service. The judge also banned the congregation. Elsewhere, a Pentecostal church in Petropavl in North Kazakhstan has twice been raided by the police Department for the Fight against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism and a local official of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA). They confiscated New Testaments, other books, and DVDs for censorship, and want the Church punished for leaving the books on a table about ten metres (10 yards) from the entrance to a hall they rent for worship. Other fines for exercising religious freedom without state permission continue, one Baptist having been fined for unregistered worship meetings following a police operation called "Operation Legal Order".

19 December 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Promoting the "progressiveness" of the harsh new Religion Law

State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev ordered the devotion of considerable resources to promoting what he claimed to be "the significance and the progressiveness" of Kazakhstan's highly restrictive new Religion Law at a closed meeting of senior state officials on 27 October. He ordered not only the "observance of the demands" of the Law, but "their positive acceptance by subjects of religious activity [i.e. religious communities]", according to documents from the meeting seen by Forum 18 News Service. Forum 18 notes that members of a variety of religious communities are increasingly afraid to voice criticism of the new Law publicly. One media company was threatened with closure if it gave the new Law negative coverage. Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna was ordered to hand further money to the government-backed Fund for Support of Islamic Culture and Education. "I wouldn't call it support for one faith," a Samruk-Kazyna official told Forum 18. And Baptist parents have been threatened with fines or imprisonment for refusing to send their children to compulsory Self-Recognition lessons in schools.

13 December 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Three fines, a 48-hour jail term, and a deportation

In Kazakhstan a Baptist was imprisoned for 48 hours in early December for refusing to pay fines imposed for leading meetings for religious worship, another Baptist having been separately fined for attending a meeting for worship, with a third facing a fine, possibly tomorrow (14 December), for the same "offence". In one of the Baptist cases police extorted statements from church members, but a fine was still imposed. A Muslim was fined and ordered deported back to his home country elsewhere in Central Asia, Forum 18 News Service has also learned. His "offence" was occasionally leading prayers in his local mosque without being personally registered as a "missionary". The new Religion Law along with an Amending Law considerably broadened the range of "offences" for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, as well as increasing punishments for this. Officials have refused to answer Forum 18's questions on whether these state actions violate the right to freedom of religion or belief, the judge in the case of the Muslim putting the phone down when the question was asked.

7 December 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "The first phase of this work has been fully completed"

"The first phase of this work has been fully completed", State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev told a closed 27 October meeting in Kazakhstan's capital Astana. He identified this "first phase" as including adopting new legislation including the harsh new Religion Law restricting freedom of religion or belief, strengthening the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), law enforcement agencies, "special services", and other measures countering "religious extremism". Saudabaev said that "an algorithm of further actions for the planned implementation of the instructions of the Head of State [President Nursultan Nazarbaev]" is to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Among those attending were: one of the Deputy Heads of the Presidential Administration; the head of the KNB secret police; the head of the Syrbar Foreign Intelligence Service; the Interior Minister; the Prosecutor-General; the Foreign, Finance, Justice, Communications, Education and Culture Ministers; the Chair of the ARA; and officials of the Prime Minister's Office, the Tax Committee and the Customs Control Committee.

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