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30 May 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: When is a raid not a raid?

Kazakh police claim that a raid on a church's worship service last Sunday (25 May) was not a raid. "It was not a raid, but we have to check up to see that they were abiding by the law," the Head of Aktobe police's Department for the Struggle with Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism told Forum 18 News Service. New Life Church's pastor, Zholaman Nurmanov, stated that 60 people were worshipping when the police arrived. They tried to halt the service and filmed it without permission. After the service police questioned the congregation, focusing on the presence of the pastor of another congregation. Police told Forum 18 that the congregation "was violating the law by inviting a missionary to speak without permission from the Internal Policy Department of the local administration and holding meetings at a different place from where they are legally registered." Police denied that they had violated the rights of people to meet freely for worship. "It is the law of Kazakhstan. We'll check up on them next Sunday and if necessary will bring them to court." The raid is the latest in a pattern of raids, tightened state control and prosecutions of religious communities throughout Kazakhstan.

6 May 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "A Law on Non-Freedom of Conscience"

Leaders of many religious communities have expressed serious concerns – in some cases without wishing to speak publicly - to Forum 18 News Service about active proposals in parliament to harshen the Religion Law and a number of other laws. Lutheran Bishop Yuri Novgorodov complained that "If adopted, this would be a Law on Non-Freedom of Conscience." Religious communities and human rights activists are especially concerned about: sweeping restrictions on "missionary activity" by anyone; state review of religious beliefs of registered communities; a ban and increased penalties on unregistered activity; compulsory re-registration of all communities; the impossibility of registering communities that work in several regions only (such as Russian Orthodox or Catholic dioceses); severe restrictions on smaller religious groups; a need for state permission to build places of worship; a requirement that children have written permission to take part in any religious youth event; and compulsory censorship of all imported religious literature. The new Law is being considered amid increasing official intolerance of freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

30 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Alarm at state-backed planned new Religion Law

Kazakhstan is planning more restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Human rights activists and some religious communities have expressed alarm at a planned new Religion Law penalising "unapproved" religious activities. The proposals include banning missionary activity by people who do not both represent registered religious communities and have state accreditation, and banning small religious communities from maintaining public places of worship or publishing religious literature. Prime Minister Karim Masimov has backed the latest draft, writing that "perfecting" legislation at the "contemporary phase of state-confessional relations" is "timely and necessary." Fr Aleksandr Ievlev of the Russian Orthodox Church vigorously defended the proposals, telling Forum 18 that "the current Law has allowed sectarians to spread in the country." He complained that "the proposed amendments do not at all restrict the rights and freedoms of religious organisations – those that say otherwise are lying." Accompanying the draft Law, the mass media is being used by officials and parliamentary deputies to promote intolerance of religious communitioes they dislike.

25 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Growing threats to religious property

A building used for worship by the Protestant New Life Church in Alga, north-west Kazakhstan, is under threat of confiscation by the authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Although the building, which was a disused kindergarten when the church acquired it ten years ago, has been extensively renovated by the church, the authorities are not offering either compensation or another building. Sangazy Kurmanalin, Deputy Head of the local state Economic Department, insisted that recovering the former kindergarten was in line with a decree of President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2000. "The church officially does not own the building now, so they must vacate it". The church's lawyer, Vasili Kim, told Forum 18 that confiscation of the building will leave the church without a legal address. Similarly, the remaining buildings of the Hare Krishna commune outside Almaty remain under threat of demolition by Kazakh authorities. Religious communities fear that these threats are part of a wider state campaign to target their property, also citing the 2007 confiscation of a mosque from independent Muslims.

23 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: "Higher authorities" behind prosecutions of religious communities

As well as prosecuting unregistered religious communities, Kazakhstan is also bringing administrative charges against a registered community and a community that is being forced to re-register, Forum 18 News Service notes. The registered Salem Church is being charged with holding illegal meetings, as a Russian-speaking church group meets in a private home with a different address from the Church's registered address. Aygul Zhagiparova, the church's leader, has pointed out that the Administrative Code allows such groups to meet in a member's private home, so long as important religious ceremonies - such as baptisms and weddings – are not conducted. Separately, an official who preferred to remain unnamed told Forum 18 that "higher authorities" were compelling local officials to bring charges against an unregistered Baptist church. "Often we are asked to limit religious communities by prosecuting them and by other means," the official said. "Because the law can be easily manipulated, religious communities fall prey to that," the official noted. In another case, a senior lawyer, Tatyana Antonenko, has pointed out that neither police searches of Grace Presbyterian Church, nor freezing the bank account of the Pastor's wife had a legal basis.

8 April 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Heavy sentences on Muslims "to discredit Islam and believers"?

Fourteen of fifteen Muslims arrested in April 2007 were given prison sentences in February of between 14 and 19 and a half years at a closed trial in the southern city of Shymkent, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fifteenth received a three-year corrective labour sentence. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police claim that the group was preparing to blow up its office in Shymkent was not proven. Relatives of the men complained to Forum 18 that the KNB had planted evidence and that the trial was unfair. But Judge Shara Biysimbaeva – who led the trial – rejected this to Forum 18. KNB and Prosecutor's Office officials involved in the case refused to discuss it with Forum 18. "This has been done to discredit Islam and believers," one relative told Forum 18. Zhovtis said he believes this was a show trial to scare other Muslims who may try to be independent in their theology and practice from the state-backed version of Islam.

28 March 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Large fines as official tells Baptists not to appeal to UN or OSCE

Two Baptists have been given large fines for peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pyotr Panafidin and Ivan Friesen were each fined 116,800 Tenge (4,900 Norwegian Kroner, 600 Euros, or 970 US Dollars) in separate cases. Elsewhere, another Baptist, Dmitry Jantsen, was warned by officials that his congregation and several others would be closed down and that he would be jailed. One official, Serik Tlekbaev of the Justice Department, told Jantsen "not to try to appeal to international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), because they will not be of any help to you," Jantsen told Forum 18. Tlekbaev also stated that "Kazakhstan will be Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE in 2010, and it will then be of no use to you to talk to the OSCE." Tlekbaev has denied to Forum 18 that he made these statements. Officials have also again threatened to demolish a Hare Krishna temple near Almaty.

25 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Are intrusive questionnaires "a simple formality"?

Kazakhstan has increased demands that religious communities and leaders complete highly intrusive questionnaires covering an extremely wide range of personal, political, religious and other matters, including who the close friends of leaders are, Forum 18 News Service notes. The questionnaires are presented by a number of official bodies, and it is not clear who drew them up. They appear to originate in the Justice Ministry, possibly working with the KNB secret police. Officials have variously claimed to Forum 18 that the questionnaires are "a simple formality which the religious communities need to do every now and then," or are for "a database on religious organisations." The questionnaires have raised concern in some religious communities, while others regard them as nothing serious and feel obliged to complete the questionnaires. Human rights activists have expressed concern about the questionnaires, and note that religious communities have no legal obligation to complete them as official demands to provide intrusive information violate the Kazakh Constitution.

25 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Increased pressure to complete intrusive questionnaires

For some years, Kazakhstan has been demanding that non-Muslim religious communities complete highly intrusive questionnaires, Forum 18 News Service has noted. However, there has recently been an apparent increase in both the numbers of communities asked to complete the questionnaires and the pressure officials exert to get the questionnaires completed. The questionnaires, which come in two basic forms, contain very similar questions. Amongst the numerous highly intrusive questions are: the ethnicity of congregation members, their profession, political preferences, "the most influential and authoritative people in the community," foreign missionaries, media contacts, "facts demanding attention on the part of state bodies," military service of congregation leaders, their foreign language knowledge, media articles written, and the full names of leaders' "close friends and comrades." A State Programme, stressing increased monitoring and supervision of religious communities, has recently been adopted. Some religious believers, who wish to remain anonymous, have told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police have increased efforts to recruit spies inside religious communities.

22 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: New wave of raids on Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses

Amid tightening state control on religious activity, Baptists who refuse to apply for state registration and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing increased state hostility, Forum 18 News Service has found. After about 200 ethnic Kazakh Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for a meeting, a varied group of officials, including the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, arrived and closed the meeting hall for two days. They claimed that this was because of a bomb allegedly planted by an unnamed group or person. "We suspect the authorities are worried above all about ethnic Kazakhs becoming Jehovah's Witnesses," Forum 18 was told. "Events we hold in Russian do not arouse such hostility." As a series of raids take place on unregistered Baptist congregations, the state-controlled media is being used to promote intolerance of peaceful religious groups, one article describing the Baptists as "God-fearing lawbreakers" and their meetings for worship as "illegal meetings."

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