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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

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.

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.

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.

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."

KAZAKHSTAN: Revival of state hostility to religious organisations fuels intrusive check-ups?

The KNB secret police, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor's Office appear to have stepped up their intrusive check-ups on religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fourteen Protestant churches and one Hare Krishna community have faced heavy-handed check-ups in January and February in the country's commercial capital Almaty alone. The Protestant Alpha and Omega Centre faced a two-day check which followed slanderous coverage of the Centre on television. "They checked sanitary-hygiene conditions, fire-prevention measures, and all the documents," the Centre's director Leonid Zavyanov told Forum 18. "What's the worry, it's just a check-up, and we have found nothing serious yet," the Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Although Muslims and the Russian Orthodox deny that their communities are being checked up, a Religious Affairs Committee official told Forum 18 that such check-ups have led to mosques being closed down and muftis sacked. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis sees the check-ups as part of a revival of state hostility to religious organisations.

KAZAKHSTAN: How threatening are President Nazarbayev's comments?

Kazakh officials have played down to Forum 18 News Service the significance of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent call to "suppress the activity of illegal religious movements." He also claimed that "tens of thousands of different missionary organisations work in Kazakhstan. We don't know their purposes and intentions, and we should not allow such unchecked activity." Independent Kazakh observers are unsure how seriously to take the comments, but do not think that they are meant to start a campaign against religious communities. A state programme "On the provision of freedom of belief and enhancement of state-confessional relations" has been introduced by the Justice Minister because of "radical religious movements whose aim is total Islamisation or evangelisation." Recently, Protestant churches, a Hare Krishna commune, Jehovah's Witnesses and an independent mosque have faced threats to their property, cancellation of their registration and harassment of their members. Accusations of espionage and high treason have also been made.

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police operation to close down entire denomination?

The KNB secret police subjected the Grace Presbyterian Church in Almaty to a 17-hour raid on 25 and 26 January. "They checked everybody and everything and confiscated all the computer hardware," Dmitri Kan of the church's headquarters in Karaganda told Forum 18 News Service. The raid is part of the campaign begun with a 15-hour raid in Karaganda last August. The Financial Police, Justice Department, and KNB have stepped up investigating and questioning Grace Church members across Kazakhstan since mid-January, he added. Leaks through the media allege that church members are engaged in spying, appropriating church members' property, failing to file financial information, inciting inter-religious enmity and holding illegal drugs, even though no-one has ever been brought before a criminal court. "All these efforts are done to close down the entire Grace Church in Kazakhstan," Kan told Forum 18. The Karaganda Regional Department of the KNB told Forum 18 that the operation against the Church is being led by the central KNB in the capital Astana. Vyacheslav Kalyuzhny, the Deputy Human Rights Ombudsperson, says the Church has not complained to his office. "People are not persecuted on religious grounds in Kazakhstan," he claimed.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Ridiculous excuses" for denying legal status

Lack of work phone numbers for the founders of the Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian Sea port of Atyrau on its registration application was enough for the regional Justice Department to deny legal status. Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18 News Service of "ridiculous excuses" in rejecting this and all the community's previous applications since 2001. Law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that state bodies sometimes use "just any excuse", even an insignificant one, to reject religious communities' registration applications. Atyrau Region officials have denied legal status to at least two local Protestant churches, and this summer pressured an independent Muslim community to hand over its mosque to the state-backed Muftiate. Unregistered religious activity in Kazakhstan is illegal and punishable. Local Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestants have been fined for unregistered worship. Officials deny any restrictions. "Look, we don't have any problems related to religious freedom in our region," deputy regional head Kenes Kosybaev told Forum 18. "Just don't listen to those negative reports about us."

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

KAZAKHSTAN: State and former user fight over Hare Krishna farm

A court in Kazakhstan has decided to hand a confiscated Hare Krishna farm to the person who sold the rights to use the land in 1999, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Hare Krishna community, whose lawyer was not allowed to participate in the hearing, describes it as "very strange that the government took back the land and then gave it to another individual. In Kazakhstan this is incredible." They think that their commune will "definitely" be expelled from the farm and that the authorities will claim that "any expulsion is a private matter between the owner and us." Yet a conflict has emerged since the court decision between the state and the new "owner." Yerali Tugzhanov, Kazakhstan's senior religious affairs official, angrily rejected the court ruling. "The land still belongs to the authorities. Why should any private individual have any claim to it?" he told Forum 18, claiming that the land had "long been in the hands of a children's home." Amongst other religious minorities facing Kazakh official hostility are Presbyterians, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Ahmadi Muslims.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The secret police's persecution by proxy"

Members of the Grace Presbyterian Church in the north-eastern town of Karaganda – who have already faced the police, the KNB secret police, the Prosecutor's Office and the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service – now face intrusive questioning from the Tax Police. Among the questions are why they go to the church and not to the mosque. Members of the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty in the south equally face relentless pressure from a succession of different government agencies in a bid to crush their activity. Migration Police raided the commune on 20 September checking the documents of all those present at an important religious festival. "This is the KNB secret police's persecution by proxy," one observer familiar with both cases, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18 News Service. But Amanbek Mukhashev of the government's Religious Affairs Committee claimed to an OSCE conference in Warsaw on 26 September that "freedom of belief and freedom to express religious beliefs have become one of the leitmotivs in the work of Kazakhstan's state and local organs of power".

KAZAKHSTAN: Treason charges against Grace Church leaders?

Four members of the Grace Presbyterian Church – including its leader Igor Kim - are being investigated on treason charges which the National Security Committee (KNB) secret police have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service. KNB officers in Karaganda told Forum 18 that the cases are being handled from the capital Astana, but no-one at the national KNB would talk to Forum 18. Church members are still being summoned for questioning. Pastor Vyacheslav Vorobyov of the church in Karaganda told Forum 18 that 12 church members began a hunger strike on 7 September to protest against the raids and investigations. He said the tax authorities are checking up on many of their 250 congregations across Kazakhstan, while computers and documents confiscated in 24 August raids have not been returned. Amanbek Mukhashev of the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Committee refused to answer Forum 18's questions by telephone. Kazakhstan's Human Rights Ombudsperson Bolat Baikadamov told Forum 18 that he has asked the KNB about the case.

KAZAKHSTAN: Why was church subjected to 15-hour raid?

Two places of worship of the Grace Presbyterian Church – in the towns of Karaganda and Oskemen – were among church-owned premises raided by the National Security Committee (KNB) secret police on 24 August, church sources told Forum 18. KNB officers came from the capital Astana to raid the large Karaganda church. Over 15 hours they searched the entire premises, prevented anyone from leaving and forced those present to write statements. Computers and documents were taken away. KNB officers in Karaganda and in Astana refused to tell Forum 18 why the churches were raided. Aleksandr Klyushev of the Association of Religious Communities of Kazakhstan told Forum 18 that the head of the church, Archbishop Igor Kim, his sister and the administrator are being investigated for treason. But Klyushev believes the KNB's target is a businessman who paid for facilities the church used for seminars. "I know the pastor – he's a patriot and he wouldn't do anything like this." However, Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, believes the raids are a worrying sign of the increasing power of the KNB.

KAZAKHSTAN: Home confiscations to follow massive fines

A mother and her young child have been barred from their home after a Court Executor sealed the Baptist church premises in Shymkent where they live, to prevent the church from meeting, Baptists have told Forum 18 News Service. The move followed the church's refusal to follow a court order halting its activity, because it does not wish to undergo state registration. This is part of an increasing trend of seizing homes and other property to punish unregistered religious activity. In Semey, Baptist Pastor Viktor Kandyba, his wife and their twelve children were threatened with the seizure of half their home by 18 July after he refused to pay a fine for leading unregistered worship. "No-one appeared or summoned us on 18 July, but this could come at any time," Kandyba complained to Forum 18. Cars and pigs have already been seized from other Baptists for non-payment of fines. Kazakhstan's senior religious affairs official, Yeraly Tugzhanov, denies absolutely that the fines and seizure of property represent persecution. "No-one is being persecuted for their faith," he told Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Another Baptist deported to Russia

Seven weeks after being arrested for religious activity, Baptist pastor Yevgeni Potolov has been deported to Russia, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pastor Potolov's deportation separates him from his wife and seven children. While he was in prison, the MSS secret police gave the Migration Service a document declaring the Pastor to be a "dangerous person." Forum 18 has been unable to find out from officials why Potolov was deported and why arrests, raids and deportations in punishment for peaceful religious activity are increasing. Others deported in earlier years for their religious activity have not been allowed to return to their homes. After Baptist leader Aleksandr Frolov was deported in June 2006, his wife Marina, a Turkmen citizen, appealed for him to be allowed back to live with her and their two young children. But in the face of Turkmenistan's refusal of family re-unification, she has now joined him in Russia. "I hadn't seen my husband for a year and didn't want our family to be split," she told Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: More homes at Hare Krishna commune destroyed

Workers and police arrived this morning (15 June) at the village near Almaty where the embattled Hare Krishna commune is based to demolish twelve more Hare Krishna-owned homes. "The houses were literally crushed into dust. By ten o'clock it was all over," Hare Krishna spokesperson Maksim Varfolomeyev – who witnessed the latest demolitions - told Forum 18 News Service. The temple, which the devotees have been ordered to destroy by today, has not been touched but the devotees fear it could be the next target. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis is outraged at the continuing destruction. "The authorities are showing that they will do what they want, despite the international outrage at the earlier demolitions of Hare Krishna-owned homes." He believes the local administration chief "doesn't care about the political damage to Kazakhstan's reputation – or to its desire to chair the OSCE." Asked to explain the latest demolitions, one local official told Forum 18: "Here in Kazakhstan the Hare Krishnas are considered to be non-traditional."

KAZAKHSTAN: "Oasis of religious accord" hands heavy fines to Jehovah's Witnesses

Addressing the OSCE conference on combating discrimination today (7 June) in the Romanian capital Bucharest, Kazakhstan's senior religious affairs official Yeraly Tugzhanov boasted that his country is an "oasis of stability and religious accord". He claimed that there are "no grounds" for discrimination on the basis of religion. He spoke three days after six Jehovah's Witnesses in the Caspian Sea port of Atyrau were given heavy fines for meeting for worship without registration. Two of the six are pensioners, with only a low income. "To pay the fines they'll have to eat nothing for eight months," the community's leader Aleksandr Rozinov, who was himself among those fined, told Forum 18 News Service. "They don't have the right to meet for worship without registration," Atyrau's religious affairs official told Forum 18. The Atyrau Jehovah's Witnesses' four registration applications since 2001 have got nowhere. Tugzhanov himself declined to discuss the latest fines - or the 5 June order to demolish a Hare Krishna temple - with Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Tolerance" in Bucharest, Krishna temple ordered demolished in Almaty

As senior Kazakh officials arrive in Romania for an OSCE conference on combating discrimination, the local administration chief ordered members of the embattled Hare Krishna near Almaty to demolish their own temple and other buildings within ten days. "If we don't do it, the authorities will," Hare Krishna spokesperson Maksim Varfolomeyev told Forum 18 News Service. Another 14 Hare Krishna-owned homes are already under threat of demolition in the latest moves in the authorities' three-year campaign to destroy the commune. The government's religious affairs chief Yeraly Tugzhanov – on his way to the OSCE conference – refused to answer any of Forum 18's questions about the threatened destruction of the temple. He likewise refused to discuss the heavy fines imposed in Atyrau on 4 June on six Jehovah's Witnesses for meeting for worship without state registration.

KAZAKHSTAN: "We have our own norms"

Kazakh officials have denied to Forum 18 News Service that a raid on a religious community was a raid. "You can't call this a raid," commented Atyrau region Deputy Prosecutor Aspenbi Zharylgasov on a Prosecutor's Office raid on a Jehovah's Witness worship service. Officials confiscated religious literature, filmed those present and are prosecuting six Witnesses for unregistered religious activity. The raid and prosecutions may have been sparked by the community's latest registration application, the fourth in six years. Amanbek Mukhashev, head of the state Religious Affairs Committee, also denied that the raid was a raid, earlier asking the Jehovah's Witnesses "Why do you want to go there? It's a region where Muslims live." Protestant churches have had similar problems in Atyrau region. Asked how denying the right to freedom of thought conscience and belief to unregistered religious communities matches Kazakhstan's OSCE human rights commitments and its ambition to chair the OSCE, Mukhashev replied "we have our own norms."

TURKMENISTAN: Second Baptist arrested in Turkmenbashi crackdown

Days after a Baptist prisoner of conscience was sentenced to three years in a labour camp another Baptist, Yevgeny Potolov, from the same city was arrested by the MSS secret police on 19 May, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. No charges have been brought against him and the MSS is refusing to tell his wife Nadezhda why he has been held. Also, as well as jailing Vyacheslav Kalataevsky in a labour camp, the authorities are seizing two armchairs from his family after his wife Valentina refused to pay a fine for holding worship services in her home. "Had I been fined for committing a crime, that would have been fair," she told Forum 18. "But it's not right to be fined for worshipping God." Meanwhile, Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant barred from leaving Turkmenistan to join his wife Wendy Lucas in the USA, missed the birth of their first child, a girl, on 18 May. "It was very very emotional not having Merdan there – he was so looking forward to being present at the birth," Lucas told Forum 18.

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist prisoner of conscience jailed for three years

Turkmenistan has today (14 May) jailed a Baptist, Vyacheslav Kalataevsky, for three years in a labour camp, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The official reason for the jail sentence is illegally crossing the border, after being deported for "establishing a prayer house and by organising meetings of Christian Baptists". Before and during this month's trial, Turkmen authorities asked many questions about Kalataevsky's Baptist congregation, such as how many people attend, who they are and how many of them are children. While Kalataevsky's trial took place, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, was visiting Turkmenistan. "President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told Louise Arbour that all conventions and human rights principles are respected," the family told Forum 18. "Our lawyer spoke up in court asking why, if this is so, Vyacheslav's case was now in court." Meanwhile, Merdan Shirmedov, who is also a Baptist, is still being denied permission to leave Turkmenistan to join his pregnant wife in the USA. The family's first child is due to be born on 25 May.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Economic war" to crush Baptists?

Homes, cars, washing machines and even pigs have all been confiscated or subject to bailiff's orders as Council of Churches Baptists refuse to pay fines imposed in retaliation for conducting worship services without registration. Now courts are ordering the money to be automatically deducted from wages. "We can't do anything about it if they just take the money," Andrei Penner – who spent 24 hours in prison in March for leading his unregistered congregation - told Forum 18 News Service from Karaganda after officials ordered his pay to be docked. "Of course it's war, economic war," Dmitri Jantsen of a Baptist congregation in Temirtau near the capital Astana told Forum 18. "They want to subject our churches to state control." No religious affairs official was available to explain to Forum 18 why Council of Churches Baptists are being harassed simply because they wish to worship without state registration and why state officials are pressuring the Baptists to subject themselves to the intrusive reporting procedures which all registered faiths have to endure.

KAZAKHSTAN: Hare Krishna demolitions held off – for now

Even though a Hare Krishna commune was told by phone today (4 May) that court executors were on their way to re-start demolitions of Hare Krishna-owned homes, none had arrived by late afternoon today, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The latest demolition threat repeated an official warning given yesterday. This morning, the electricity supply to the commune's homes was cut off – but was then restored after 30 minutes. The only official who spoke to Forum 18, in the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Committee, refused to give his name and insisted that the dispute is economic and not religious discrimination. Asked why a range of religious minority communities in Kazakhstan face official intolerance - including raids, official bans on their activity, fines, detentions, arbitrary denial of legal status and denigration in official publications - the unnamed official responded: "This is disinformation. We have no information about such occurrences. Accusations of discrimination are challengeable in law." The unnamed official insisted to Forum 18 that "no violations of international standards" take place in Kazakhstan.

KAZAKHSTAN: Hare Krishna commune demolition to restart on Friday?

The Hare Krishna community in Kazakhstan is expecting bulldozing of its embattled commune near Almaty to re-start tomorrow, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Court executors phoned Viktor Golous, the leader of the commune, today to tell him that demolition will take place tomorrow morning (Friday 4 May) at 10 am (Kazakh time). Golous was told to tell the threatened homeowners this, as the court executors claimed that they "could not find them." Golous rang the national General Prosecutor's Office, the state Religious Affairs Committee, and Karasai District Court officials to try to stop the demolition. But they told him that the demolitions would go ahead. Kazakh officials routinely deny responsibility for the state's actions. The country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, before witnesses at an OSCE conference, claimed that the Hare Krishna community's problems will be solved by the Presidential Administration, later announcing to Kazakh media a claimed solution. But when Kazakh Hare Krishna devotees contacted the Ombudsperson, he completely denied his own earlier claims. A Hare Krishna source, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, commented to Forum 18 on this that "the government is sending signals to the world that the issue is being dealt with in order to secure its OSCE bid."

TURKMENISTAN: May trial for imprisoned Baptist leader?

The criminal trial of imprisoned Baptist leader Vyacheslav Kalataevsky may begin very soon, his wife has told Forum 18 News Service. "The court will not tell me officially when the trial is due to start, but we have indications it could be on 2 or 4 May," Valentina Kalataevskaya told Forum 18. Kalataevsky was arrested at his home by the MSS secret police on charges of illegally crossing the border. His wife is convinced that "although officials don't mention it, I believe there is a religious motivation to the case." In 2001 he was expelled from Turkmenistan, where he was born and lives, during a campaign of expulsions of foreign passport holders engaged in religious activity. Since Kalataevsky's arrest on 12 March, his wife has been denied access to him. There has also been no progress in the case of Merdan Shirmedov, a Protestant denied permission to leave Turkmenistan to join his pregnant wife in the USA. Officials have refused to discuss these cases, and the case of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, with Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: Officially-inspired intolerance of religious freedom steps up

Kazakhstan's religious minorities have expressed deep concern to Forum 18 News Service about two official documents: the "State Programme of Patriotic Education," approved by a decree of President Nazarbayev; and a Justice Ministry booklet "How not to fall under the influence of religious sects." Yevgeny Zhovtis of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights and the Rule of Law is "shocked" by them and told Forum 18 that they "provide the moral, or more accurately immoral, basis for officials to justify their negative attitudes towards non-traditional religions". Law professor Roman Podoprigora notes that a new development is that official intolerance "was in an official regulatory act – a Presidential Decree." He described the Justice Ministry booklet as "too intolerant and stupid for comments." Aleksandr Klyushev of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan commented that "The worst thing about this booklet is that it has been prepared by the Justice Ministry and is being freely distributed." Amongst the booklet's claims is that "transferring to other religious faiths represents treason to one's country and faith."

KAZAKHSTAN: Stalled Hare Krishna demolitions to take place "in five days"

Members of Kazakhstan's embattled Hare Krishna commune, where court executors are about to demolish a further five Hare Krishna-owned homes, have told Forum 18 News Service that they vehemently reject court denials that the decision was taken in secret. "The five devotees only found out about the court-ordered demolition yesterday [19 March] although the court says the decision was taken back on 18 January," Maksim Varfolomeyev complained to Forum 18, adding the comment that "the actions of the Karasai District Administration defy due legal process." The demolitions were stopped at the last minute today by a mysterious man in a black Mercedes car, but the Hare Krishna community has heard they will go ahead "in five days". "We don't know who the man was or where he came from," Varfolomeyev explained, "but when he told the men to halt the demolition they did so, making us think he must have been an official." Legal cases have also begun over six more Hare Krishna-owned homes. Officials have refused to discuss the Commune's problems with Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: Hare Krishna demolition re-started – then halted by "person in a black Mercedes"

Today (20 March), Kazakh authorities resumed the demolition of an embattled Hare Krishna commune, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Demolition re-started this morning, but was suddenly halted on the arrival of "a person in a black Mercedes Benz car," who ordered the demolition to stop. The demolition squad then departed. Official pressure on the Hare Krishna commune has been steadily increasing this year and it remains unclear who stands to benefit from the attacks on the Hare Krishna commune. Some sources have told Forum 18 of "persistent rumours" that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother, Bulat Nazarbayev, wants to acquire the Krishna property. Local officials are also suspected of standing to benefit financially. Official hostility to the religious freedom of Hare Krishna devotees, and other religious minorities, is compatible with officials acting from hopes of personally benefiting from the property of the Hare Krishna commune.

KAZAKHSTAN: Three-day prison term for leading unregistered church

On 7 March an administrative court in the southern city of Shymkent sentenced Pastor Fauzi Gubaidullin to three days in prison for leading an unregistered Baptist church which refuses to abide by a court order banning it for three months. In Aktobe in late February, a washing machine and car were among items confiscated from a Baptist preacher to cover unpaid fines levied in punishment for peaceful religious activity. Shymkent congregation member Yuri Pfafenrot says life for Council of Churches Baptists in Kazakhstan is getting tougher. "First they came and offered us registration, but we refused," he told Forum 18 News Service. "Now they insist that we register, and when we don't they hand down big fines or even launch criminal cases." Backing the Baptists' demands for an end to compulsory registration is the Human Rights Ombudsperson, Bolat Baikadamov, but he insisted to Forum 18 it is up to religious believers to pressure parliamentary deputies to abolish this requirement. However, current plans to amend the Religion Law seek to make it even more restrictive.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The fight against terrorism and religious groups without registration"

Two Baptist congregations – one state-registered and the other a branch of a state-registered congregation - and a Pentecostal congregation are among the latest victims of Kazakhstan's crackdown on religious freedom known to Forum 18 News Service. The raids and what Baptists describe as "crude" methods used to interrogate elderly church members were described to Forum 18 by police as "part of the fight against terrorism and religious groups without registration." Police also claimed – apparently falsely – that this is part of a CIS-wide initiative. Unregistered Baptist communities and members of the Tabligh Jamaat Islamic movement also continue to be targeted by the authorities. Kazakh officials continue to encourage citizens to link non-state authorised religious activity with serious crime. Increasingly harsh legal moves against religious freedom and media reports of "illegal" religious communities have created, Forum 18 has been told, a climate of fear among many religious minorities.

UZBEKISTAN: Three Protestants await trial, but one freed

Two Protestant Christians in the north-west of Uzbekistan – where all Protestant activity is illegal – are facing criminal charges for their religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The two - 26-year-old Makset Djabbarbergenov and 32-year-old Salavat Serikbayev – each face up to five years' imprisonment if convicted. The Prosecutor's Office have repeatedly evaded any discussion of the cases with Forum 18. Elsewhere in Uzbekistan, Protestant pastor Dmitry Shestakov – arrested by the NSS secret police on 21 January – also awaits trial, with no date yet set. He is being held in prison. However, visiting Kazakh Protestant pastor Rishat Garifulin has been freed without charge, after being held by the NSS secret police for eleven days. But police in the south-west who raided a private home have detained six Protestants, as well as confiscating a Bible, two audiocassettes and three Christian books in Kazakh. Such confiscated literature - including the Bible - has often been burnt.

KAZAKHSTAN: More planned restrictions on religious freedom

Kazakhstan plans to even more severely restrict religious freedom than it currently does following 2005 restrictions, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. According to a draft of a new Religion Law, all unregistered religious activity would be banned, and registered religious communities with fewer than 50 members would be banned from publishing or importing religious literature, maintaining open places of worship or conducting charitable activity. Human rights activists and religious minorities have condemned the latest proposals, Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee describing them as "reminiscent of army regulations." Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora finds it "very alarming that the draft Religion Law says nothing about the procedure for formal registration," he told Forum 18. "The procedure should merely be of a question of notification." The KNB secret police are also planning separate restrictions on religious freedom via the Anti-terrorism Law.

TURKMENISTAN: Family concerned over imprisoned former Chief Mufti

Increasingly concerned about the fate of the imprisoned former Chief Mufti Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah is his extended family, who live in the northern region around Dashoguz [Dashhowuz], Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "We have never once been allowed a meeting, never once have they accepted parcels for him and we don't even know where he is being held," one relative complained. No verified information on the whereabouts or state of health of the 59-year-old Nasrullah has been received since he was sentenced to 22 years' imprisonment at a closed trial in Ashgabad in March 2004. Relatives say rumours he was freed at the time of last October's prisoner amnesty are not true. No officials have been prepared to discuss Nasrullah's case with Forum 18. Forum 18 knows of no other individuals currently imprisoned for their religious activity.

UZBEKISTAN: Where is Kazakh visiting Pastor being held?

Concern is mounting about where Uzbekistan is holding a visiting Kazakh pastor, Rishat Garifulin, who has not been seen since his arrest by police in Samarkand on 8 February, after Christian literature was found on him. "Now it's almost a week later and we haven't heard anything about him or his whereabouts," Greater Grace sources told Forum 18 News Service. Samarkand police, who arrested Pastor Garifulin, have refused to confirm the arrest to Forum 18. His arrest comes as Pentecostal Pastor Dmitry Shestakov, who is awaiting trial in solitary confinement, is facing increasing attacks in the state-run media. Uzbek authorities are taking greater steps to isolate local religious communities from foreign contacts and have refused visas to and deported foreigners suspected of contacts with local religious communities. Uzbekistan is also continuing to crackdown on foreign religious charities. Christian charity World Vision, which works on HIV/AIDS projects, is the latest target for potential closure.

KAZAKHSTAN: Do-it-yourself demolition for embattled Hare Krishna commune?

As official pressure on the Hare Krishna commune near the commercial capital Almaty mounts, three more home owners have been served demolition notices, Hare Krishna sources told Forum 18 News Service. If they fail to demolish their own homes by 2 February, the authorities will do so and charge them for the cost. Thirteen Hare Krishna-owned homes were bulldozed last November, though other homes in the village owned by non-Hare Krishna residents have not been touched. Other court cases are pending. The Kazakh authorities have failed to respond to a November 2006 offer to help from the OSCE Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion, but Gauhar Beyeseyeva of the Kazakh Foreign Ministry claimed to the head of the Hare Krishna commune: "We were denied the OSCE chairmanship specifically because of you people." Despite denying any religious motives to the moves against the commune, Amanbek Mukhashev defended the inclusion of Muslim and Orthodox clergy in the official Commission charged with examining the dispute: "The population of Karasai district is basically Orthodox and Muslim and it follows that we should have regard for the views of the representatives of these faiths."

KAZAKHSTAN: President too busy with "important affairs" to meet Baptists

Amanbek Mukhashev, head of Kazakhstan's Religious Affairs Committee, has petulantly complained to Forum 18 News Service about a request from a group of Baptist churches to meet President Nursultan Nazarbayev to discuss state harassment of their congregations. "Instead of tearing the President away from important affairs the Baptists would do better to register their churches and not violate the law," he told Forum 18. The Council of Churches Baptists, who have over 100 congregations in Kazakhstan, estimate that more than 40 of their members have been fined for their role in worship services since legal restrictions on religious freedom were made harsher in July 2005. "It is perfectly natural that the President will not meet the Baptists," a Presidential Administration official stated. Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich commented to Forum 18 that "we regret that officials have such an attitude towards us."

KAZAKHSTAN: More Hare Krishna home demolitions planned?

After the fining and forcing out from Kazakhstan of a Baptist for taking part in an "illegal" bible study, the Hare Krishna community is preparing to face another court hearing – due on 25 December – Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Asked whether he expects the next five Hare Krishna homes to be bulldozed after 25 December, a senior state religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "we don't know what the court will decide, but I don't expect so." Previous state assurances given to the Hare Krishna community have been broken. Maksim Varfolomeyev of the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18 that the court hearing is "unlikely to be over all in one day, but it's just a matter of time. Our previous experience shows that the decision will not be in our favour," he commented. A state-appointed Commission today (22 December) presented what Krishna devotees describe as a "totally false" version of events, for use as a press release. Human rights activists, who observed the Commission's work, were devastating in their criticism of the way it operated.

KAZAKHSTAN: Foreign Baptist forced out for "illegal" bible discussion

After seven law-enforcement officials secretly filmed a foreign church member taking part in a bible discussion at a state-registered Baptist church, he was forced to leave the country Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Dan Ballast, an American who belonged for 11 years to the Spring of Water Church, was fined the equivalent of three months average salary and given a deportation order. This is the latest in a series of expulsions known to Forum 18. "This violates both freedom of religion and freedom of speech," a friend of Ballast's said. Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that "there are no provisions in law which prohibit foreigners from participating in religious ceremonies in different roles," and that "under the existing Religion Law, service in a registered religious organisation is not recognised as missionary activity." Asked by Forum 18 how officials knew to attend the service and film it, one church member responded: "Someone rang them. These things happen here." Ironically, officials had earlier praised Ballast for his educational work.

KAZAKHSTAN: New threat to de-register partially demolished Hare Krishna community

In a new threat from Kazakhstan to the Hare Krishna commune it has partially demolished, moves appear to be underway to de-register the community Forum 18 News Service has learnt. During an "unofficial" visit to the commune by four regional religious affairs officials following orders from the capital Astana, highly intrusive questions were asked in an attempt to persuade the community to seek re-registration – even though there is no legal basis for this official demand. The leader of the visit was unable to explain to Forum 18 why he asked questions that are irrelevant to merely gaining legal status, and refused to explain who had organised the visit and for what purpose. Kazakhstan has made no reply to the OSCE's Advisory Council on religious freedom's 27 November statement that it is "deeply concerned" by the state's actions and has not responded to the Council's offer of help. The commune's demolition has caused worldwide protests, even sparking a video montage of footage of the demolition and apparent remarks of the fictional character Borat.

UZBEKISTAN: State bars haj pilgrims from pilgrimage

Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.

KAZAKHSTAN: "This has nothing to do with religion" religious affairs official screams

Kazakhstan routinely denies that its attacks on and demolition of a Hare Krishna commune are religious freedom issues. Yet this is contradicted by the presence of a state religious affairs official, Ryskul Zhunisbayeva, at the latest court hearing, Forum 18 News Service notes. Questioned what her role was, Zhunisbayeva immediately screamed that this has "nothing to do with religion." Lawyers working with the community have withdrawn from the case. "You don't understand us – you have no family," one lawyer told a devotee, who commented that "Probably they're scared." Also, two Baptists' appeal against large fines for religious activity without state registration has been rejected. As the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Advisory Panel on religious freedom states that it is it is "deeply concerned" by Kazakhstan's actions, the country's bid – to be decided next week - to chair the OSCE in 2009 is attracting increasing opposition. This should only happen "if Kazakhstan takes immediate verifiable steps to implement its OSCE human rights pledges, including on freedom of religion or belief," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated.

KAZAKHSTAN: Will rest of Hare Krishna commune now be destroyed?

With almost a quarter of the Hare Krishna-owned homes in their Sri Vrindavan Dham commune on the outskirts of Almaty already destroyed, community members are afraid that the rest of the 66 homes – including their temple – could be next. "The community is in shock, but they are determined to defend their homes and place of worship," community member Govinda Swami told Forum 18 News Service. He says destruction of the temple would be "devastating". Neighbouring houses owned by non-Krishna devotees have not been touched and sources have told Forum 18 that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother has designs on the property. Local administration chief Bagdad Akhmetayev refused to say why the homes were being destroyed when the court merely ordered the devotees' eviction, telling Forum 18 "I simply came to watch the demolition and I am not prepared to make any comment. Please ask the court bailiffs directly." The bailiffs refused to talk to Forum 18. Police prevented OSCE officials from reaching the village during the 21 November destruction.

KAZAKHSTAN: State bulldozes Hare Krishna commune, bids to chair OSCE

As Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in London seeking support for his bid to chair the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), state authorities began today (21 November) bulldozing the only Hare Krishna commune in the region, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The costs of the demolition are being imposed by the authorities on the Hare Krishna devotees and OPON riot police have sealed off the commune. "At present a bulldozer is knocking down one house," Hare Krishna devotee Anastasia told Forum 18 from the site as she watched the destruction, "while a further four are being knocked down by hand." Officials carrying out the destruction have refused to speak to Forum 18. The demolition contradicts earlier Kazakh official assurances that all actions in the authorities long-running attempt to take over the commune would be frozen. Religious freedom and other human rights in Kazakhstan have been for some years under increasing threat from President Nazarbayev's government.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The situation could turn out badly for the Krishna followers"

Hare Krishna devotees are increasingly sceptical that a state Commission, with the proclaimed aim of resolving a long-running dispute caused by the state's attempts to take over a Hare Krishna commune, will solve the issue, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Ludmila Danilenko, of the state Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18 that "the decision that the Commission has reached will be made public shortly." Some suggest that the Commission's real aim was to deflect criticism at the contrast between the state's attacks on religious freedom and its often repeated boasts that it supports religious tolerance. Sources, which preferred to be unnamed, have told Forum 18 of "persistent rumours" that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother, Bulat Nazarbayev, wants to acquire the Krishna farm. Amanbek Mukhashev of the Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18 that if the commune continues, "the situation could turn out badly for the Krishna followers."

KAZAKHSTAN: Expelled for "missionary activity without registration"

Shortly after speaking as an official guest at an event marking Kazakhstan's "Day of Spiritual Unity and Conciliation," a South Korean Pastor has been expelled for "missionary work without registration," Forum 18 News Service has been told. Pastor Kim U Sob has led the Love Presbyterian Church in the southern town of Kyzyl-Orda for the past eight years, and was visiting a church member. "The police suddenly burst into the house where he was staying and filmed everyone present," a church member who wished to remain unnamed told Forum 18. "The situation for believers' rights in Kazakhstan is starting to resemble the 1930s. Recently the police were literally on the pastor's heels." Pastor Kim was convicted of "missionary work without registration," and subsequently refused an extension to his visa, forcing him to leave the country. Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that "Kim U Sob has become a victim of the view typically taken by officials."

KAZAKHSTAN: Punished for preaching in mosques

Members of the Tabligh Jama'at international Islamic missionary organisation face increased fines across Kazakhstan for trying to give lectures in mosques without state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Provisions in Kazakh law punish "missionary activity" without special permission. Also punishable is any activity by religious communities that do not have registration, with Baptists and other Protestants so far bearing the brunt of such fines. Secret police official Askar Amerkhanov denied to Forum 18 that the Kazakh authorities now regard Tabligh as extremist: "Tabligh's problem is that its supporters are preaching without having registered with the authorities." Tabligh supporter Murad Mynbaev told Forum 18 in Almaty that the group does not attribute its problems to the central Kazakh authorities but to local authorities "who in their ignorance think we are a political organisation".

KAZAKHSTAN: More limits to religious freedom planned?

Changes to Kazakhstan's Anti-terrorism Law are being planned later in 2006 by the KNB secret police, officials have told Forum 18 News Service. "These changes are not going to affect believers," a senior KNB officer, Askar Amerkhanov, told Forum 18, supported by a Justice Ministry official from the Religious Affairs Committee. Human rights activists, such as Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committeee, as well as some religious communities are sceptical. Changes to the Religion Law are also being planned, to be presented in 2007, and it is possible that these may – despite official assurances to the contrary - ban sharing beliefs and missionary activity. "Fortunately for us, the KNB secret police sometimes let things slip, and then deny what they said. However, in our experience there have not yet been any cases where these 'slips of the tongue' have not been proved correct," Ninel Fokina told Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: More fines for Baptists

Facing continued fines for unregistered religious activity in Kazakhstan, Baptists who refuse on principle to register have insisted to Forum 18 News Service that they will not pay the fines. "We don't pay because we don't consider we're guilty. Kazakhstan's Constitution guarantees freedom of worship and says nothing about registration," Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich told Forum 18. Kazakh religious state registration procedures can be highly intrusive in their demands for information - including demands to know the political views of members. One legal scholar disputes that registration is in law compulsory. The latest two known fines for unregistered religious activity have been for amounts equivalent to just under twice the estimated average monthly salary. "The law is the law and we will keep on fining members of unregistered religious organisations," Lyudmila Danilenko of the Justice Ministry told Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: How far does tolerance of religious minorities go?

On 12 September the Kazakh government will open a conference in Astana of world religious leaders aimed at portraying the country as a haven of religious tolerance. Yet two of the country's religious minorities which have long faced official harassment – a Hare Krishna commune near Almaty which the local authorities want to close down and Baptist churches which refuse on principle to register with the authorities and which have been heavily fined and "banned" – have complained to Forum 18 News Service of continuing problems. Maxim Varfolomeyev of the Hare Krishna community says a newly-established Religious Affairs Committee commission to look at the commune's problems – which held its first meeting on 7 September - might have been set up to give a "false demonstration" of the authorities' religious tolerance on the eve of the conference. Baptists have complained of raids and fines. "Despite the Constitution of Kazakhstan, the authorities continue to push their illegal demands for the compulsory registration of churches."

CHINA: Isolated Xinjiang religious minorities

Three strands of Christianity are officially recognised in China's north-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Forum 18 News Service notes: the Three Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Patriotic Catholic Association, and two state-registered Orthodox communities. The authorities in Xinjiang appear to be eager to isolate these communities, along with Xinjiang's Buddhists, from links with their fellow believers in other countries. Missionary activity that the authorities become aware of, especially by foreign missionaries, is swiftly halted. Orthodox believers have been advised by the authorities not to communicate with foreigners, Forum 18 has been told. No Orthodox priests are permitted to work in Xinjiang, and it does not appear likely that this will change soon, or that Orthodox men from Xinjiang will be permitted to study at a seminary abroad.