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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.

29 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "The state doesn't interfere in religious communities' internal affairs"?

About twenty of Kazakhstan's most senior state officials agreed at a closed 27 October meeting on new state controls over the country's Muslim community, according to documents from the meeting seen by Forum 18 News Service. Plans discussed included banning all independent and ethnically-based mosques, taking over all formal Islamic education, and using the existing Muslim Board to control and report on all permitted Islamic activity. Forum 18 notes that at no point do the documents indicate that officials recognise that the Muslim Board is an independent organisation or that it could be in a position to object to the orders officials plan to give it. Asked about the meeting's apparent decision to transfer the Muslim Board's Institute for Raising Qualifications of Imams to a new Islamic University, Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18: "It's ours. We won't give it to anyone." Yet Yerbol Shauenov of the Presidential Administration, who was present at the meeting, insisted to Forum 18: "The state doesn't interfere in religious communities' internal affairs."

24 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: New draft regulations outline official religious censorship

Kazakhstan's state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) has prepared – but not yet adopted – new regulations to implement the system of compulsory state censorship of almost all religious literature and objects. The Regulations for "expert analyses" will also apply to religious organisations' statutes. Without such ARA approval, religious books cannot be imported (apart from in small quantities) or distributed, and religious organisations will not be able to gain state registration. The draft Regulations – seen by Forum 18 News Service - make no provisions for any challenges to ARA's censorship decisions. They were presented to a closed 27 October meeting of about twenty senior government officials to devise plans for implementing that month's harsh new Religion Law. No one at the ARA was prepared to discuss the Censorship Regulations with Forum 18, or when they might be adopted.

24 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "Inform on a daily basis between 2 pm and 4 pm"

State officials in Kazakhstan are continuing to make wide-ranging and intrusive demands for information from religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The local administration of a district in Almaty has demanded that local communities "inform on a daily basis between 2 pm and 4 pm about measures undertaken by your religious association in the struggle with religious extremism to the telephone number 2351401. In association with this, in case of incidents of incitement of religious enmity and discord or calls for illegal acts by suspicious people, to report immediately on the given telephone number". Unregistered and registered religious communities have told Forum 18 that they are facing raids, threats, and bans on meeting. Meanwhile the Council of Europe has invited Kazakhstan to become a full member of the Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission. Local civil society activists have called on Kazakhstan to send both recent laws restricting freedom of religion or belief for Venice Commission review, along with a draft National Security Law.

23 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Not banned, merely "recommends refraining from inviting"

The organisers of a conference in Kazakhstan have been told that five foreign Protestant guest speakers could not come. Ershat Ongarov of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) wrote stating that the ARA "recommends refraining from inviting" them. This follows an ARA ban on a well-known Russian Muslim author visiting to present his books in bookshops and universities. Ongarov insisted to Forum 18 News Service that religious organisations can invite foreign visitors to religious events under the new Religion Law. "We did not issue a ban on these pastors visiting", but he refused to say how else his letter could be interpreted. Asked whether this was not unwarranted state interference in the freedoms of assembly and of speech, Ongarov laughed but refused to answer. ARA Chair Kairat Lama Sharif has stated that regulations to cover both foreigners and citizens engaged in undefined "missionary activity" and "spreading a faith" would "form a system of measures for prevention and countering of the destructive influence of several non-traditional religious organisations on the process of the spiritual/moral development of Kazakh society".

15 November 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "Those who initiated and adopted such laws will answer before Allah"

Following the adoption of laws seriously restricting the ability of people to exercise their freedom of religion or belief, Kazakhstan has started closing Muslim and Russian Orthodox prayer rooms in social care institutions. "We're all in shock," Fr Vladimir Zavadich of the Orthodox Church told Forum 18 News Service. "We didn't expect this from our government. Now we fear this will happen everywhere." The Muslim Board has also protested, spokesperson Ongar Omirbek telling Forum 18 "those who initiated and adopted such laws will answer before Allah". Orthodox Bishop Gennady of Kaskelen stated that this took away "the last consolation from those people who, for health reasons, find themselves in a desperate, helpless situation". He described calls to bar priests from such homes, hospices and old people's homes as "inhumane". One Almaty care home staff member told Forum 18 that "faith is often a help for people in difficult times. There was no harm in what the imam and the Orthodox priest did". Elsewhere, two more prosecutions have been brought against Baptists for meeting for worship without state permission.

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