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6 May 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: "Great political efforts are made"

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev and the Mayor of the commercial capital Almaty have recently called for greater controls on unspecified religious communities, which they describe as "sects". The calls come as smaller religious communities are experiencing greater pressure including police and KNB secret police raids, Forum 18 News Service has found. Prominent in these measures are state-funded so-called anti-sect centres, which members of many religious communities state are encouraging public hostility through statements in the state-controlled national and local mass media. Communities targeted have included Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Protestants, described as "destructive religious movements". Also Ahmadi Muslims in the southern city of Shymkent are facing threats by the authorities to close their community down. It has been suggested to Forum 18 that the "anti-sect" campaign is intended to prepare the ground for restrictive laws against freedom of religion or belief.

31 March 2011

KAZAKHSTAN: Punishments for worship meetings re-start

Kazakhstan has started to punish worship in private homes and worship without state permission again, Forum 18 News Service has found. Baptist Pastor Pyotr Panafidin was fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage for leading unregistered religious worship in Taraz on 4 March, the seventh time he has been fined for this "offence", local Baptists told Forum 18. He is the first Council of Churches Baptist in Kazakhstan known to have been fined since June 2010. An officer of Jambyl Regional Directorate for the Struggle with Organised Crime – which took part in raids on the congregation - insisted to Forum 18: "It's a violation if they don't register – all religious communities must be registered." In Shymkent a judge has banned the local New Life Pentecostal Church from holding worship in the house where the congregation is registered. And a local administration in Almaty has – with KNB secret police and Interior Ministry intervention – banned a university from renting its facilities to religious communities.

4 November 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Ethnic-based mosques "cannot be opened"

Sunni and Shia Muslims from Kazakhstan's ethnic minorities have told Forum 18 News Service of great difficulties they face from the state and the state-backed Muslim Board in opening mosques for people of the same minority ethnicity. When they have been able to register Islamic houses of prayer, they are subject to state or Muslim Board limitations on religious activity – such as being banned from conducting Friday prayers. Muslims are often extremely reluctant to discuss why ethnic minorities cannot conduct religious activity together, including hearing sermons in their own language. Those who do discuss the issue indicate very strongly that they are fearful of state reactions, and often ask for anonymity. Officials also mainly refuse to discuss the issue, insisting that such mosques "cannot be opened". An independent Muslim expert on Islam within Kazakhstan, who wished to remain unnamed, told Forum 18 that the State wants to "keep the Muslim Board's monopoly over the mosques". Appointing Kazakh imams and making Kazakh the priority language in mosques may be part of a wider state attempt to make the Kazakh ethnicity dominant, the expert suggested.

14 October 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: "Mosques cannot be independent"

Kazakhstan is pressuring independent Muslim communities to join the state-favoured Muslim Board, Forum 18 News Service has found. Asylkhan Nurmagambetov of the state Religious Affairs Committee stated that "mosques cannot be independent. Just like any other religious organisation, because it belongs to a certain confession, it must be subordinated to a religious centre. Mosques also must do this". An official of the Muslim Board claimed that independent mosques "will breed terrorists". However officials were unable to explain what law demanded that mosques join the Board, or what proof there is for their assertions. In one example of pressure, five mosques in Karaganda Region have been for over two years under pressure from – among other state agencies – law- enforcement agencies, the regional Tax Authority, Emergency Service, Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, Architecture Department, Prosecutor's Office, and Land Committee to join the Muslim Board. Among conditions imposed on mosques which join the Board is that they must hand over one third of their income, one imam from a mosque under the Board observing that "mosques which want to remain independent in rural areas across Kazakhstan will not be able to do this". The imams of the five mosques insist that they do not want to join the Muslim Board, despite the state pressure.

1 October 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Government "trying to force all foreign religious believers out of the country"?

New visa regulations that came into force in March have caused growing problems for some religious communities to invite foreign citizens for religious work, Forum 18 News Service has found. The new "missionary visa" is valid for a maximum 180 days and is not renewable. "No one wants to spend so much money to move, only to be able to stay in the country for a maximum of six months," Rabbi Elkhonon Cohen of Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Centre of Kazakhstan told Forum 18. "It will be difficult for us to open new synagogues, since it will be very difficult to invite rabbis to lead them." He insists that he and his colleagues are not "missionaries" and are in Kazakhstan "first of all to serve the Jews". After one Catholic priest failed to get a visa for two months, the nuncio spent a week going to the Foreign Ministry before a business visa was granted. Two Ahmadi Muslim imams have been forced to leave after visas were denied. Kazakhstan is "trying to force all foreign religious believers out of the country," one Ahmadi commented to Forum 18. The government's Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18: "There are no problems with giving missionary visas, you do not need to invent these cases."

30 September 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Ruling party's "ideological preparation" for harsh new Religion Law?

Human rights defender Ninel Fokina told Forum 18 News Service she believes an internal document from the ruling Nur Otan party attacking "non-traditional" faiths and calling for laws on religion to be harshened is "ideological preparation" for senior officials in the run-up to a new attempt to change the Religion Law. The section of the July document on religion – seen by Forum 18 – attacks groups including the Tabligh Jamaat Islamic movement, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Protestant New Life Church and Grace Protestant Church. It adds that such groups are financed by "the special services of Western countries". The report claims that tens of thousands of people in Kazakhstan are members of such groups "and need help". However, an official of Nur Otan's Institute of Parliamentarianism – which produced the report - insisted to Forum 18 that it was halted before being issued and the section on religion represented only the views of one party researcher who has since been sacked. Forum 18 has been unable to verify his claims.

8 September 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Proposed new Administrative Code to be reworked, existing penalties remain

In withdrawing from Parliament the controversial proposed new Code of Administrative Offences, the government was not responding to pressure from human rights defenders, an official and a law professor have separately told Forum 18 News Service. Bulat Beisov of the Justice Ministry's Legislation Department insisted the Code will be reworked and presented again to Parliament. Law professor Roman Podoprigora says the impact on human rights and religious freedom of the withdrawal of the proposed new Code is "neutral". He points out that the Code in force today already includes two Articles punishing non state-approved religious activity which are likely simply to be carried over into the new Code when it is presented once again. Beisov rejected any suggestion that the two Articles in both the current and withdrawn new Code violate international human rights norms by punishing people for unregistered religious activity.

24 June 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Parliament to go against international human rights commitments?

Following a police raid on his ordination service, Baptist pastor Oleg Voropaev in Kazakhstan's northern Pavlodar Region has become the latest victim of the Administrative Code's punishments for leading unregistered worship, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Voropaev told the court that he considered himself not guilty, as Kazakhstan's Constitution guarantees the right to worship individually or collectively. As a community without a bank account the church does not need legal status, and does not need or want registration to exist or meet. Human rights defenders and religious communities are concerned that punishments for religious activity under the current Administrative Code are retained under the proposed new Code now in Parliament. Deputy Serik Temirbulatov, who chairs the Majilis working group preparing the new draft, expects a draft to be presented to the Majilis' Legislative and Judicial-Legal Committee in late October, and a draft to reach the full Majilis in December. Asked if the majority view among deputies will prevail even if proposed Articles still violate Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments, Temirbulatov responded: "Yes."

23 June 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Is unregistered religious activity extremism, separatism or terrorism?

Muslims and Baptists are known to have been targeted in 2010 by at least three of Kazakhstan's regional police Departments for the Fight against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism in Kazakhstan, Forum 18 News Service has learned. "We get involved in questions on this line," police Major Dauren Gumarov commented on raids on three Taraz mosques and one nearby madrassa (religious college). Major Gumarov is head of Jambyl region's anti-terrorism police, and asked what he meant by "line" he replied: "Unregistered religious associations." Insisting – despite contradictory statements in Kazakh law and international human rights standards – that state registration is compulsory, Major Gumarov refused to explain why his Department targeted peaceful religious communities which did not pose an extremist, separatist or terrorist threat. Council of Churches Baptists – who refuse on principle to seek state registration – have also been targeted by anti-terrorism police. Pastor Nikolai Levin told Forum 18 that he "asked [a police officer] why people cannot believe as they choose without his Department needing to know about it, but he refused to explain".

18 June 2010

KAZAKHSTAN: Textbook "propagandises intolerance, so it should be banned for use in schools"

Human rights defenders and religious communities remain highly concerned about a school religious studies textbook which, in the words of one local specialist, contains "aggressive, sometimes insulting and even offensive" language about some Kazakh religious communities. Among those who have expressed concern to Forum 18 News Service are Ahmadi Muslims, Protestant Christians, Hare Krishna devotees, Jehovah's Witnesses and the state Religious Affairs Committee. Human rights defenders have also expressed concern about the textbook's echoing of officials' rhetoric against freedom of religion or belief. The lead author of the textbook, Senator Garifolla Esim, claimed to Forum 18 that "I have not said anything negative about any of the officially registered religious groups". Numerous criticisms have been made of the textbook, 'Introduction to Religious Studies', one Kazakh expert bluntly stating that "the book propagandises intolerance, so it should be banned for use in schools". Senator Esim also told Forum 18 that he and fellow law-makers are working on a draft law similar to a previous draft severely restricting freedom of religion or belief.

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