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30 January 2008

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.

12 December 2007

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."

8 November 2007

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.

2 November 2007

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.

28 September 2007

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".

12 September 2007

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.

28 August 2007

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.

23 July 2007

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.

18 July 2007

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.

15 June 2007

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."

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