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7 June 2007

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.

6 June 2007

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.

24 May 2007

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."

22 May 2007

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.

14 May 2007

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.

11 May 2007

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.

4 May 2007

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.

3 May 2007

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."

23 April 2007

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.

3 April 2007

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."

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