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".
Meanwhile, mosques and churches in the Almaty's Turksib District have been given questionnaires to fill in and have been instructed to report "on a daily basis" what measures they are taking to counter extremism, Forum 18 has learned (see F18News 24 November 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1638).
These moves follow the adoption in October of two laws seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief. Even before the new laws had come into force, officials had begun to close mosques, churches and prayer rooms in prisons (see F18News 11 November 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1635). Muslim and Russian Orthodox prayer rooms in social care institutions are also being closed, the first known closures being in a care home in Almaty (see F18News 15 November 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1636).
"Recommends refraining from inviting"
The New Life Protestant Church held a conference from 11 to 13 November at its centre in Almaty, attended by about 1,500 people. However, five foreign pastors due to address the conference – two from Russia and one each from Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Latvia - were unable to come. The Church had advertised the five as speaking at the conference since October. Four of the five did not need visas to visit Kazakhstan, but all chose not to come at the last minute after the ban.
The Church had written on 14 October to the Almaty Department of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) seeking permission to invite the five foreign pastors to speak at their conference. However, on 7 November, in a letter seen by Forum 18, the acting head of the Department, Ershat Ongarov, wrote back to say that it "recommends refraining from inviting" the five named pastors. The letter gave no reason for the ARA's decision.
On 7 November, the Church then wrote to the ARA in the capital Astana. However, in its response signed by the "responsible secretary" Malik Murzalin – also seen by Forum 18 – the Agency made no direct reference to the "recommendation" not to invite the foreigners. He told the Church that after the new Religion Law, regulations to enact it were still being drawn up, including "regulations on the registration of foreign missionaries, which will be confirmed in the near future". He added that this will govern the registration of all "foreign missionaries".
Imam's visit "inappropriate"
On 6 September, just two weeks before a prospective visit to Kazakhstan by Imam Shamil Alyautdinov of Moscow's Memorial Mosque, Marat Azilkhanov, Deputy Chair of the ARA, had written to the state-favoured Muslim Board saying the visit was "inappropriate". The ARA quoted the new Religion law as justifying the ban on the visit and book presentations in universities and bookshops. Following much criticism of the ban in the Kazakh and Russian media, the ARA later claimed in mid-October to have revoked the ban, but insisted the imam could only speak in places of worship and all the books he was intending to present needed to be approved by the ARA (see F18News 21 October 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1628).
Imam Alyautdinov's assistant, Zenur Yusipov, told Forum 18 from Moscow on 22 November that the imam is not currently planning a visit to Kazakhstan as "he has lots of work here in Moscow". However, he said he does intend to visit in future.
"We did not issue a ban"?
Ongarov of the ARA in Almaty insisted to Forum 18 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," he told Forum 18 from Almaty on 21 November. However, he refused to say how else the letter could be interpreted. Asked whether this was not unwarranted state interference in the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech of those attending the conference, Ongarov laughed, but refused to answer.
Ongarov refused to say what would have happened to the five pastors had they arrived in Kazakhstan and spoken at the conference. However, church members told Radio Free Europe's Kazakh Service on 18 November that one official had told them that "speakers conducting religious activity without registration as a missionary would have to be detained, fined and deported from the country".
The telephone of Murzalin of the ARA in Astana went unanswered each time Forum 18 called on 21 and 22 November.
How many foreign religious workers will be allowed?
Once the new regulations governing foreign religious workers are approved, registration of them will be the responsibility not of local administrations but of local Departments of the ARA. It remains unclear how many the ARA will allow to remain.
ARA Chair Kairat Lama Sharif told the Liter newspaper of 15 November that as of 1 October, a total of 310 foreign citizens had registration for religious work in Kazakhstan. Of them, 124 were Catholic, 90 of various Protestant churches, 48 Muslim, 42 Russian Orthodox, five Jews and one Buddhist.
Unlike the previous system, the new Religion Law requires compulsory state registration as "missionaries" of both foreign citizens conducting religious work in Kazakhstan, and citizens of Kazakhstan engaged in "spreading a faith" or "missionary activity". Both terms are undefined, and anyone carrying out these activities without state permission will be liable to punishment (see F18News 23 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1617).
"A system of measures for prevention"
Lama Sharif insisted that the new regulations for "missionary activity" and "spreading a faith" being prepared by the ARA and the Interior Ministry 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". He did not identify which "non-traditional" religious organisations are or why, if such groups are "destructive", prosecutions have not been brought against them.
Archbishop Tomasz Peta, the Polish-born head of the Catholic Diocese of Astana, told Forum 18 that while he is a Kazakh citizen, many of the country's Catholic bishops, priests and nuns are foreign citizens. "I hope that under the new system, they will be able to get full one year visas, rather than six-month visas as at present," he told Forum 18 from Astana on 22 November.
Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Aleksandr (Mogilev) of Astana and Almaty and his assistant, Bishop Gennady (Gogolev) of Kaskelen, are both Russian citizens and will need to gain registration. "No one has raised the question that they will have to leave," Fr Aleksandr Suvorov of the Astana and Almaty Diocese told Forum 18 on 7 November. (END)
For a personal commentary on how attacking religious freedom damages national security in Kazakhstan, see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=564.
For more background, see Forum 18's Kazakhstan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1352.
More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Kazakhstan can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=29.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
A printer-friendly map of Kazakhstan is available at http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/mapping/outline-map/?map=Kazakhstan.
15 November 2011
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.
11 November 2011
Kazakhstan has recently closed mosques, churches and prayer rooms in prisons, citing two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief before they came into force, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "Mosques and Russian Orthodox churches were built in prisons in violation of building regulations and the law", Aliya Kadenova of the Interior Ministry told Forum 18. "They are illegal – that's why they are being closed down." She refused to say why, if they had been built illegally, no prison governors had been prosecuted. "How can these Orthodox churches have been built illegally?" Fr Aleksandr Suvorov of the Astana and Almaty Orthodox Diocese asked. "Prisons are zones under the strictest of controls." Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18 that "we complained to the state about this – verbally and in writing. But they didn't listen. Prisoners have now been left without prayer rooms." Also some prisoners state that they have been placed in solitary confinement, on the instructions of the KNB secret police, for praying Muslim prayers.
7 November 2011
The Uzbek authorities have again this year imposed severe restrictions on how many pilgrims could take part in this year's haj pilgrimage, now underway in Saudi Arabia. Only 5,080 out of a potential quota of about 28,000 travelled to Mecca. About as many pilgrims travelled from Kyrgyzstan as from Uzbekistan, more than five times more populous. An official of one Sergeli District mahalla (neighbourhood), with between 3,000 and 7,000 residents, told Forum 18 News Service that "our mahalla will be able to send pilgrims only in 2012. Several people are on the waiting list but maybe only one will go." As before, an "unwritten instruction" banned would-be pilgrims under the age of 45, officials of a local mahalla committee in Tashkent told Forum 18. Pilgrims faced official screening, while secret police officers reportedly accompany the pilgrims. An Imam outside Tashkent, who did not wish to be named for fear of state reprisals, complained that "unofficial payments" more than doubled the cost of the haj. "The number of applicants would be much, much higher if the cost was not so high," he lamented to Forum 18.