30 January 2007
Amanbek Mukhashev, head of Kazakhstan's Religious Affairs Committee, has petulantly complained to Forum 18 News Service about a request from a group of Baptist churches to meet President Nursultan Nazarbayev to discuss state harassment of their congregations. "Instead of tearing the President away from important affairs the Baptists would do better to register their churches and not violate the law," he told Forum 18. The Council of Churches Baptists, who have over 100 congregations in Kazakhstan, estimate that more than 40 of their members have been fined for their role in worship services since legal restrictions on religious freedom were made harsher in July 2005. "It is perfectly natural that the President will not meet the Baptists," a Presidential Administration official stated. Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich commented to Forum 18 that "we regret that officials have such an attitude towards us."
22 December 2006
After the fining and forcing out from Kazakhstan of a Baptist for taking part in an "illegal" bible study, the Hare Krishna community is preparing to face another court hearing – due on 25 December – Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Asked whether he expects the next five Hare Krishna homes to be bulldozed after 25 December, a senior state religious affairs official told Forum 18 that "we don't know what the court will decide, but I don't expect so." Previous state assurances given to the Hare Krishna community have been broken. Maksim Varfolomeyev of the Hare Krishna community told Forum 18 that the court hearing is "unlikely to be over all in one day, but it's just a matter of time. Our previous experience shows that the decision will not be in our favour," he commented. A state-appointed Commission today (22 December) presented what Krishna devotees describe as a "totally false" version of events, for use as a press release. Human rights activists, who observed the Commission's work, were devastating in their criticism of the way it operated.
12 December 2006
After seven law-enforcement officials secretly filmed a foreign church member taking part in a bible discussion at a state-registered Baptist church, he was forced to leave the country Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Dan Ballast, an American who belonged for 11 years to the Spring of Water Church, was fined the equivalent of three months average salary and given a deportation order. This is the latest in a series of expulsions known to Forum 18. "This violates both freedom of religion and freedom of speech," a friend of Ballast's said. Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that "there are no provisions in law which prohibit foreigners from participating in religious ceremonies in different roles," and that "under the existing Religion Law, service in a registered religious organisation is not recognised as missionary activity." Asked by Forum 18 how officials knew to attend the service and film it, one church member responded: "Someone rang them. These things happen here." Ironically, officials had earlier praised Ballast for his educational work.
8 December 2006
In a new threat from Kazakhstan to the Hare Krishna commune it has partially demolished, moves appear to be underway to de-register the community Forum 18 News Service has learnt. During an "unofficial" visit to the commune by four regional religious affairs officials following orders from the capital Astana, highly intrusive questions were asked in an attempt to persuade the community to seek re-registration – even though there is no legal basis for this official demand. The leader of the visit was unable to explain to Forum 18 why he asked questions that are irrelevant to merely gaining legal status, and refused to explain who had organised the visit and for what purpose. Kazakhstan has made no reply to the OSCE's Advisory Council on religious freedom's 27 November statement that it is "deeply concerned" by the state's actions and has not responded to the Council's offer of help. The commune's demolition has caused worldwide protests, even sparking a video montage of footage of the demolition and apparent remarks of the fictional character Borat.
7 December 2006
Uzbekistan is restricting the number of haj pilgrimages – a requirement for all able-bodied adult Muslims who can do so – to some 20 per cent of the country's total possible number of pilgrims, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Controls on pilgrims have been significantly increased, with potential pilgrims having to be approved by local Mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS secret police and the state-run Haj Commission. "The authorities are deliberately giving a lower quota in regions of Uzbekistan where there are more believers," an Uzbek Muslim told Forum 18. "It would be better if most Uzbek pilgrims were elderly" the state-controlled Muftiate told Forum 18. Turkmenistan imposes the strictest Central Asian controls on haj pilgrims. Apart from Kazakhstan, all the other Central Asian states also ban non-state organised haj pilgrimages. In Kyrgyzstan last year, there were complaints that Kyrgyz places were taken by Chinese Muslims on false passports.
1 December 2006
Kazakhstan routinely denies that its attacks on and demolition of a Hare Krishna commune are religious freedom issues. Yet this is contradicted by the presence of a state religious affairs official, Ryskul Zhunisbayeva, at the latest court hearing, Forum 18 News Service notes. Questioned what her role was, Zhunisbayeva immediately screamed that this has "nothing to do with religion." Lawyers working with the community have withdrawn from the case. "You don't understand us – you have no family," one lawyer told a devotee, who commented that "Probably they're scared." Also, two Baptists' appeal against large fines for religious activity without state registration has been rejected. As the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's (OSCE) Advisory Panel on religious freedom states that it is it is "deeply concerned" by Kazakhstan's actions, the country's bid – to be decided next week - to chair the OSCE in 2009 is attracting increasing opposition. This should only happen "if Kazakhstan takes immediate verifiable steps to implement its OSCE human rights pledges, including on freedom of religion or belief," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated.
24 November 2006
With almost a quarter of the Hare Krishna-owned homes in their Sri Vrindavan Dham commune on the outskirts of Almaty already destroyed, community members are afraid that the rest of the 66 homes – including their temple – could be next. "The community is in shock, but they are determined to defend their homes and place of worship," community member Govinda Swami told Forum 18 News Service. He says destruction of the temple would be "devastating". Neighbouring houses owned by non-Krishna devotees have not been touched and sources have told Forum 18 that President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother has designs on the property. Local administration chief Bagdad Akhmetayev refused to say why the homes were being destroyed when the court merely ordered the devotees' eviction, telling Forum 18 "I simply came to watch the demolition and I am not prepared to make any comment. Please ask the court bailiffs directly." The bailiffs refused to talk to Forum 18. Police prevented OSCE officials from reaching the village during the 21 November destruction.
21 November 2006
As Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is in London seeking support for his bid to chair the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), state authorities began today (21 November) bulldozing the only Hare Krishna commune in the region, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The costs of the demolition are being imposed by the authorities on the Hare Krishna devotees and OPON riot police have sealed off the commune. "At present a bulldozer is knocking down one house," Hare Krishna devotee Anastasia told Forum 18 from the site as she watched the destruction, "while a further four are being knocked down by hand." Officials carrying out the destruction have refused to speak to Forum 18. The demolition contradicts earlier Kazakh official assurances that all actions in the authorities long-running attempt to take over the commune would be frozen. Religious freedom and other human rights in Kazakhstan have been for some years under increasing threat from President Nazarbayev's government.
17 November 2006
Hare Krishna devotees are increasingly sceptical that a state Commission, with the proclaimed aim of resolving a long-running dispute caused by the state's attempts to take over a Hare Krishna commune, will solve the issue, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Ludmila Danilenko, of the state Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18 that "the decision that the Commission has reached will be made public shortly." Some suggest that the Commission's real aim was to deflect criticism at the contrast between the state's attacks on religious freedom and its often repeated boasts that it supports religious tolerance. Sources, which preferred to be unnamed, have told Forum 18 of "persistent rumours" that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's brother, Bulat Nazarbayev, wants to acquire the Krishna farm. Amanbek Mukhashev of the Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18 that if the commune continues, "the situation could turn out badly for the Krishna followers."
15 November 2006
Shortly after speaking as an official guest at an event marking Kazakhstan's "Day of Spiritual Unity and Conciliation," a South Korean Pastor has been expelled for "missionary work without registration," Forum 18 News Service has been told. Pastor Kim U Sob has led the Love Presbyterian Church in the southern town of Kyzyl-Orda for the past eight years, and was visiting a church member. "The police suddenly burst into the house where he was staying and filmed everyone present," a church member who wished to remain unnamed told Forum 18. "The situation for believers' rights in Kazakhstan is starting to resemble the 1930s. Recently the police were literally on the pastor's heels." Pastor Kim was convicted of "missionary work without registration," and subsequently refused an extension to his visa, forcing him to leave the country. Kazakh law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that "Kim U Sob has become a victim of the view typically taken by officials."
14 November 2006
Members of the Tabligh Jama'at international Islamic missionary organisation face increased fines across Kazakhstan for trying to give lectures in mosques without state registration, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Provisions in Kazakh law punish "missionary activity" without special permission. Also punishable is any activity by religious communities that do not have registration, with Baptists and other Protestants so far bearing the brunt of such fines. Secret police official Askar Amerkhanov denied to Forum 18 that the Kazakh authorities now regard Tabligh as extremist: "Tabligh's problem is that its supporters are preaching without having registered with the authorities." Tabligh supporter Murad Mynbaev told Forum 18 in Almaty that the group does not attribute its problems to the central Kazakh authorities but to local authorities "who in their ignorance think we are a political organisation".
24 October 2006
Changes to Kazakhstan's Anti-terrorism Law are being planned later in 2006 by the KNB secret police, officials have told Forum 18 News Service. "These changes are not going to affect believers," a senior KNB officer, Askar Amerkhanov, told Forum 18, supported by a Justice Ministry official from the Religious Affairs Committee. Human rights activists, such as Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committeee, as well as some religious communities are sceptical. Changes to the Religion Law are also being planned, to be presented in 2007, and it is possible that these may – despite official assurances to the contrary - ban sharing beliefs and missionary activity. "Fortunately for us, the KNB secret police sometimes let things slip, and then deny what they said. However, in our experience there have not yet been any cases where these 'slips of the tongue' have not been proved correct," Ninel Fokina told Forum 18.