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The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one’s belief or religion
The right to join together and express one’s belief

KAZAKHSTAN: "The current Religion Law is also unconstitutional"

Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council has announced that a restrictive draft Law severely restricting freedom of religion or belief is unconstitutional. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has up to one month to respond. Yevgeni Zhovtis, head of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, told Forum 18 News Service that the Constitutional Council's judgement also implies that the current Religion Law is unconstitutional. The Constitutional Council referred to a part of the Constitution barring limitations on freedom of religion or belief, so "anyone charged with breaking the current Religion Law's limitations on religious freedom can cite the Constitutional Council's decision in court," Zhovtis said. "The court can then be asked to refer the current Religion Law to the Constitutional Council, for them to directly rule on the current Religion Law's constitutionality." A judge who tried a case involving unregistered Baptists has already welcomed the possibility of such a review. "It is also very important," Zhovtis told Forum 18, "that as well as looking at the draft Law, people also pay attention to the continuing violations by officials of everyone's freedom of religion or belief."

KAZAKHSTAN: Media intolerance "has one source: the KNB secret police"

Human rights defenders and religious minorities have complained to Forum 18 News Service of a "wave" of hostile media coverage of religious communities. They think this is part of a government-sponsored campaign to gain greater public acceptance of a new Law restricting freedom of thought, conscience and belief. "All these articles have one source: the KNB secret police," Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Forum 18. Told that journalists and editors had denied this to Forum 18, she responded: "Who's going to admit such coverage is ordered?" Protestants such as Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists and Pentecostals have faced media attacks along with Ahmadi Muslims, the Hare Krishna community and Jehovah's Witnesses. One of many examples of media intolerance is four separate newspapers publishing an identical article attacking the Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the newspapers credited the article to a named former Jehovah's Witness, one credited a different author, and two of the newspapers credited KNB secret police offices in different Kazakh regions.

KAZAKHSTAN: OSCE Legal Opinion seriously criticises draft Law

Four weeks after Kazakhstan's Constitutional Council began reviewing a highly restrictive Law amending various laws covering religion, the Constitutional Council has told Forum 18 News Service that it has not finished its review. Human rights defenders and religious communities remain highly concerned about the Law, which has been seriously criticised in a Legal Opinion from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) made public today (4 February). The OSCE's Legal Opinion notes that "many serious issues remain with respect to the Proposed Religion Law's compliance with international human rights standards, including in particular OSCE commitments." Kazakhstan is due to chair the OSCE in 2010, and the OSCE Legal Opinion finds that there are serious problems with the Law, when it is compared against the country's OSCE commitments and international problems. Kazakhstan – also in breach of its OSCE commitments – continues to routinely incite intolerance of religious minorities.

KAZAKHSTAN: "This is a highly dangerous precedent"

Kazakhstan has resumed jailing Baptists, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Yuri Rudenko from Almaty Region was the third unregistered Baptist pastor to be jailed for three days for refusing to pay fines for unregistered worship. Baptists point out that this breaks Kazakhstan's Constitution, but officials have refused to discuss this with Forum 18. The jailing took place as Elizaveta Drenicheva, a Russian working as a missionary for the Unification Church (commonly known as the Moonies), was jailed for two years for sharing her beliefs. Other religious believers who strongly disagree with her beliefs, as well as human rights defenders, are alarmed by the jail sentence. "This is a highly dangerous precedent," one Protestant who preferred not to be identified told Forum 18. "It seems to me that any believer who preaches about sin and how to be saved from it could be convicted in the same way." Baptist churches in Akmola region have also been raided and their members questioned, and another Baptist pastor is facing the threat of jail tomorrow (4 February).

KAZAKHSTAN: The court hearing which never was?

Kazakhstan has barred the Hare Krishna community's leader in Central Asia from visiting the country, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kazakh officials have claimed that US citizen Seane Hobgood (religious name Govinda Swami) was found guilty of "illegal missionary activity" by Aktobe Regional court in 2008. The alleged "illegal missionary activity" was a private talk to devotees. However, Aktobe Regional Court, Aktobe City Administrative Court and City Civil Court all confirmed to Forum 18 that they did not hear any case relating to Govinda Swami (Seane Hobgood) in 2008. Also, Govinda Swami had previously visited Kazakhstan since the alleged conviction, without being banned. Human rights defender Yevgeni Zhovtis pointed out to Forum 18 that describing Govinda Swami's talk to a registered religious community as "illegal missionary activity" is "absolute rubbish". Aktobe City Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that police filmed the gathering. In 2006, an American university lecturer was fined and given a deportation order, after the authorities filmed him taking part in a Bible discussion at a Baptist church he attended.

KYRGYZSTAN: President's signing of restrictive Religion Law condemned

Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has signed the restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Tursunbek Akun, the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that "this Law is not in accord with international human rights standards," as it "imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing." Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova, of the Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection agreed, stating that "the new Law contradicts international human rights standards – and it is not the only Law now being signed that does so," she told Forum 18. She complained that civil society and smaller religious communities had been "left on the sidelines" in the Law's drafting. Also condemning the new Law were religious communities including Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and Hare Krishna devotees. Jens Eschenbaecher, Spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told Forum 18 from Warsaw on 13 January that: "It appears that the law as signed by the President still contains many of the problematic features that were highlighted in the legal opinion which was prepared by the ODIHR and the Venice Commission."

KAZAKHSTAN: Repressive actions continue, repressive law sent for review

President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan has sent a repressive new law severely limiting freedom of religion or belief for review by the country's Constitutional Council, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Meanwhile, the government continues to repress the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. A Baptist has this month had his main source of income confiscated and been fired from his job, because he led worship without state permission. Speaking of his former employer, who fired him after being visited by court officials, Pastor Aleksandr Kerker said that "he is not to blame though – he was afraid." Hare Krishna devotees have been detained by police in Almaty for handing out religious literature. Officer candidates and other students at the Kazakh Air Force's main training establishment have been warned against "religious extremism" and "religious groups non-traditional for Kazakhstan". They were also shown a film claiming that the Hare Krishna faith incites devotees to commit murder.

KAZAKHSTAN: Government attacks human rights defenders for criticising draft Law

As a law severely restricting freedom of religion and belief awaits Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature, Justice Ministry officials attacked local human rights groups for criticising the Law, accusing them of "openly lying." Denying that the Law will impose restrictions, Ministry officials claimed that "benevolent conditions" have been created for religious communities. The Law has been condemned by many religious leaders, such as Protestant leaders and Murat Telibekov of the Union of Muslims. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that, under the proposed Law, "if a young person is walking past and goes into a mosque during prayers, the imam could be arrested." Fr Chaplin pointed out that he was himself a believer at the age of 13, against the wishes of his parents, which would be forbidden by the Law. Pope Benedict XVI has made an apparent oblique criticism of Kazakh policy. In a personal letter, he wrote to the Kazakh Ambassador to the Holy See that "it is incumbent upon the State to guarantee full religious freedom, but it also has the duty of learning to respect what is religious, avoiding interference in matters of faith and the conscience of the citizen."

KAZAKHSTAN: "We will wait until after the New Year, and then seize his property"

Kazakhstan continues to actively violate its international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. In the most recent of many known state actions against everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, a Baptist is facing threats by the authorities to confiscate the major source of income for himself and his family because he led worship without state permission, the country's only Hare Krishna commune is still being pressured to accept a rubbish dump in exchange for their land, and Jehovah's Witnesses are still being denied the rights to use a private home and a Kingdom Hall they built for worship meetings. These human rights violations take place as President Nursultan Nazarbaev considers new legislation to even further restrict fundamental freedoms in the country. Among many other breaches of international human rights standards, the legal amendments would explicitly ban all unregistered religious activity. President Nazarbaev is formally due to sign or reject the amendments by around 2 January 2009.

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police raid, film and investigate believers

A Protestant church's Sunday afternoon prayer meeting in the town of Aral in October was raided by police and KNB secret police without a warrant, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Officers filmed those present without their consent, summoned seven of them to the police station and tried to prosecute the leader, Indira Bukharbaeva, on administrative charges. But she was acquitted in December. Public Prosecutor Abdukarim Abdullaev told Forum 18 it was too sensitive to discuss by phone whether measures would be taken over the unauthorised filming of the church meeting. Meanwhile the KNB secret police in Taraz have lodged serious criminal charges against Protestant pastor Sarybai Tanabaev for "inciting religious intolerance" over two sermons he gave. One recording was confiscated from one church and the other apparently covertly made by the KNB secret police. The KNB secret police officer involved in the case, Major Mukhamedjan Paezov, told Forum 18 the case was initiated from the capital Astana and is being run from there.

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictive amendments on religion go to President

Kazakhstan's parliament finally adopted today (26 November) a Law seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Immediate deep concern about the Law, which changes the Religion Law and other laws, was expressed by Kazakh human rights defenders and Lutheran, Hare Krishna, Baptist and Ahmadi Muslim representatives. "We expect persecution in the future because of this very harsh Law," Baptist Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich told Forum 18, "not just on us but on others too. It will be like under Stalin." More measured is Archbishop Tomasz Peta, who leads the Catholic diocese in Astana. "We hope that the President – who will have the last word on this – won't allow Kazakhstan after 17 years to return to the path of restrictions on religious freedom," he told Forum 18. Ambassador Janez Lenarcic of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expressed disappointment at the "hasty" adoption of the Law. He added that he hopes President Nursultan Nazarbaev "will use his constitutional power to allow for a more transparent and inclusive law-making process that would lead to the adoption of legislation fully reflecting OSCE commitments and other international standards".

KAZAKHSTAN: Police "Struggle against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism" - and restaurant meals

Police from the Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism, and Terrorism have raided a church anniversary meal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid, in Kazakhstan's north-western city of Aktobe, happened while a video was being shown at a celebration meal in a restaurant. Police broke up the meal and demanded to know why people from outside the city were present. Aktobe's deputy police chief, Navruzbai Kadyrkozhaev, evaded answering why anti-terrorist police raided a church meal, and claimed that police "check organisations since there are so many dangerous sects, faith healers, etc." In the long-running struggle of Kazakhstan's Hare Krishna commune to prevent more of their buildings being destroyed, a court has found that the commune's buildings had been constructed and were used lawfully. However, the case is due to continue on 25 November. Also, Kazakh officials are still claiming that an OSCE legislative review of proposed harsh new restrictions on freedom of religion or belief cannot be made public at the request of the OSCE. However, as Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, Director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said today (21 November) "the ODIHR would welcome the publication of the legal review".

KAZAKHSTAN: New Law still in parliament and harshened

Kazakhstan's Senate has significantly harshened the draft Law amending several laws on religion, before returning it to the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials are still refusing to make the draft text public, but Forum 18 has seen the latest changes. Among the increased restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience or belief, the Senate changed the draft text to require permission from both parents for children to attend any religious event, and removed judges' discretion over the level of fines imposed for violating the Religion Law. The draft Law already contains many restrictions, including only allowing religious literature distribution in permanent buildings designated by the state, and possibly endangering religious-based charitable activities. Kazakhstan has also not agreed to publication of an OSCE review of an earlier text of the Law, although the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights told Forum 18 that it "has recommended to the Kazakh authorities that the legal review be made public, as is normal practice." Kazakh officials have refused to say when the Majilis will discuss the Senate changes, but Forum 18 has learned that this will be on 24 November – the same day a roundtable with OSCE experts is scheduled to begin.

KAZAKHSTAN: Community punishment, denial of registration and temple under threat

A court in Akmola Region has punished Baptist pastor Andrei Blok with 150 hours' compulsory labour for refusing to pay fines imposed to punish him for leading unregistered worship, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18 News Service. "If not for many telephone calls to the court and city officials from around the world Andrei could have been put into prison for several months," his family told Forum 18. Yuliya Merkel of the local Justice Department insisted to Forum 18 that Blok "needs" to register his church, and refused to say what would happen if the church continues to worship without registration. A Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian port city of Atyrau is preparing to complain in court against the Atyrau Justice Department, which has rejected its eighth registration application in seven years. Meanwhile Karasai District Court in Almaty Region on 28 October resumed the twice-postponed hearing over the demolition of the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan. The next hearing is due on 3 November. "But we already saw the first signs that the court is trying to get a decision against us at any cost," a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: New punishments for unapproved religious activity in controversial draft Law

Kazakhstan's controversial amendments to various laws affecting religion or belief reached the Senate on 29 September after being approved by parliament's lower house and are now with the Senate's Committee for Social and Cultural Development. Committee chairman Akhan Bizhanov three times refused to tell Forum 18 News Service whether the new Law aims to increase state controls on the activity of religious communities and individuals. The text of the Law as approved by the lower house – and seen by Forum 18 – would for the first time explicitly ban unregistered religious activity, ban sharing beliefs by individuals not named by registered religious organisations and without personal registration as missionaries, require all registration applications to be approved centrally after a "religious expert assessment" of each community's doctrines and history, and impose a wider range of fines on individuals and communities and bans on religious communities who, for example, conduct activity not specifically mentioned in their charter. Groups without full registration would not be able to maintain publicly-accessible places of worship.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Only the President can stop the demolition"

The remaining parts of Kazakhstan's only Hare Krishna commune are threatened by a court case due to begin on Monday 13 October, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Karasai Akimat (administration) has brought a case to seize the buildings on the commune – which include a temple – and demolish them. Aysara Uglanova of Karasai District Court stated that "the case is about whether or not to demolish the buildings on the farm." Told that one of the buildings is the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan, Uglanova responded: "Now only the President of the country could stop the process of demolition. Let them write to the President," she advised. Maksim Varfolomeev of the Hare Krishna community stressed to Forum 18 that the temple is the valid registered legal address for the religious community, and fears that the community could be stripped of state registration if the address is demolished. Kazakh officials often insist - wrongly - that unregistered religious activity is banned in the country. A court case against a Baptist, Andrei Blok, for unregistered activity has been postponed.

KAZAKHSTAN: Months in prison for leading unregistered worship?

If convicted at his trial due on 9 October in the northern town of Esil, Baptist pastor Andrei Blok could face up to four months' imprisonment. He is being tried for refusing to pay an earlier fine for leading his unregistered church, part of what local Council of Churches Baptists describe as the authorities' "economic war" against them. Local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service Blok considered the fine "unfounded and illegal". The town police chief admitted to Forum 18 Blok is being prosecuted because of his unregistered religious activity. In mid-September another Baptist pastor Aleksandr Kerker was given his second massive fine for leading unregistered worship, amid moves to seize his land and two cows for failure to pay his first fine. "The Baptists still go on holding their meetings - no one is really pressuring them," the judge who rejected Kerker's appeal told Forum 18. In the southern city of Shymkent, officials raided the Protestant New Life church's Sunday morning worship service. Like other religious leaders the pastor was forced to fill out an intrusive questionnaire asking about the ethnic composition of his community. One official accused the pastor of "corrupting Kazakh nationals to change their religion".

KAZAKHSTAN: How simple is it to gain legal status?

Atyrau's Jehovah's Witnesses first applied for registration in 2001. Their 2007 application was rejected because they failed to supply work telephone numbers for some of the founders. Their December 2007 application was rejected in August 2008 despite successfully passing two "expert assessments" at the Religious Affairs Committee in the capital, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The Justice Department rejected it because one of the 20 founders (twice the required legal minimum) could not provide an uptodate identity document. "Tens" of Protestant churches have been denied registration in recent years. Kuanysh Sultanov, head of the Kazakh government delegation to an OSCE human rights conference, boasted of a "simplified mechanism" for registering religious organisations. Yet Lyudmila Danilenko, head of the registration department at the Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18: "There have been no changes to the registration procedures over the past year." She claimed they were already "simple", even though for the past year any religious community applying for registration must undergo an "expert assessment" by her Committee.

KAZAKHSTAN: What restrictive legal changes will pass Senate "within days"?

Kazakhstan's controversial new restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief have passed the lower house of parliament, the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The Senate will consider the Law within days, then it will go to the President," Kayrat Tulesov, Deputy Head of the state Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18. "We're trying to have this law adopted in its current form." He brushed aside the many strong criticisms from human rights defenders and religious organisations of the draft Law, which amends the Religion Law, the Administrative Code, and other laws. Kamal Burkhanov, who leads the Majilis Working Group preparing the text of the Law, is finalising the text. He refused to make it public, telling Forum 18: "We cannot provide you with a copy of the text - it is our law after all, and it should be none of your concern." Kazakh human rights defenders, such as Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, strongly criticise the lack of openness and delay in releasing the text. She pointed out to Forum 18 that "clarifications" can still be introduced into the draft before it is sent to the Senate. A senior official has allegedly suggested that the authorities plan to "very delicately, very exactly, in a very coordinated way and without noise" close some religious organisations.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Economic war" against believers continues

Baptists who do not wish to receive state registration continue to be punished for meeting for worship without legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Three local administration officials and a police officer raided the Sunday worship service of a small congregation in Ayagoz in East Kazakhstan Region in July. Church member Pavel Leonov was later fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage after refusing to register the congregation. On 3 September the Regional Court rejected his appeal, court officials told Forum 18. In Pavlodar Region, Oleg Voropaev was fined ten months' minimum wages for leading his Baptist congregation. "The state's compulsion of the community to register violates the rights to freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the Constitution," Voropaev told the court. Both Leonov and Voropaev have been fined in earlier years for their peaceful religious activity. Baptists have described the state's actions against them as an "economic war". As well as the Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses have been raided, banned and given large fines in July and August.

KAZAKHSTAN: Mass raids, fines and bans in South Kazakhstan Region

A mass campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses in South Kazakhstan Region was unleashed on 27 July, with raids by police, Anti-Terrorist police, the KNB secret police and other officials on nine congregations. Court documents seen by Forum 18 News Service show that two of the three that had state registration have been closed down and leaders fined for holding religious meetings outside registered religious premises. One private home has been confiscated. "The South Kazakhstan regional authorities organised a massive campaign against our communities with the purpose of putting an end to their activity," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18. Prosecutors refused to discuss the cases with Forum 18. "It is absolute nonsense to demand religious organisations to hold meetings only in one building where they are registered," human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18. Baptists and others have similarly been fined.

KAZAKHSTAN: Nationwide religious property seizures continue

Almaty regional Public Prosecutor's Office seems keen to seize property from religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Six property cases against Christian and Muslim religious organisations in the region are known to have been initiated since mid-June. Among them is Agafe Protestant Church, the regional Economic Court ruling – despite numerous violations of due process – that the Church's building and land should be confiscated. A defence lawyer has received anonymous death threats, and an appeal will take place on 27 August. The regions' Hare Krishna commune also continues to struggle to retain its property. Similar attempts to seize religious property continue elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Near the north-western town of Alga, New Life Protestant Church has been evicted from its building. Grace Protestant Church in Semey, eastern Kazakhstan, has been forced to brick up windows, as the Fire Brigade insists on this "in case there is a fire in the neighbouring property." The Church has also been prohibited from using its own building.

KAZAKHSTAN: "They are trying to close down our church with any excuse"

Kazakhstan continues to try to close places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. The latest incident is a court case brought against Grace Protestant Church in Semey, in eastern Kazakhstan. The Fire Brigade claim that their newly constructed place of worship does not meet fire safety requirements, stating that there must be a six meter gap between their building and the next building. However, a church member told Forum 18, "there is no building on that land, it is an empty plot." Church members and their lawyer insist that all relevant building permits, including those from the Fire Brigade, are in order. But "the court ignored these documents." A church member told Forum 18 that "it looks like they are trying to close down our church with any excuse." The state's long-running attempts to intimidate Almaty's Hare Krishna commune also continue. In a separate case, a Soviet-era prisoner of conscience, Yegor Prokopenko, pastor of an unregistered Baptist church, has been fined for a second time in three years for unregistered religious activity. Local prosecutor Tatyana Semynina told Forum 18 that "they can believe as much as they want, but should not organize religious meetings."

UZBEKISTAN: Protestant in detention facing criminal charges, Baptists jailed for 10 days

A Protestant from north-west Uzbekistan, Aimurat Khayburahmanov, was arrested on 14 June and is still in detention before facing criminal trial on terrorism charges, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Uzbek police have also recently falsely accused a Protestant refugee in Kazakhstan of terrorism charges. Among other recent violations of freedom of thought, conscience and belief, four Baptists in Tashkent Region - Natalya Ogai, Filipp Kim, Dmitri Kim and Nurlan Tolebaev – have been fined and sentenced to ten days' imprisonment, because of their peaceful religious activity. Fines continue to be imposed on other Protestants. However, in a highly unusual move, a court in the capital Tashkent found that charges against a Protestant had been fabricated and ordered police to be punished for this. But members of Tashkent's Hare Krishna community have been banned from taking part in a music and environment festival.

UZBEKISTAN: Protestants reject government's religious hatred encouragement

Leaders of 26 Protestant congregations across Uzbekistan have published an open letter rejecting state-controlled TV stations' repeated broadcasts of a film encouraging intolerance and hatred of religious minorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Protestant leaders also condemn "garbled facts, aggressive attacks, lies and slander" against named individuals and churches by the state TV broadcasts, and accuse the state and those who took part in the film of violating Uzbek criminal law through the broadcast. The leaders also complain that the state-controlled leaderships of schools and colleges strongly encouraged students to watch the film and so encouraged religious hatred and intolerance among young people. State-run newspapers and websites carried linked articles attacking religious minorities and their sharing of their beliefs, one such article stating that religious minorities "have one aim: to infringe on human freedom with all the consequences that flow from it." Officials Forum 18 has spoken to now either say they know nothing of the protest, or refuse to discuss the film. But one participant defended it.

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictive draft Religion Law to reach full parliament tomorrow

Despite recent changes to Kazakhstan's draft Religion Law, the text still contains many violations of international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. It is due to be presented to parliament for its first reading tomorrow (11 June) by the parliamentary Working Group, "They put many distracting points in the draft to take away our attention from the real pitfalls," Aleksandr Klyushev of the Association of Religious Organisations complained to Forum 18. "We need to do everything in our power to stop this Law from being adopted." Penalties for unregistered religious activity will be stepped up, and 50 adult citizen members will be required to register local religious communities. Local religious groups will not have the right to engage in educational, publishing or missionary activity. Kamal Burkhanov, who leads the Working Group, defended the restrictions on sharing one's faith in public. "Do people go to the toilet on a bus?" he told Forum 18. "No, they go to a toilet. Therefore whoever needs to meet their religious needs should go to a synagogue, mosque or a church." He showed no sympathy for those – like Baptists – who are often fined for unregistered religious activity. "They should not violate the law." Burkhanov said the OSCE's review of the draft Law has not yet been received, but he claimed that any criticism of any provisions would be taken into account.

UZBEKISTAN: "Even in Kazakhstan the Uzbek authorities will not let him live in peace"

The Criminal Police in the Uzbek town of Nukus have again tried to have Protestant Christian, Makset Djabbarbergenov, brought back home for trial, where he could face up to three years' imprisonment for his peaceful religious activity. Despite being recognised by the UNHCR as a refugee in neighbouring Kazakhstan, he was seized by the Kazakh KNB secret police on 29 May after a detention request from Uzbekistan claimed he is an Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist, a Protestant told Forum 18 News Service. Djabbarbergenov was freed two days later after the UNHCR office in Almaty intervened, the office confirmed to Forum 18. Nukus Criminal Police refused to tell Forum 18 why they gave false information to the Kazakh authorities to try to get Djabbarbergenov returned. The Uzbek Interior Ministry also refused to discuss his case. "Makset is not afraid for himself but is more concerned for his family's security," the Protestant noted.

KAZAKHSTAN: When is a raid not a raid?

Kazakh police claim that a raid on a church's worship service last Sunday (25 May) was not a raid. "It was not a raid, but we have to check up to see that they were abiding by the law," the Head of Aktobe police's Department for the Struggle with Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism told Forum 18 News Service. New Life Church's pastor, Zholaman Nurmanov, stated that 60 people were worshipping when the police arrived. They tried to halt the service and filmed it without permission. After the service police questioned the congregation, focusing on the presence of the pastor of another congregation. Police told Forum 18 that the congregation "was violating the law by inviting a missionary to speak without permission from the Internal Policy Department of the local administration and holding meetings at a different place from where they are legally registered." Police denied that they had violated the rights of people to meet freely for worship. "It is the law of Kazakhstan. We'll check up on them next Sunday and if necessary will bring them to court." The raid is the latest in a pattern of raids, tightened state control and prosecutions of religious communities throughout Kazakhstan.

KAZAKHSTAN: "A Law on Non-Freedom of Conscience"

Leaders of many religious communities have expressed serious concerns – in some cases without wishing to speak publicly - to Forum 18 News Service about active proposals in parliament to harshen the Religion Law and a number of other laws. Lutheran Bishop Yuri Novgorodov complained that "If adopted, this would be a Law on Non-Freedom of Conscience." Religious communities and human rights activists are especially concerned about: sweeping restrictions on "missionary activity" by anyone; state review of religious beliefs of registered communities; a ban and increased penalties on unregistered activity; compulsory re-registration of all communities; the impossibility of registering communities that work in several regions only (such as Russian Orthodox or Catholic dioceses); severe restrictions on smaller religious groups; a need for state permission to build places of worship; a requirement that children have written permission to take part in any religious youth event; and compulsory censorship of all imported religious literature. The new Law is being considered amid increasing official intolerance of freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

KAZAKHSTAN: Alarm at state-backed planned new Religion Law

Kazakhstan is planning more restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Human rights activists and some religious communities have expressed alarm at a planned new Religion Law penalising "unapproved" religious activities. The proposals include banning missionary activity by people who do not both represent registered religious communities and have state accreditation, and banning small religious communities from maintaining public places of worship or publishing religious literature. Prime Minister Karim Masimov has backed the latest draft, writing that "perfecting" legislation at the "contemporary phase of state-confessional relations" is "timely and necessary." Fr Aleksandr Ievlev of the Russian Orthodox Church vigorously defended the proposals, telling Forum 18 that "the current Law has allowed sectarians to spread in the country." He complained that "the proposed amendments do not at all restrict the rights and freedoms of religious organisations – those that say otherwise are lying." Accompanying the draft Law, the mass media is being used by officials and parliamentary deputies to promote intolerance of religious communitioes they dislike.

KAZAKHSTAN: Growing threats to religious property

A building used for worship by the Protestant New Life Church in Alga, north-west Kazakhstan, is under threat of confiscation by the authorities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Although the building, which was a disused kindergarten when the church acquired it ten years ago, has been extensively renovated by the church, the authorities are not offering either compensation or another building. Sangazy Kurmanalin, Deputy Head of the local state Economic Department, insisted that recovering the former kindergarten was in line with a decree of President Nursultan Nazarbaev in 2000. "The church officially does not own the building now, so they must vacate it". The church's lawyer, Vasili Kim, told Forum 18 that confiscation of the building will leave the church without a legal address. Similarly, the remaining buildings of the Hare Krishna commune outside Almaty remain under threat of demolition by Kazakh authorities. Religious communities fear that these threats are part of a wider state campaign to target their property, also citing the 2007 confiscation of a mosque from independent Muslims.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Higher authorities" behind prosecutions of religious communities

As well as prosecuting unregistered religious communities, Kazakhstan is also bringing administrative charges against a registered community and a community that is being forced to re-register, Forum 18 News Service notes. The registered Salem Church is being charged with holding illegal meetings, as a Russian-speaking church group meets in a private home with a different address from the Church's registered address. Aygul Zhagiparova, the church's leader, has pointed out that the Administrative Code allows such groups to meet in a member's private home, so long as important religious ceremonies - such as baptisms and weddings – are not conducted. Separately, an official who preferred to remain unnamed told Forum 18 that "higher authorities" were compelling local officials to bring charges against an unregistered Baptist church. "Often we are asked to limit religious communities by prosecuting them and by other means," the official said. "Because the law can be easily manipulated, religious communities fall prey to that," the official noted. In another case, a senior lawyer, Tatyana Antonenko, has pointed out that neither police searches of Grace Presbyterian Church, nor freezing the bank account of the Pastor's wife had a legal basis.

KAZAKHSTAN: Heavy sentences on Muslims "to discredit Islam and believers"?

Fourteen of fifteen Muslims arrested in April 2007 were given prison sentences in February of between 14 and 19 and a half years at a closed trial in the southern city of Shymkent, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The fifteenth received a three-year corrective labour sentence. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police claim that the group was preparing to blow up its office in Shymkent was not proven. Relatives of the men complained to Forum 18 that the KNB had planted evidence and that the trial was unfair. But Judge Shara Biysimbaeva – who led the trial – rejected this to Forum 18. KNB and Prosecutor's Office officials involved in the case refused to discuss it with Forum 18. "This has been done to discredit Islam and believers," one relative told Forum 18. Zhovtis said he believes this was a show trial to scare other Muslims who may try to be independent in their theology and practice from the state-backed version of Islam.

KAZAKHSTAN: Large fines as official tells Baptists not to appeal to UN or OSCE

Two Baptists have been given large fines for peaceful religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Pyotr Panafidin and Ivan Friesen were each fined 116,800 Tenge (4,900 Norwegian Kroner, 600 Euros, or 970 US Dollars) in separate cases. Elsewhere, another Baptist, Dmitry Jantsen, was warned by officials that his congregation and several others would be closed down and that he would be jailed. One official, Serik Tlekbaev of the Justice Department, told Jantsen "not to try to appeal to international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), because they will not be of any help to you," Jantsen told Forum 18. Tlekbaev also stated that "Kazakhstan will be Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE in 2010, and it will then be of no use to you to talk to the OSCE." Tlekbaev has denied to Forum 18 that he made these statements. Officials have also again threatened to demolish a Hare Krishna temple near Almaty.

KAZAKHSTAN: Are intrusive questionnaires "a simple formality"?

Kazakhstan has increased demands that religious communities and leaders complete highly intrusive questionnaires covering an extremely wide range of personal, political, religious and other matters, including who the close friends of leaders are, Forum 18 News Service notes. The questionnaires are presented by a number of official bodies, and it is not clear who drew them up. They appear to originate in the Justice Ministry, possibly working with the KNB secret police. Officials have variously claimed to Forum 18 that the questionnaires are "a simple formality which the religious communities need to do every now and then," or are for "a database on religious organisations." The questionnaires have raised concern in some religious communities, while others regard them as nothing serious and feel obliged to complete the questionnaires. Human rights activists have expressed concern about the questionnaires, and note that religious communities have no legal obligation to complete them as official demands to provide intrusive information violate the Kazakh Constitution.

KAZAKHSTAN: Increased pressure to complete intrusive questionnaires

For some years, Kazakhstan has been demanding that non-Muslim religious communities complete highly intrusive questionnaires, Forum 18 News Service has noted. However, there has recently been an apparent increase in both the numbers of communities asked to complete the questionnaires and the pressure officials exert to get the questionnaires completed. The questionnaires, which come in two basic forms, contain very similar questions. Amongst the numerous highly intrusive questions are: the ethnicity of congregation members, their profession, political preferences, "the most influential and authoritative people in the community," foreign missionaries, media contacts, "facts demanding attention on the part of state bodies," military service of congregation leaders, their foreign language knowledge, media articles written, and the full names of leaders' "close friends and comrades." A State Programme, stressing increased monitoring and supervision of religious communities, has recently been adopted. Some religious believers, who wish to remain anonymous, have told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police have increased efforts to recruit spies inside religious communities.

KAZAKHSTAN: New wave of raids on Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses

Amid tightening state control on religious activity, Baptists who refuse to apply for state registration and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing increased state hostility, Forum 18 News Service has found. After about 200 ethnic Kazakh Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for a meeting, a varied group of officials, including the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, arrived and closed the meeting hall for two days. They claimed that this was because of a bomb allegedly planted by an unnamed group or person. "We suspect the authorities are worried above all about ethnic Kazakhs becoming Jehovah's Witnesses," Forum 18 was told. "Events we hold in Russian do not arouse such hostility." As a series of raids take place on unregistered Baptist congregations, the state-controlled media is being used to promote intolerance of peaceful religious groups, one article describing the Baptists as "God-fearing lawbreakers" and their meetings for worship as "illegal meetings."

KAZAKHSTAN: Revival of state hostility to religious organisations fuels intrusive check-ups?

The KNB secret police, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor's Office appear to have stepped up their intrusive check-ups on religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fourteen Protestant churches and one Hare Krishna community have faced heavy-handed check-ups in January and February in the country's commercial capital Almaty alone. The Protestant Alpha and Omega Centre faced a two-day check which followed slanderous coverage of the Centre on television. "They checked sanitary-hygiene conditions, fire-prevention measures, and all the documents," the Centre's director Leonid Zavyanov told Forum 18. "What's the worry, it's just a check-up, and we have found nothing serious yet," the Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Although Muslims and the Russian Orthodox deny that their communities are being checked up, a Religious Affairs Committee official told Forum 18 that such check-ups have led to mosques being closed down and muftis sacked. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis sees the check-ups as part of a revival of state hostility to religious organisations.

KAZAKHSTAN: How threatening are President Nazarbayev's comments?

Kazakh officials have played down to Forum 18 News Service the significance of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent call to "suppress the activity of illegal religious movements." He also claimed that "tens of thousands of different missionary organisations work in Kazakhstan. We don't know their purposes and intentions, and we should not allow such unchecked activity." Independent Kazakh observers are unsure how seriously to take the comments, but do not think that they are meant to start a campaign against religious communities. A state programme "On the provision of freedom of belief and enhancement of state-confessional relations" has been introduced by the Justice Minister because of "radical religious movements whose aim is total Islamisation or evangelisation." Recently, Protestant churches, a Hare Krishna commune, Jehovah's Witnesses and an independent mosque have faced threats to their property, cancellation of their registration and harassment of their members. Accusations of espionage and high treason have also been made.

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.

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."

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.

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".

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.