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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: "He needs local state permission to preach"

Officials who raided a Protestant church in Stepnogorsk in Kazakhstan's northern Akmola Region, as the Easter Sunday morning service was finishing, have defended the raid. "The visiting pastor needed permission to preach here," Duman Uvaideldinov of Stepnogorsk police Criminal Investigation Department – who led the raid - insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "He will receive an official warning." The raid followed a visit by a dual-role official of a state-backed "anti-sect" centre and the local Internal Policy Department. Pastor Igor Andreikin and others from New Life Pentecostal Church are also concerned by an apparent attempt to discredit or blackmail them. An unidentified "law-enforcement officer" attempted to send two young women into a sauna session with men from the church, to be closely followed by two ordinary police officers. Both the ordinary police and the KNB secret police have denied to Forum 18 that they had any involvement. Pastor Andreikin told Forum 18 that as "boundaries have been crossed", there is nothing to stop officials planting drugs on church leaders or using other methods of framing them. He told Forum 18 that he was going public on this case to try to stop such methods being used in future.

KAZAKHSTAN: Never too old to be fined

Among seven members of a small Baptist church in Ayagoz in East Kazakhstan Region punished for holding unregistered religious services were two grandmothers in their late seventies, according to the verdicts seen by Forum 18 News Service. All seven were fined the equivalent of nearly two months' local average wages for a teacher. The fines followed a 4 April police raid on a prayer service. Asked by Forum 18 whether judges and court officials were not embarrassed to be involved in punishing religious believers for meeting for prayer, the judges' assistant at Ayagoz District Court laughed. Meanwhile, a court decision on another Baptist Vyacheslav Cherkasov that Bibles confiscated from him should be destroyed has been overturned and the Bibles returned. But the fine remains. Journalist Sergei Duvanov had predicted that the book-burning would be overturned. "But this will only happen because someone was able to report on the act of vandalism being prepared to human rights defenders in Oslo and they gave it wide publicity."

KAZAKHSTAN: Religious freedom fines multiply – criminal penalties to come?

If adopted in its current form, Kazakhstan's proposed new Criminal Code would allow those who lead unregistered religious communities to be imprisoned for up to three months, and those who share their faith for up to four months. The draft text – seen by Forum 18 News Service – is expected to be approved by the government in May and presented to parliament in July, Ruslan Toktagulov of the General Prosecutor's Office, who is coordinating preparation of the draft, told Forum 18 from Astana. A new Code of Administrative Offences is expected to reach parliament in the autumn, but no draft has been published. Eighteen individuals are known to Forum 18 to have been found guilty under the Code of Administrative Offences in 2013 for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. Ten were fined two months' average wages, seven were fined one month's average wage and the other was warned.

KAZAKHSTAN: Court-ordered religious book burning a first?

In what may be the first such instance in Kazakhstan, a court has ordered religious literature to be destroyed. A total of 121 books confiscated from a Baptist, Vyacheslav Cherkasov, were ordered destroyed in the northern Akmola Region, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18 News Service. The books comprise Bibles, Children's Bibles, and other books and leaflets on the Christian faith, mainly in the Kazakh language. Cherkasov was also fined one month's average wage. If he loses his appeal, court executors will carry out the destruction. A Justice Ministry official in the capital Astana told Forum 18 that "most likely the books would be burnt". A state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) official told Forum 18 that "I'm not interested in whether court executors are bothered by having to destroy religious literature". Local Council of Churches Baptists told Forum 18 that "we were shocked - this is sacrilege and illegality". Human rights defender Yevgeni Zhovtis of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law sounded distressed, telling Forum 18 that "this is terrible, terrible". Religious literature is frequently confiscated, and the state appears committed to using censorship and other freedom of religion or belief violations as a means to control society.

KAZAKHSTAN: "If they continue to pray, they'll be brought to legal responsibility"

The historic 19th century Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavl in North Kazakhstan has failed in its challenge to the state's court-ordered liquidation, while another mosque in the north-western city of Aktobe has been told it has nine months to gain re-registration to avoid liquidation. "We don't intend to close," a member of Aktobe's Nurdaulet Mosque insisted to Forum 18 News Service. "We have the right to gain registration as an independent religious organisation in accordance with the law." A state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) official claimed to Forum 18 that "praying isn't banned – we live in a democratic state". But he went on to threaten that, "if the liquidation decision [against the Din-Muhammad Mosque] comes into legal force and if they continue to pray, they'll be brought to legal responsibility". A community member told Forum 18 that "the authorities insist we have sermons only in Kazakh. But we hold sermons in the language of the people who attend the Mosque so that they can understand what is said". Also, a small seminary attached to an Almaty Baptist church has been liquidated.

KAZAKHSTAN: Bookshop censorship, ban on all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature

Kazakhstan continues to ban all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature. State-backed Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18 News Service that "only Islamic literature from the Sunni Hanafi school can be distributed, as all other Muslim schools - including Ahmadis - are banned". Shia Muslims across Kazakhstan, who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that Shia literature cannot be found on sale. Local authorities and "law enforcement" agencies have been enforcing censorship – including severe limitations on the numbers of bookshops allowed to sell any kind of religious material – across Kazakhstan with raids and fines. Even some shops with permission to sell religious books such as Korans and Bibles have told Forum 18 that they do not want to do so, to avoid trouble from the authorities. Yerlan Kalmakov of Kostanai Regional Internal Policy Department, asked why people must ask for permission from the authorities, replied: "Imagine what could happen if we allow just anybody to distribute religious materials". He added that "unregistered religious organisations, which are illegal in Kazakhstan will use this and attract people to their ranks. They will thus continue their illegal existence".

KAZAKHSTAN: "To counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism"

At least eight separate meetings for worship in Kazakhstan were raided by the authorities in January, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Raids on Baptists were made, police claimed, "to counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism". It seems that some raids – which police insist were not raids - took place after official monitoring of the religious communities. Speaking of a raid on Jehovah's Witnesses, police Major Kanat Rakhmetzhanov told Forum 18 that: "It is not against the law to gather to watch football, read poetry or drink vodka. But our lads wouldn't have gone to such a meeting for no reason. We had reliable information that prayers were being said." Fines for the unregistered exercise of religious freedom were imposed on three Baptist pastors. Police gave evidence that Pastor Aleksandr Kerker illegally "stood at the pulpit and read Psalms from the Bible, then those present sang Christian hymns". He – with the other two pastors – were each fined the equivalent of nearly two months' average wages for this "offence".

KAZAKHSTAN: "Protect us from officials' lawlessness"

Mosques in Kazakhstan continue to be denied re-registration – and so permission to exist – if they will not join the state-backed Muslim Board, Forum 18 News Service has found. Independent and ethnic minority mosques are being particularly targeted. In one example, Imam Nurmuhamed Ahmedyanov of Abai District Mosque was "deceived .. into writing a letter" to a court that "I do not mind the liquidation of the Mosque". The Mosque has now been closed and officials denied all responsibility when questioned by Forum 18. Members of the only remaining ethnic Tatar-Bashkir mosque, the historic Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavl, have come under heavy pressure. For example, one night the state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) telephoned the Imam and some elderly members of the community for an 09.00 meeting with the Head of the Region's administration Serik Bilyalov. He threatened them that if they did not join the Muslim Board the community would be liquidated and the mosque would be taken over by the local authorities who would use it for some public non-religious purpose. A central ARA official claimed to Forum 18 that "there is no pressure on the mosques".

KAZAKHSTAN: Seven large fines for "illegal missionary activity" – so far

Seven individuals - four Jehovah's Witnesses, two Muslims and a Protestant – are known to have been prosecuted since August 2012 for "illegal missionary activity", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Many are being given the maximum fine of 100 Minimum Financial Indicators, which in many parts of Kazakhstan represents several months' average wages. At least three more individuals are known to be expecting prosecution. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they fear that the fines already handed down "will no doubt further embolden the Agency of Religious Affairs [ARA] and local law enforcement officials to arrest Jehovah's Witnesses". Zhorabek Daurenov of the ARA Department in Astana defended such fines on a local Jehovah's Witness and a Protestant. "If the Religion Law had been against the Constitution, it wouldn't have been adopted," he claimed to Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: Mosques and churches forcibly closed

Kazakhstan is enforcing though the courts the closures of many religious communities after the deadline for re-registration applications expired. Communities complain of arbitrary and flawed decisions. One Protestant church was liquidated for providing "false information" after one of its 54 founders died shortly before the re-registration deadline, its pastor told Forum 18 News Service. Registration requires only 50 founders. An independent mosque was closed down for failing to give extensive information about its beliefs in its application. The judge in the case refused to explain to Forum 18 why her verdict said the mosque's representative was present in court, while the imam told Forum 18 they knew nothing of the hearings. A Protestant Church complained to Forum 18 it was closed down because most of its members are ethnic Kazakhs. No one at the government's Agency of Religious Affairs in the capital Astana was prepared to discuss the court-ordered closures with Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: "There can be no Tatar, Chechen or Tajik mosques"

Among the many religious communities denied the legal right to exist as Kazakhstan completes its compulsory and cumbersome re-registration process are mosques catering to Muslims mainly of one ethnic minority community. Members of Almaty's Azeri Shia community – already liquidated in court – told Forum 18 News Service they fear it may be forced to stop worship. Denied re-registration, the 160-year-old Tatar-Bashkir Din-Muhammad Mosque in the northern city of Petropavl is "on the verge of closure", community members complained. "This would be a blow not only to our religious traditions but also to our culture as a whole," one mosque member told Forum 18. "There are no divisions in Islam based on ethnic identity. There can be no Tatar, Chechen or Tajik mosques," Nurislyam Gabdullin, the religious affairs official who refused to approve the re-registration, told Forum 18. "I have in front of me the Charter of the Community, which calls itself the Tatar-Bashkir Din-Muhammad Religious Community. That is not possible in Kazakhstan."

KAZAKHSTAN: Government "did the right thing" in allowing wanted Uzbek pastor to leave

Uzbek Protestant pastor Makset Djabbarbergenov was released from prison in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty yesterday (4 December), reunited with his wife and four children and taken to the airport. They boarded a flight for Germany in the early hours of today (5 December), arriving safely in Europe, his friends told Forum 18 News Service. Facilitating the release and asylum in Europe was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Uzbekistan has been seeking to extradite Djabbarbergenov on charges which carry a maximum 15 year prison term to punish him for leading an unregistered Protestant community. His friends in Almaty told Forum 18 "we need to thank the Kazakh government – they did the right thing". Meanwhile, the Kazakh government – condemned by the United Nations Committee Against Torture for sending back to Uzbekistan 29 Muslim asylum seekers who alleged they would face torture – has insisted to the UN that they have checked that none was tortured in prison in Uzbekistan.

KAZAKHSTAN: Muslim Board Islamic monopoly, Catholic exemption

Kazakhstan's Muslim and Catholic communities have been given different treatment to other communities in state decisions on whether they are allowed to exist, Forum 18 News Service has found. All Muslim communities must be part of the state-backed Muslim Board. No independent mosques or Shia Muslim communities have been given state permission to exist. Neither have any Ahmadi Muslim communities, all of whom having been forcibly closed by the state. The Ahmadis have only applied for re-registration for one of their communities, in Almaty. The Muslim Board's spokesperson told Forum 18 that all Islamic communities "must be Hanafi Sunni Muslim". "We don't have other sorts of Muslims here", he added. Asked about Shia mosques or mosques of other schools of Sunni Islam, he replied: "There aren't any." Explaining different treatment for Catholics under an Agreement with the Holy See, a Justice Ministry official stated that international agreements override the Religion Law. But he did not explain why this reasoning does not also apply to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose provisions would abolish most of the Religion Law including its provisions on compulsory state registration to exercise human rights.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Complex", "arbitrary", "unnecessary" and "expensive" re-registration process

Many religious communities in Kazakhstan have complained to Forum 18 News Service of what they variously describe as the "complex", "burdensome", "arbitrary", "unnecessary" and "expensive" compulsory re-registration process – which breaks the country's international human rights obligations. Few were prepared to give their names, for fear of state reprisals. One community denied re-registration was the Kostanai congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) which is not part of the Moscow Patriarchate. "ARA officials told us that as we don't have a place of worship there to meet in we couldn't apply for re-registration," Fr Gennadi Subbotin told Forum 18. Not having a place of worship has not prevented others from gaining re-registration. Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) spokesperson Svetlana Penkova told Forum 18 that those failing to gain re-registration "can still meet until they have been liquidated through the courts". And in an apparently co-ordinated move, Russian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic, Won Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have written to President Nursultan Nazarbaev praising him for ensuring what they claim is "religious tolerance" in Kazakhstan. All their communities have been re-registered.

KAZAKHSTAN: "What difference does it make whether you are registered or not?"

Kazakhstan continues to attempt to make exercising freedom of religion or belief dependent on state permission, Forum 18 News Service has found. Council of Churches Baptists face possible confiscation of their homes if they continue to meet, Pastor Dmitry Yantsen asking rhetorically "What difference does it make whether you are registered or not?". Pastor Yantsen also noted that raids are continuing against both registered and unregistered communities. An independent mosque has been threatened with demolition with a bulldozer, Imam Kinayat Ismailov noting to Forum 18 that he thinks criminal allegations against him are to "create the grounds for his firing or closing the Mosque". Other independent mosques are being pressured into joining the state-backed Muslim Board. And the state Agency of Religious Affairs continues to find a variety of excuses to refuse to re-register churches belonging to Grace Presbyterian Church.

KAZAKHSTAN: 15 years' jail for UNHCR-recognised refugee if deportation to Uzbekistan proceeds?

Uzbekistan is now seeking to extradite detained UNHCR-recognised refugee Makset Djabbarbergenov from Kazakhstan on charges which carry a maximum 15 year jail term. The Protestant who fled to Kazakhstan is being sought by Uzbekistan for exercising freedom of religion or belief in his home town of Nukus. A Kazakh 15 October Almaty court decision, authorised further detention until 5 November. The Kazakh court also claimed that the Uzbek charges – which seek to prosecute exercising freedom of religion or belief – can be equated to terrorism-related charges in Kazakh law. Djabbarbergenov's wife has been stopped by Kazakh authorities from visiting him, she told Forum 18 News Service, as has a human rights defender who found he is being held in "quarantine". The Supreme Court claims it cannot find an appeal he lodged in August. Also, Kazakhstan has yet to reply to a finding of the UN Committee Against Torture that it violated human rights obligations by extraditing to Uzbekistan a group of Muslim refugees and asylum seekers. Kazakhstan's current bid to join the UN Human Rights Council claims it would, if elected, "enhance the credibility and effectiveness of the Human Rights Council".

KAZAKHSTAN: Pressure on founders to deny re-registration?

Shortly before the 25 October re-registration deadline for all of Kazakhstan's religious communities, officials pressured nearly a quarter of the signatories on the re-registration application of Grace Protestant Church in Karaturyk to remove their names. "It seems the authorities especially chose to target those founders who are of Kazakh and Uygur ethnicity," the Church's Pastor Zhursyn Koshkinov told Forum 18 News Service. One of the officials told Forum 18 "we only did what we were asked by the District Internal Policy Department." It in turn told Forum 18 the instruction came from the government's Agency of Religious Affairs. ARA official Zhumagali Alimbekov refused to tell Forum 18 how the authorities can demand that the Grace Church signatories reveal whether or not they are active in the Church or write statements to reveal their beliefs while this is not required by the Religion Law. Jehovah's Witness communities have been raided "to make sure we are registered", while a Protestant church's worship was interrupted by the head of a state-backed "anti-sect" centre.

KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal investigation, "hallucinogenic" Communion wine, "extremist" books?

Two unrelated Protestant Churches in different parts of Kazakhstan were raided in early October, ostensibly over a criminal case launched 15 months ago. The case follows a complaint by the mother of a member of Astana's Grace Church that it harmed her health, allegations Church members denied to Forum 18 News Service. Masked police searched the Church and seized computers, valuables and religious books they insisted were "extremist" (though they could not explain what was extremist or who had declared them so). Police requested church members to give blood specimens to see if the Church uses "hallucinogenic" substances for Communion. Nine days later the unrelated New Life Church in Oral (Uralsk) was raided in the same case. Asked by Forum 18 why masked police broke into Grace Church in a manner Church members found threatening, Senior Investigator Vyacheslav Glazkov adamantly denied this. "We did not threaten anyone, we just made a search." Members of both Churches fear the authorities will use the case to prevent them gaining the compulsory re-registration for religious communities to be allowed to continue operating after 25 October.

KAZAKHSTAN: Fears over latest Uzbek extradition case

Makset Djabbarbergenov – a Protestant pastor wanted in his home country of Uzbekistan for "illegal" religious teaching and literature distribution – has been arrested by the authorities of Kazakhstan, where he sought refuge in 2007. He was detained after police held his sister-in-law for two weeks to find his whereabouts, family members told Forum 18 News Service. A court ordered on 7 September Djabbarbergenov be held in detention until Kazakhstan's General Prosecutor's Office decides whether to send him back. "As a person I can say this is not right," Daniyar Zharykbasov of Almaty's Bostandyk District Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. "But we have to follow the rules." In June the United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned Kazakhstan for sending back 28 Uzbek Muslim refugees and asylum seekers in 2011. They were arrested on their return and at least some received long prison terms.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Unlawful" fine – but will state do anything about it?

Kazakhstan continues to use property-related legal cases as a way of stopping people exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. Officials have admitted that one fine imposed on the wife of the pastor of a forcibly closed Methodist Church was illegal. But officials have refused to admit that similar fines and bans - for example bans on Ahmadi Muslims meeting - are also illegal. They have also been unwilling to discuss halting future illegalities. In a different case, Kentau's Love Presbyterian Church has been fined and forced to close. Judge Ziyash Klyshbayeva cited alleged violations of fire safety rules in a building it rents. The verdict claimed that the Church asked that the case be heard in its absence, as it agreed with the authorities.

UZBEKISTAN: Two women deported for exercising religious freedom

Two long-term residents of Uzbekistan born in the country – both Jehovah's Witnesses - have been deported to punish them for discussing their faith with others, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Russian citizen Yelena Tsyngalova was deported on an Uzbek Airlines evening flight from Tashkent to Moscow today (25 July), after being detained since 2 July. Accompanying her were her two teenage children, one a Russian citizen, the other an Uzbek citizen. Her mother Galina Poligenko-Aleshkina – an Uzbek citizen who is a pensioner with disabilities and who shared the family flat – is now left to fend for herself. Kazakh citizen Oksana Shcherbeneva was deported on 16 June immediately after completing a 15-day prison term. Other Jehovah's Witnesses detained and tried with her were jailed and fined.

UZBEKISTAN: Imminent expulsion for exercising religious freedom?

Despite being born, brought up and living in Uzbekistan, Jehovah's Witness Yelena Tsyngalova and her two teenage sons are facing imminent expulsion to Russia, in apparent punishment for exercising her freedom of religion or belief. As in similar previous cases, Uzbekistan is seeking to expel the family without formally deporting them. "Yelena knows no-one in Russia and has nowhere to go, plus she has a disabled mother here in Tashkent who would be left all alone," her fellow Jehovah's Witnesses complained to Forum 18 News Service. "She wants to stay here." Uzbek officials refused to discuss the family's expulsion with Forum 18. When Tsyngalova attempted to find out the reasons for her deportation with the head of the Sergeli District Visa Department, Utkir Buzakov, he threatened her with 15 days' imprisonment. When she told officials she had two teenage children and a mother who is an invalid, officials said she would have to take the two children with her. Although tickets for a Tuesday 12 June expulsion have been withdrawn, officials subsequently stated she will still be deported and this will not be delayed. Also, Tereza Rusanova, a Baptist from Uzbekistan who has lived in Kyrgyzstan since 2009, is facing criminal prosecution after she returned to Uzbekistan to renew her passport.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The Church will be closed down anyway"

Kazakhstan continues to use land use regulations as a means to prevent religious communities and their members exercising freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service notes. In one of several recent examples, in Taldykorgan the authorities have with this tactic forced a Methodist church to "voluntarily" close and fined the wife of the Church's Pastor. Pastor Valery Kim told Forum 18 that the Church paid for an announcement in newspapers that it was liquidating itself. "We do not want more punishment from the authorities", he noted. Zhumagul Alimbekov, Head of Almaty Region's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) Department told Forum 18 that "the Church will be closed down anyway, unless they can collect 50 signatures for re-registration". Asked why Kazakhstan, whose government loudly boasts of its alleged religious tolerance, obstructs people exercising the internationally recognised right to freedom of religion or belief, Alimbekov claimed: "We are a law-governed state, we must obey the law". Religious communities also note that "expert analyses" by the ARA are obstructing communities gaining state registration and so permission to exist.

KAZAKHSTAN: Baptist convicted on evidence "fabricated" by police

Kazakhstan continues to punish people exercising their internationally recognised right to freedom of religion or belief without state permission, Forum 18 News Service notes. Raids, often without search warrants, have continued on members of the Baptist Council of Churches, who on principle do not seek state registration. In a particularly serious development, Baptist Vasily Stakhnev appears to have been framed by police and then given a large fine for the "offence" of distributing religious literature - which he vehemently insists that he did not do. Police apparently pressured his neighbours to write false testimonies against him, one neighbour telling Forum 18 that they are "not even sure what I signed for the police". Stakhnev insisted to Forum 18 that he had not distributed any literature, and that he was only "guilty" of possessing Christian literature in his private home. Local police chief Serikhan Tozhigitov of Serebryansk Police claimed to Forum 18 that: "We did not force anyone to sign anything".

UZBEKISTAN: An "unsanctioned meeting in a private home" - with a bomb?

Uzbekistan continues punishing people exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief without state permission, Forum 18 News Service notes. In one incident, police and the NSS secret police raided Protestants meeting in the home of Natalya Kim in Yukori-Chirchik, claiming at the time, local Protestants said, that a bomb was in the home. While searching for the alleged bomb, police confiscated Christian books and a laptop. Subsequently, 14 members of the unregistered Protestant Church were fined for an "unsanctioned meeting in a private home". The verdict was supplied after the legally required time, thus preventing an appeal being lodged. Natalya Kim herself was given the biggest fine, of 60 times the minimum monthly salary. Investigator Farhod Raimkulov told Forum 18 that "when many people gather in a certain place, it is the local police officer's duty to inspect and see what is happening". When Forum 18 asked whether the police can or should raid Inspector Raimkulov's home when he holds a party or some other event, he claimed that he was not part of the raid on Kim's home.

KAZAKHSTAN: How many religious books await compulsory state censorship?

With new state Censorship Regulations for almost all religious literature and objects produced in or imported into Kazakhstan now in force, only some religious books – all Muslim – have so far successfully undergone the censorship process, Forum 18 News Service notes. As of 8 May, 182 Muslim works had gained the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) approval required before they can be distributed. Those distributing uncensored religious literature risk fines. Although the maximum period the ARA has to conduct its censorship is 60 days, some religious communities complain they have had no response to applications "for months". No ARA official was immediately available to say how many books or religious items are awaiting approval, if any have so far been refused, why no non-Muslim books have yet been approved and whether religious books already in use are legal or not. Officials have already confiscated religious books – including children's books on the lives of Russian Orthodox saints – from libraries for checking.

KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictions on and punishment for spreading religious literature and faith

In separate cases in three of Kazakhstan's Regions since February, police have stopped Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Hare Krishna devotees from spreading their faith, questioned them and threatened them with punishment. Two of the five Baptists detained in Akmola Region in March were treated "as though they were criminals", another of the five told Forum 18 News Service. They were questioned and entered into police records, with their personal data, shoe size, and photographs in profile and full face taken. Police accused the Hare Krishna devotees of handing out "extremist literature". Baptist and Hare Krishna literature was sent to the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), which conducts the compulsory state censorship of all religious literature. "The Religion Law necessitates the ARA to authorise all religious literature before it is used or distributed by religious communities," ARA spokesperson Svetlana Penkova told Forum 18. Several religious communities – some anonymously – complained not only about the censorship itself, but that literature sent to the ARA for approval has languished there "for months".

KAZAKHSTAN: Ahmadi Muslims closed down everywhere, Methodist congregation next?

The enforced closure of the Ahmadi Muslim community in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty leaves the community unable to worship legally anywhere in the country, community members lamented to Forum 18 News Service. Their place of worship was closed amid a continuing official campaign against religious communities which use private homes for religious worship and followed a fine by Land Inspectors. Community member Nurym Taibek told Forum 18 they see no point in appealing against the decision and said that they "have given up hope" of resuming worship in their building. The Ahmadi Muslim community's place of worship in Shymkent was forcibly closed in 2011. Also threatened by Land Inspectors is a small Methodist Church which meets in a private home in Taldykorgan near Almaty, the Church's legal address. The home owner was fined in April. Land Inspectors from both Almaty City and Almaty Region defended their moves to Forum 18. They said they are inspecting all religious communities' properties to see if properties and land are used for their proper purpose.

UZBEKISTAN: Continuing freedom of movement bans

Uzbekistan continues to impose bans on entry and exit from the country on people exercising their freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has found. The authorities also use the border crossing points for confiscating religious literature. Referring to bans on people taking part in the haj and umra pilgrimages, human rights defender Shaira Sadygbekova described the authorities, especially the Religious Affairs Committee, as "creating artificial barriers for ordinary Uzbeks". Khaitboy Yakubov of the Najot human rights organisation stating that such barriers are widespread. Among other violations are bans on exit visas for Muslims who have passed the stringent state approval procedures for going on state-organised pilgrimages, bans on Muslims joining waiting lists for these pilgrimages, bans on individual Christians and Jehovah's Witnesses leaving the country, and bans on Hare Krishna devotees and Christians entering the country. Officials have refused to discuss these human rights violations with Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Illegal use" of property, meetings for worship stopped, independent mosque pressured

Kazakhstan has started moves to close down an independent mosque, Forum 18 News Service has learned. State officials have also re-started using claims of allegedly "illegal use" of property to harass religious communities the authorities dislike. For example the mosque of the Ahmadi Muslim Community in the Medeu District of Almaty, and the church of Grace Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Turkestan in South Kazakhstan Region, are both facing challenges from local Prosecutor's Offices as to whether they can be used as places of worship. The action against Grace Church was initiated by the KNB secret police. The leaders of both communities have been told by both regional Departments of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) and Prosecutor's Office officials to stop worship in the buildings while investigations are conducted. Officials have stated – contrary to the Religion Law - that homes may not be used for worship, and have also used the Land Code to argue that communities' own places of worship are not places of worship. No official Forum 18 has spoken to could say how the authorities will interpret the concept of place of worship in the Religion Law. Almaty's Ahmadi Muslim community has also been targeted by the state-controlled mass media, and the ARA has also been supporting the establishment of more so-called "anti-sect centres".

KAZAKHSTAN: Small religious communities "banned under new Law"

Kazakhstan's senior state religious affairs official, Kairat Lama Sharif, has described the 13 per cent fall in the number of registered religious communities as a "positive dynamic" after 579 small religious groups (with fewer than 50 adult citizen members) were stripped of registration. He said the number of registered communities "will probably" fall further following the new Religion Law. In a letter seen by Forum 18 News Service, Akmola Region's senior state religious affairs official wrote to District officials that "the activity of small religious groups in the territory of Kazakhstan is now banned since there is no such form of religious association of citizens". Regional officials of the state Agency of Religious Affairs are now warning such groups that they must stop any activity. Imams of independent mosques and Grace, Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist leaders have been summoned to be stripped of registration and warned not to meet. "Now our believers are afraid each time they gather for worship," one church leader told Forum 18.

KAZAKHSTAN: First known use of harsh new punishments

In Kazakhstan's first known use of expanded and increased punishments for exercising freedom of religion or belief, a Baptist in eastern Kazakhstan has been fined what local people estimate to be a year and a half's average local wages for leading an unregistered religious organisation. Shoe-repairer and father of ten Aleksei Asetov was fined 485,400 Tenge (18,725 Norwegian Kroner, 2,486 Euros or 3,273 US Dollars), for leading the small congregation that meets in a fellow church member's home, under a provision introduced in new Amending and Religion Laws local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service. The judge also banned the congregation. Elsewhere, a Pentecostal church in Petropavl in North Kazakhstan has twice been raided by the police Department for the Fight against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism and a local official of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA). They confiscated New Testaments, other books, and DVDs for censorship, and want the Church punished for leaving the books on a table about ten metres (10 yards) from the entrance to a hall they rent for worship. Other fines for exercising religious freedom without state permission continue, one Baptist having been fined for unregistered worship meetings following a police operation called "Operation Legal Order".

KAZAKHSTAN: Promoting the "progressiveness" of the harsh new Religion Law

State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev ordered the devotion of considerable resources to promoting what he claimed to be "the significance and the progressiveness" of Kazakhstan's highly restrictive new Religion Law at a closed meeting of senior state officials on 27 October. He ordered not only the "observance of the demands" of the Law, but "their positive acceptance by subjects of religious activity [i.e. religious communities]", according to documents from the meeting seen by Forum 18 News Service. Forum 18 notes that members of a variety of religious communities are increasingly afraid to voice criticism of the new Law publicly. One media company was threatened with closure if it gave the new Law negative coverage. Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna was ordered to hand further money to the government-backed Fund for Support of Islamic Culture and Education. "I wouldn't call it support for one faith," a Samruk-Kazyna official told Forum 18. And Baptist parents have been threatened with fines or imprisonment for refusing to send their children to compulsory Self-Recognition lessons in schools.

KAZAKHSTAN: Three fines, a 48-hour jail term, and a deportation

In Kazakhstan a Baptist was imprisoned for 48 hours in early December for refusing to pay fines imposed for leading meetings for religious worship, another Baptist having been separately fined for attending a meeting for worship, with a third facing a fine, possibly tomorrow (14 December), for the same "offence". In one of the Baptist cases police extorted statements from church members, but a fine was still imposed. A Muslim was fined and ordered deported back to his home country elsewhere in Central Asia, Forum 18 News Service has also learned. His "offence" was occasionally leading prayers in his local mosque without being personally registered as a "missionary". The new Religion Law along with an Amending Law considerably broadened the range of "offences" for exercising the right to freedom of religion or belief, as well as increasing punishments for this. Officials have refused to answer Forum 18's questions on whether these state actions violate the right to freedom of religion or belief, the judge in the case of the Muslim putting the phone down when the question was asked.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The first phase of this work has been fully completed"

"The first phase of this work has been fully completed", State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev told a closed 27 October meeting in Kazakhstan's capital Astana. He identified this "first phase" as including adopting new legislation including the harsh new Religion Law restricting freedom of religion or belief, strengthening the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), law enforcement agencies, "special services", and other measures countering "religious extremism". Saudabaev said that "an algorithm of further actions for the planned implementation of the instructions of the Head of State [President Nursultan Nazarbaev]" is to follow, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Among those attending were: one of the Deputy Heads of the Presidential Administration; the head of the KNB secret police; the head of the Syrbar Foreign Intelligence Service; the Interior Minister; the Prosecutor-General; the Foreign, Finance, Justice, Communications, Education and Culture Ministers; the Chair of the ARA; and officials of the Prime Minister's Office, the Tax Committee and the Customs Control Committee.

KAZAKHSTAN: "The state doesn't interfere in religious communities' internal affairs"?

About twenty of Kazakhstan's most senior state officials agreed at a closed 27 October meeting on new state controls over the country's Muslim community, according to documents from the meeting seen by Forum 18 News Service. Plans discussed included banning all independent and ethnically-based mosques, taking over all formal Islamic education, and using the existing Muslim Board to control and report on all permitted Islamic activity. Forum 18 notes that at no point do the documents indicate that officials recognise that the Muslim Board is an independent organisation or that it could be in a position to object to the orders officials plan to give it. Asked about the meeting's apparent decision to transfer the Muslim Board's Institute for Raising Qualifications of Imams to a new Islamic University, Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18: "It's ours. We won't give it to anyone." Yet Yerbol Shauenov of the Presidential Administration, who was present at the meeting, insisted to Forum 18: "The state doesn't interfere in religious communities' internal affairs."

KAZAKHSTAN: New draft regulations outline official religious censorship

Kazakhstan's state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) has prepared – but not yet adopted – new regulations to implement the system of compulsory state censorship of almost all religious literature and objects. The Regulations for "expert analyses" will also apply to religious organisations' statutes. Without such ARA approval, religious books cannot be imported (apart from in small quantities) or distributed, and religious organisations will not be able to gain state registration. The draft Regulations – seen by Forum 18 News Service - make no provisions for any challenges to ARA's censorship decisions. They were presented to a closed 27 October meeting of about twenty senior government officials to devise plans for implementing that month's harsh new Religion Law. No one at the ARA was prepared to discuss the Censorship Regulations with Forum 18, or when they might be adopted.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Inform on a daily basis between 2 pm and 4 pm"

State officials in Kazakhstan are continuing to make wide-ranging and intrusive demands for information from religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The local administration of a district in Almaty has demanded that local communities "inform on a daily basis between 2 pm and 4 pm about measures undertaken by your religious association in the struggle with religious extremism to the telephone number 2351401. In association with this, in case of incidents of incitement of religious enmity and discord or calls for illegal acts by suspicious people, to report immediately on the given telephone number". Unregistered and registered religious communities have told Forum 18 that they are facing raids, threats, and bans on meeting. Meanwhile the Council of Europe has invited Kazakhstan to become a full member of the Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission. Local civil society activists have called on Kazakhstan to send both recent laws restricting freedom of religion or belief for Venice Commission review, along with a draft National Security Law.

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".

KAZAKHSTAN: "Those who initiated and adopted such laws will answer before Allah"

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.

KAZAKHSTAN: Prison mosques, churches, and prayer rooms closed down

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.

UZBEKISTAN: New haj pilgrimage, same old restrictions

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.

KAZAKHSTAN: Application to join Venice Commission on day laws violating human rights commitments signed

Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed two laws violating international human rights commitments the same day the country applied for full membership of the Council of Europe's Commission for Democracy through Law, or Venice Commission, Forum 18 News Service notes. Nazgul Yergaliyeva of the Legal Policy Research Centre in Almaty told Forum 18 that Kazakhstan "should demonstrate in practice that it adheres to the fundamental values of the rule of law, human rights and democracy, which are the founding principles of the Venice Commission". Vyacheslav Abramov of Freedom House commented that if the application is accepted, "it will be a clear signal to Kazakhstan that it can continue violating human rights". Meanwhile the government's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) claims it has revoked a ban on a visit by an Islamic author, Imam Shamil Alyautdinov of Moscow's Memorial Mosque. However the ARA insists that the imam cannot give any book presentations in bookshops or universities, as this is banned under the new Religion Law.

KAZAKHSTAN: Laws enforced although not yet in force

Kazakhstan is enforcing laws before they have come into force, Forum 18 News Service has found. In Atyrau, police and KNB secret police officers raided a meeting for worship of an officially registered Protestant church, New Life, claiming that under the new Religion Law the church cannot meet outside its legal address. The church had been forced to meet away from its legal address because of pressure from the KNB. During the raid, a 17-year old woman was hit by a policeman, leaving her unconscious. No action seems to be being taken against the policeman responsible for the attack, even though church members state that a Public Prosecutor's Office official was a witness. In the commercial capital Almaty, Jehovah's Witnesses sharing their beliefs were briefly detained by police, who stated that they were doing this as the new Religion Law bans missionary activity on the street. When other Jehovah's Witnesses pointed out that the Law was not yet in force, their colleagues were released. Hare Krishna devotees, Ahmadi Muslims and Catholics have all expressed concern to Forum 18 about the new laws and their impact, but do not wish to comment publicly.

KAZAKHSTAN: President signs two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief

It was made public today (13 October) that Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed two new laws imposing severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learned. The two laws have attracted strong criticism from civil society organisations, human rights defenders and many religious communities in Kazakhstan, as well as from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which the country chaired in 2010. Both new laws are expected to come into force on 24 October. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) spokesperson Jens Eschenbaecher told Forum 18 that the ODIHR was disappointed that the laws were signed into force. "The legislation appears to unnecessarily restrict the freedom of religion or belief and is poised to limit the exercise of this freedom in Kazakhstan", he told Forum 18. Nazgul Yergalieva of the Almaty-based Legal Policy Research Centre observed to Forum 18 that "strict regulation and limitation of fundamental rights, such as freedom of religion, by governments has already proved to be a dangerous path, leading to social tension and resentment".

KAZAKHSTAN: Two repressive new laws sent to President for signature

Two new laws seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief were passed by Kazakhstan's Senate, the upper house of Parliament, today (29 September). Both laws now only need President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature to become law. Previous similar laws were rejected by the Constitutional Council as "unconstitutional", and were also heavily criticised by an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Legal Opinion for breaking the country's human rights commitments. Both the current laws have been in preparation for many months, have been rushed through Parliament with great speed, and are now with the President for signature. Commenting on the previous OSCE Legal Opinion, Zhanna Onlasheva of the state Agency of Religious Affairs, who drafted the laws, told Forum 18 News Service that "We set out our position to the OSCE that we didn't agree with their view. We stuck to our position". The laws were passed as the Military Affairs Directorate of Almaty's Turksib District wrote to local religious communities, ordering them to "provide information on citizens on record as followers of non-traditional religions and radical religious views" - without being able to define what these are - and a Protestant was fined for praying for someone else's health.

KAZAKHSTAN: "A new wave of persecution has begun once more"

Unless Viktor Gutyar succeeds in his appeal, he expects the administrative fine of nearly ten months' minimum wage for leading an unregistered religious community to be docked from his wages as a coalminer. He was not even present when his church in Satpaev in central Kazakhstan was raided on Sunday morning, 11 September. His was one of five Baptist congregations raided in Karaganda Region in September, including a Harvest Festival in Zhezkazgan attended by 150 people raided by police and riot police on Sunday 25 September. "A new wave of persecution," is how one Baptist described it. "They refuse to register in accordance with our Religion Law, so it's their problem," Mereke Myrzabekova of Zhezkazgan's Internal Policy Department told Forum 18. She admitted they would not have been raided had they been watching football or drinking vodka together "because that's not religion". Shymkent's Ahmadi Muslim community has lost its latest appeal against a ban on using their mosque. "All we want is for our mosque to be allowed to reopen," one Ahmadi told Forum 18. And two Jehovah's Witnesses in Kyzylorda failed to overturn punishments – a seven-day jail term and a fine - for holding a religious meeting in a private home.

KAZAKHSTAN: Parliamentary adoption of restrictive laws imminent?

Two laws imposing severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief could possibly be adopted by Kazakhstan's Senate, the upper house of Parliament, as early as next Thursday (29 September). Both laws passed through the Majilis, the lower house, in one day and reached a Senate committee the same day. One observer described the speed of passage to Forum 18 News Service as "unprecedented", and a Majilis press spokesperson was unable to say whether any laws had ever had a quicker passage. An official of the government's Agency of Religious Affairs confirmed to Forum 18 that the two laws would be considered at the Senate's plenary session on 29 September, but would not say if they would complete their passage within one session. Human rights defenders and some religious communities have already told Forum 18 of their deep concern at many of the provisions, which violate Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments. The first proposed law, a new Religion Law, would among other restrictions impose a complex four-tier registration system, ban unregistered religious activity, and impose compulsory censorship. The second proposed law amends nine legal provisions, and its changes to Article 375 of the Code of Administrative Offences and to the Law on the Rights of the Child could have a more far-reaching impact on freedom of religion or belief.

KAZAKHSTAN: Two repressive laws heading through Parliament at "unprecedented" speed

Within hours today (21 September) two controversial new laws which – if adopted by the Senate and signed into law by Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev – will impose severe restrictions on people exercising their freedom of religion moved decisively towards adoption. The Lower House of Parliament, the Majilis, approved them this morning. In the afternoon the two laws were given their initial presentation to the Social and Cultural Development Committee of the Senate, the Upper House. Forum 18 News Service has learned that privately many Majilis deputies were angry at provisions of the laws and the speed which the government is pushing the laws through Parliament, but no-one voted against either law. In discussion of both laws – a proposed new Religion Law and a separate law amending other laws affecting freedom of religion or belief - the fundamental incompatibility of both laws and current state actions with Kazakhstan's international human rights commitments do not appear to have been publicly discussed.

KAZAKHSTAN: "To prepare the public for a discriminatory new law"

Officials of Kazakhstan's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), the state-backed Muslim Board, "anti-sect" personnel, and local administrations have held public meetings praising the so-called "traditional religions" and attacking so-called "non-traditional religions". The ruling Nur Otan political party has also held similar meetings. ARA regional departments and local administrations across Kazakhstan have also demanded that members of religious minorities provide detailed information on their activities – sometimes on a weekly basis. Former state religious affairs officials, who wished to remain unnamed, have told Forum 18 News Service that religious communities should not be divided into categories such as "traditional" and "non-traditional". One commented that "the word 'non-traditional' gives the public a negative image". An Ahmadi Muslim, who wished to remain unnamed for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that they thought that the campaign is to "prepare the public for a discriminatory new Law". Protestants have also suggested that this is the motivation. Tomorrow (21 September) Forum 18 understands that the first reading of two laws restricting freedom of religion or belief is due to take place in the country's Parliament.