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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

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KAZAKHSTAN: Conference cancelled after pastor's visa denied

The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was added to the entry ban list by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.

UKRAINE: People barred entry on religious grounds now free to appeal

In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for issuing entry bans. Not every religious figure banned from entry by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian entry ban list".

KAZAKHSTAN: Officials enforcing Religion Law before it is passed

The harsh new Religion Law has not yet been passed, but the authorities are already behaving as if it is law Forum 18 News Service has found. Religious communities do not yet need state registration – a requirement imposed by the new Law. But a Protestant church in the Caspian Sea port of Aytrau is the latest religious community to be attacked because it does not have registration. Diyaz Sultanov, the Prosecutor's assistant, told Forum 18 that "it is impermissible for a church to operate without registration." Another proposal put forward – but then apparently withdrawn - allowed religious communities to be closed without a court hearing. New Life Protestant Church, close to Almaty, has been "banned" by local administration chief Raspek Tolbayev, who told Forum 18 that "I will take the decision whether or not to open the church." Parliamentary deputies Forum 18 has spoken to described the new law as a weapon against the "ideological diversity" of the West.

KAZAKHSTAN: Schoolchildren told prayer "causes death" and suicide bombers

Teachers north of the capital Astana are putting pressure on children not to attend Protestant prayer meetings, telling children that prayer "can even cause death," Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Children who attend prayer meetings are kept behind after school for "educational talks" in which they have been told that they are being turned into "shahids and zombies". (The Islamic term "shahid" is frequently used in former Soviet countries to describe suicide bombers.) Parents have been ordered by teachers not to take their children to prayer meetings. The head of the regional Education Department has confirmed to Forum 18 that she ordered "educational work" with children who attend prayer meetings, and also that the national Education Ministry orders officials "at every meeting" to stop children going to church. Religious believers in Kazakhstan link these ongoing actions of the Education Ministry with current parliamentary moves to seriously restrict the religious freedom of all faiths.

COMMENTARY: National security suffers if religious freedom attacked

Wide-ranging national security amendments now in parliament will negatively affect many groups – including the media, NGOs, business people and religious communities – but religious believers will suffer the most, argues Aleksandr Klyushev, chairman of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK), in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. If adopted, these amendments will cause unjustified suffering to law-abiding believers, who could be punished for peacefully practising their faith. He believes that this will cause national security to suffer, both by alienating citizens from the state and also by enabling incompetent law-enforcement personnel to claim successes in combating illegal but harmless religious organisations, instead of effectively policing real criminal and terrorist threats to Kazakh society. He calls on the international community to influence the Kazakh government not to adopt the amendments.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Draconian amendments" approved by Majilis

"The ban on the activity of unregistered religious associations and the draconian amendments to the administrative code significantly limit believers' rights," Aleksandr Klyushev, of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK) told Forum 18 News Service after 12 May Majilis parliamentary approval of sweeping "national security" amendments to eleven laws. The parliamentary debate had been expected on 18 May, but was suddenly brought forward. Klyushev said to Forum 18 that "deputies discovered that the discussion of the draft would take place on 11 May only on the day of the session. I believe this was done deliberately to prevent deputies from preparing for the consideration of the draft and from submitting amendments." Communist party deputy Yerasyl Abylkasymov told Forum 18 that "in the time of Genghis Khan such ideological saboteurs were hung, drawn and quartered. Alas it is now unfortunately not possible to do this and so we have to defend ourselves by means of laws." Having been approved by the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, the amendments now go to the upper house, the Senate, for approval.

KAZAKHSTAN: Parliament considers restrictions on freedom tomorrow; Baptist heavily fined and church activities banned

Kazakhstan's parliament will possibly tomorrow (Wednesday) consider sweeping new restrictions on religious freedom, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Concurrently, a Baptist leader has been given a heavy fine for leading an unregistered religious community, and his church's activities have been banned. Law Professor Roman Podoprigora commented to Forum 18 that "the religion law does not require registration. This unjust demand is not in any law." Public Prosecutor Galim Kojekenov claimed to Forum 18 that "this is not persecution – we have freedom of conscience here." Planned restrictions on freedom include criminalising unregistered religious activity, banning unapproved "missionary" activity, requiring state approval for religious literature and dress, and widening officials' powers to ban religious communities. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has commented that this will "result in non-compliance with a wide range of OSCE commitments regarding human rights, democracy and the rule of law," and raise "serious concerns, particularly with regard to freedom of association, freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of opinion and expression."

KAZAKHSTAN: Fears over planned sweeping new restrictions on religion

Religious minorities and human rights activists have condemned planned new restrictions that would ban unregistered religious activity, ban unapproved missionary activity by both local citizens and foreigners and subject religious literature to official approval. The proposed changes to the religion law, part of sweeping changes to more than ten laws now being discussed by a parliamentary working group, are set to go to the lower house of parliament on 16 April. "The entire draft bears the clear imprint of mistrust of religious organisations and a desire to put them in a much worse legal position than other legal bodies," a group of Protestant churches in Almaty complained in a letter seen by Forum 18 News Service. "Essentially, today it is the KNB secret police that lays down religious policy in the country," human rights activist Ninel Fokina told Forum 18. One Orthodox priest welcomed the proposed restrictions, declaring: "Now Protestants and religious missionaries will not be so free in their activities in Kazakhstan."

CHINA: Xinjiang - Apparent tolerance of religious belief, but with tight state controls

Religious believers in Ghulja (Yining in Chinese), a Xinjiang provincial town with Muslim, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities, do not on first glance currently appear to experience difficulties from the Chinese state. Authorised Christian and Muslim places of worship are frequently built at state expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. But the state tries to keep all religious organisations under complete control, and also, so Forum 18 has been told, limits the size of Catholic and Muslim places of worship, as well as restricting the number of mosques. "I have land and the money to build a mosque, but the authorities think it inexpedient to open a religious building in the new housing districts," Abdu Raheman, Muslim owner of Ghulja's largest honey-producing company, complained to Forum 18. Unregistered Chinese and Uighur Protestant communities do exist, but they mainly have to operate in secret. Although Jehovah's Witnesses have been in Ghulja, as far as Forum 18 has been able to establish they have not set up a religious community.

UZBEKISTAN: Will confiscated Baptist literature again be burnt?

For the third time in recent years, religious literature confiscated from Baptists returning to Uzbekistan has been confiscated. The literature was seized on 6 March from seven church members from Tashkent, together with the car they were travelling in. The seven – who were quizzed for six hours - now face an administrative court, though a customs official insisted to Forum 18 News Service they were being investigated not for importing religious literature but for crossing the border on an unmarked road. "For us as believers, Christian literature is a great treasure, and so we are highly concerned that this time too our literature will be burnt," local Baptists told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Begzot Kadyrov told Forum 18 that as members of an unregistered church, the seven have no right to import any religious literature, which is subject to vigorous official censorship in Uzbekistan.

KAZAKHSTAN: Guilty verdict ahead for Protestant dance teacher?

A local Protestant who has been attending the continuing criminal trial of fellow-Protestant dancing teacher Vladislav Polskikh, which began in the north-eastern town of Pavlodar on 22 February, fears the teacher will be found guilty of using his lessons to promote Christianity, an accusation Polskikh rejects. "The judge is behaving just like the prosecution," the Protestant told Forum 18 News Service, though Polskikh's lawyer said it is too early to say what the verdict will be. Meanwhile, in southern Kazakhstan Baptist Valeri Pak has had his identity documents confiscated and faces criminal trial for refusing to pay earlier fines imposed to punish him for leading an unregistered church. An official has denied to Forum 18 that the state is stepping up moves against believers.

KAZAKHSTAN: New extremism law "serious danger" to religious believers

A controversial new extremism law, actively promoted by the KNB secret police, has now been signed by the Kazakh President. As well as being criticised by some religious believers, the law has been criticised by a wide range of local and international organisations, including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But Almaty city's official chief specialist on religious affairs, Vladimir Ivanov, told Forum 18 News Service that "I do not understand this concern. The law on extremism and also the amendments to other laws have no relation to religion and consequently do not represent a threat to believers." Strongly disagreeing was Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, who told Forum 18 that "the term 'religious' occurs ten times (…). The new law can be used by the state to combat religious organisations it does not like." Religious law specialist Roman Podoprigora pointed out to Forum 18 that, under amendments to other laws brought in with the extremism law, Kazakhstan can now decide "to close religious communities on the basis of information from the relevant organs of odious regimes," such as North Korea.

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

KAZAKHSTAN: Linked moves against Protestant organisations?

In what may be linked moves, public prosecutor's offices in central and southern Kazakhstan have both attacked the statutes of Protestant organisations, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In central Kazakhstan, the prosecutor is trying to close down a Baptist charitable fund which ran an orphanage that the authorities previously closed, and in the southern city of Almaty, prosecutors are trying to force a Protestant community's statute to be re-written, which may result in its closure. Baptists in central Kazakhstan insist to Forum 18 that the moves are part of a recently toughened central government policy. But Protestants in Almaty have told Forum 18 that they are unsure whether the legal move against them is the result of central policy, or the result of local decisions. Also in Almaty, local officials are continuing to try to close the only Hare Krishna farming commune in the former Soviet countries.

KAZAKHSTAN: Signs of worsening religious freedom?

A criminal case against a Baptist who has refused to pay fines for leading unregistered worship, the decision to seize the property of another Baptist who also led unregistered worship, and two simultaneous legal cases against a Hare Krishna commune, are the latest events in a series of incidents which, along with a controversial new law on "extremism", are leading religious believers to tell Forum 18 News Service that they expect mounting restrictions on their rights. The "extremism" bill, which does not define this term, mentions religion 10 times in its wording and would greatly increase state control over religious groups, including a provision to "forbid the activity of religious associations which have broken the Republic of Kazakhstan's laws on countering extremist activity." The draft law, including amendments to ban religious organisations before a court decision, is now with the lower house of the Kazakh parliament.

KAZAKHSTAN: No under-18s to attend worship or Sunday School

Officials forced schoolchildren on Tuesday (18 January) in central Kazakhstan to answer a questionnaire about their religious beliefs and whether they attend a place of worship. This is illegal under Kazakh law, according to lawyer Roman Podoprigora, who told Forum 18 News Service that teachers do not have the right to do this. It follows an earlier directive to conduct compulsory "educational work" with children who attend places of worship and to ban children under the age of 18 from attending places of worship or Sunday School, Forum 18 has found. This is claimed, according to an instruction from the Ministry of Education and Science, to have "the aim of ensuring the security and health of the life of children". The central Education Ministry has denied sending the instruction, although the head of a regional education department has confirmed to Forum 18 that it was sent by the Education Ministry. The instruction is thought to be part of a wider increase in state action against religious activity in Kazakhstan.

UZBEKISTAN: Why does government restrict haj numbers?

It remains unclear why the Uzbek government is limiting the number of adult Muslims who can go on the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca that Islam requires. This year, only 4,200 of the more than 6,000 Uzbek citizens who wanted to make the pilgrimage were permitted to go, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The numbers are controlled under an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, by which the Saudis only issue haj visas to Uzbeks whose names are on a list drawn up by representatives of the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the state-controlled muftiate, or Islamic religious leadership. Uzbek state control is further ensured as, unlike in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where haj pilgrims can travel privately, Uzbek Muslims have to travel to Saudi Arabia by air using only the state-run Uzbek Airways. This cost of these flights is prohibitively expensive for most Uzbeks. The minority Shia Muslim community also experiences problems in making the haj with Sunnis.

KAZAKHSTAN: Justice official "grossly distorting the facts"

Vidya Volkova, head of the Hare Krishna community in Kazakhstan, has told Forum 18 News Service that the deputy head of the Almaty regional justice department, Murat Tanirbergenov, was "grossly distorting the facts" about the land ownership of the only Hare Krishna farming commune in the CIS. Volkova showed Forum 18 legal documents proving ownership, and Tanirbergenov has now backtracked to Forum 18 about some claims he made to a local news agency, saying "we were just generalising about the facts but later, if the procuracy finds it necessary to bring a case, the court will decide on the issue of closing the Krishna commune." Tanirbergenov stood by claims he made – disputed by the commune – that they fail to meet hygiene and fire safety standards and trade illegally. This is the first time that the authorities have officially – as against unofficially - raised the possibility of closing down the Hare Krishna farm, which has been put under pressure since its foundation.

KAZAKHSTAN: "Quite enough missionaries" in the south?

Both the South Korean-led Synbakyn Protestant church and the Ahmadi Muslim community in southern Kazakhstan have come under pressure from south Kazakh authorities recently, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Late in 2004, the authorities tried to close down the Synbakyn church's seminary, and both foreign Protestant and foreign Ahmadi Muslim missionaries have encountered visa problems. The regional local authority's chief specialist on religious affairs, Vladimir Zharinov, told Forum 18 that "all our region's authorities are trying to do is to ensure that religious associations operate in accordance with the laws of Kazakhstan." But Zharinov could not say in what precise ways religious believers were breaking the law.

KAZAKHSTAN: No hope for Hope orphanage?

A northern Kazakh local authority has closed a Baptist-run orphanage, although local people say it was one of the best in town – an opinion confirmed by staff of a state-run orphanage, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Baptists fear that the closure of the Hope orphanage, which cared for 30 children, will be followed by the forced closure of the Baptist-run Sion charitable fund, enabling the authority to seize the orphanage building. Businessmen have privately expressed interest in buying the building from the local authority. Questioned by Forum 18, officials dispute the opinions of local people and state orphanage staff, claiming that conditions in the Baptist orphanage were "atrocious," and also stating – falsely – that the Kazakh religion law bars orphanages from operating without state registration. The founder of the Baptist orphanage, Dmitri Yantsen, told Forum 18 that other local orphanages do not have state registration either, "but no-one is bothering them." He believes the real reason for the closure is the increasing severity of Kazakh state policy against religious believers.

KAZAKHSTAN: Who ordered imam attestations?

Following earlier state pressure to force mosques to join the central Spiritual Administration of Muslims, a government official has denied to Forum 18 News Service that there is any state involvement in the Spiritual Administration's campaign of compulsory re-attestation of imams in South Kazakhstan region. But it has been claimed to Forum 18 that the re-attestation is taking place at the prompting of the state, following the discovery of terrorist training camps in the southern region, which borders Uzbekistan. It is not clear by what authority the re-attestation campaign is taking place, especially as the Spiritual Administration is reportedly using the campaign to try to control whether imams from mosques not in its organisation stay in their posts.

KAZAKHSTAN: Protestant teacher's crime: "not hiding my religious beliefs"

The KNB secret police has accused a ballet teacher, Vladislav Polskikh, of "a corruption of [children's] objective interpretation of events and adoption of certain life values", and is investigating him under an under an article of the criminal code which can lead to imprisonment of up to two years. Polskikh told Forum 18 News Service that "my only 'crime' is that of not hiding my religious beliefs" from children or parents. Even though this it is not required by Kazakh law, he told parents in writing that he was a Protestant and gained their specific written consent to "the use of any expressions or images connected with his faith during lessons." The KNB is hostile to Polskikh's church, and only began investigating him after he sued a newspaper which accused him of being a paedophile.

KAZAKHSTAN: Do Police and KNB want to catch criminals?

The police and KNB secret police have shown much more interest in the legal missionary activity of a Protestant church, than in apprehending and prosecuting a group of people who on two separate occasions physically attacked the Pastor and church members, punching them, throwing them from a moving lorry, stealing and destroying religious literature, as well as stealing money and a mobile phone. Such attacks are illegal under Kazakh law, but the police and KNB have repeatedly refused to explain to the church, to the chairman of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan, and to Forum 18 why they seem more interested in missionaries than criminals.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Linked religious practice and state control levels?

China maintains few controls on religious life in the mountainous Altai [Altay] region in the far north of Xinjiang, Forum 18 News Service has noted, apparently because there are only low levels of Islamic, Buddhist, Pagan, Orthodox and Pentecostal Christian religious practice among the majority ethnic Kazakhs, as well as among Chinese and most other local minorities. In contrast, Forum 18 has observed strict controls in nearby mosques amongst the Muslim Dungan people, and the visit of a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr Vianor Ivanov, was met by the authorities arresting him, as well as questioning virtually all the several dozen elderly Orthodox believers in the city Fr Ivanov visited, before deporting him.

CHINA: Will Orthodox Christians soon be allowed priests?

China's estimated 3,000 scattered Orthodox Christians may soon be able to have their own priests once again. Since 2003, 18 Chinese Orthodox have been studying in Orthodox seminaries in Russia with the permission of China's State Administration of Religious Affairs. "Now they are happy for Chinese to become priests," an Orthodox source from Shanghai told Forum 18 News Service. But Hong Kong-based Russian Orthodox priest Fr Dionisy Pozdnyayev told Forum 18 it has yet to be decided whether these seminarians will be allowed to become priests in China when they complete their theological education. Fr Dionisy can minister only to foreign citizens in Beijing and Shenzhen, but a Russian priest spent two weeks in June ministering to local Orthodox in Harbin with official permission.

CHINA: Xinjiang - Security service investigation followed Orthodox priest's deportation

Kazakhstan-based Russian Orthodox priest Fr Vianor Ivanov had visited China's north-western Xinjiang region to serve the local Orthodox who have no priests, but in December 2003 was detained by Chinese customs, was interrogated for a week, had his religious literature confiscated and was deported. "They questioned me for five hours a day. The special services representatives proved to be amazingly well-informed," Fr Ivanov told Forum 18 News Service. Local Orthodox told Forum 18 in Xinjiang in early September that virtually all the Orthodox believers in the city of Ghulja were questioned by the security services about Fr Ivanov's activity. In Ghulja the Orthodox can at least meet for prayers in church without a priest, but in another Xinjiang town, Tacheng, local Russian Orthodox have had no success so far in applying to rebuild their church.

KAZAKHSTAN: Is religion extremism?

A draft law on "combating extremist activity" and amendments to existing laws about the "battle against extremist activity" do not define what "extremism" is. This makes it possible to use the proposed measures against religious communities the state dislikes, such as the unregistered Baptists. For example, concern has been expressed that the word "religious" appears 10 times in the draft law on combating extremist activity. One local lawyer told Forum 18 News Service that, if the law is passed, Kazakhstan could decide to close down religious communities based on information from oppressive regimes such as North Korea. Very few religious leaders are aware of the law's text.

KAZAKHSTAN: New fines and pressure on unregistered Baptists

At least five churches of the International Council of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, who refuse on principle to register with the state authorities, have suffered raids or fines this year, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the latest case, Pastor Vasili Kliver was fined twice the monthly minimum wage on 7 June in the town of Aktobe. The judge also ordered the church to close for six months. Fined the same amount in May in the town of Taraz, Pastor Pyotr Panafidin argued in court that neither the constitution nor the religion law makes registration compulsory. Jehovah's Witnesses, who in earlier years faced similar fines after some of their congregations were denied registration, told Forum 18 the problem has been resolved.

UZBEKISTAN: Another Muslim "extremist" jailed

Khabibulo Khadmarov, a devout Muslim from the Fergana [Farghona] Valley, has been sentenced to six years in jail. The main accusation was that he was a member of Tabligh and that a manuscript found on him contained "extremist" sentiments. However, one human rights activist, Akhmajon Madmarov, described it to Forum 18 News Service as "a standard work of theology". The staff of the local university philosophy department, who analysed the manuscript, were described to Forum 18 by Madmarov as "the same as those who worked there in Soviet times. In other words, the people who are today acting as experts on Islam are the same as those who previously used to demonstrate the harmfulness and anti-scientific nature of religion." Tabligh members in Central Asia insist on their commitment to the group's original avowedly apolitical foundation.

TURKMENISTAN: Religious freedom survey, April 2004

In its survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in Turkmenistan, Forum 18 News Service reports on the almost complete lack of freedom to practice any faith, apart from very limited freedom for Sunni Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity with a small number of registered places of worship and constant interference and control by the state. This is despite recent legal changes that in theory allow minority communities to register. All other communities - Baptist, Pentecostal, Adventist, Lutheran and other Protestants, as well as Shia Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, Jewish, Baha'i, Jehovah's Witness and Hare Krishna – are currently banned and their activity punishable under the administrative or criminal law. Religious meetings have been broken up, with raids in March on Jehovah's Witnesses and a Baha'i even as the government was proclaiming a new religious policy. Believers have been threatened, detained, beaten, fined and sacked from their jobs, while homes used for worship and religious literature have been confiscated. Although some minority communities have sought information on how to register under the new procedures, none has so far applied to register. It remains very doubtful that Turkmenistan will in practice allow religious faiths to be practiced freely.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards Muslims in Central Asia

In all Central Asian states easily the largest percentage of the population belongs to nationalities that are historically Muslim, but it is very difficult to state the percentage of devout Muslim believers. Governments are intensely pre-occupied by "political Islam", especially the banned strongly anti-western and antisemitic international Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there is absolutely no certainty that all Muslims subject to severe governmental repression are Hizb-ut-Tahir members. In Uzbekistan, where there are estimated to be 5,000 political prisoners alleged to be Hizb-ut-Tahir members, mere possession of Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature is punished by at least 10 years' in jail. Also, Muslims' rights have been violated under the pretext of combating Hizb-ut-Tahrir. In southern Kyrgyzstan, for example, teachers have told children not to say daily Muslim prayers - even at home - and banned schoolchildren from coming to lessons wearing the hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by Muslim women.

KAZAKHSTAN: Mosques resist pressure to join state-recognised central organisation

Ethnic Uzbek Imams leading mosques in southern Kazakhstan have resisted state pressure to come under the 'Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan', Forum 18 News Service has found. Pressure followed a 2002 attempt to change the law on religious associations, which the Constitutional Council ruled contradicted the constitution. Kazakh officials have frequently privately told Forum 18 that the region is the country's "hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism". However, Kyrgyzstan is the only state in Central Asia where Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which seeks to unite Muslims worldwide under the rule of a Caliphate) is not officially banned, and most Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in South Kazakhstan region are ethnic Kazakhs. Commenting on this ethnic difference, a local NGO told Forum 18 that "Uzbeks in Kazakhstan live much better than they do in Uzbekistan," so they "are not interested in seeking open confrontation with the authorities."

KAZAKHSTAN: Religious freedom survey, February 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Kazakhstan, Forum 18 News Service notes that after restrictive amendments to the religion law were thrown out by the Constitutional Council in April 2002, the religious freedom situation has improved. Muslim, Baptist and Jehovah's Witness communities that did not wish to or failed to get registration had been routinely pressured or fined, but this has now stopped. However, an article of the Administrative Offences Code still prescribes punishment for leaders of unregistered religious communities and allows registered religious communities that hold youth meetings to be banned. Some officials – though not all - still maintain to Forum 18 that registration of religious organisations is compulsory.

CENTRAL ASIA: State policy towards religious minorities in Central Asia

State policies in Central Asia towards religious minorities present a varied picture. Orthodox Christians say they have almost no problems at all, which is in stark contrast to the situation of other religious minorities such as Protestant Christians, and to the situation of Islam, the most widespread religion in the region. Throughout the region both Islamic radicalism and proselytism by non-Islamic faiths are viewed very seriously indeed by governments, which frequently seek to control and/or severely repress both Islam and proselytism. This is partially due to fear of religious diversity, and partially due to fear of radical Islamic groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

KAZAKHSTAN: Authorities pressure legal Hare Krishna commune

Even though they abide fully by Kazakhstan's laws, members of a Hare Krishna commune outside the commercial capital Almaty have told Forum 18 News Service that they have been subjected to a series of investigations, during which police and procuracy officials have stated their determination to expel the community. The authorities have categorically denied to Forum 18 that they are pursuing a deliberate policy against the Hare Krishna community. However the horticultural association, on whose land the Hare Krishna commune is situated, have come under heavy pressure from the authorities to make a statements against the community. The Hare Krishna community intends to defend vigorously its right to protection from "such pseudo-guardians of the law".

OSCE COMMITMENTS: OSCE MEETING ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION - A REGIONAL SURVEY

Before the OSCE Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting on Freedom of Religion or Belief on 17-18 July 2003, Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org/ surveys some of the more serious abuses of religious freedom that persist in some countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite their binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states believers are still fined, imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied registration.

KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal case against Baptist pastor withdrawn

Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev, leader of an unregistered Baptist church in the village of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region will not now face prosecution for continuing to lead services in defiance of a court-ordered ban. Prosecutors withdrew the criminal case against him on 28 May, local Baptists reported. "The case against Nizhegorodtsev was withdrawn for absence of the substance of a crime," deputy procurator Erzhan Zharylgapov told Forum 18 News Service. He said he had received appeals "from everywhere" in support of the pastor. "Tell people to stop sending these letters!"

KAZAKHSTAN: Criminal case for refusing to halt church services

Pastor Sergei Nizhegorodtsev of Georgievka in Eastern Kazakhstan region was told on 12 May that he faces a criminal case for refusing to comply with a court-ordered ban on his church holding services, according to a 13 May statement from local Baptists reaching Forum 18 News Service. The move came two weeks after the church's Easter service was raided. Officials deny they are conducting a campaign against the church. "There is nothing illegal in the actions of the law enforcement agencies," assistant procurator Aset Biisekenov insisted to Forum 18. The launch of the criminal case against the pastor came at the same time as an international religious freedom conference was being held in Almaty to inaugurate the Kazakhstan branch of the International Religious Liberty Association.

CENTRAL ASIA: Only limited censorship of religious websites

Despite authoritarian rule, high levels of censorship of the local media and periodic barring of access to foreign-based political opposition websites, Central Asia's governments have so far only enacted limited censorship over access to religious websites based outside the region, a Forum 18 News Service investigation has found. Uzbekistan permanently bars access to the London-based website of Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, though not to its Pakistan-related site. In several Uzbek Internet cafes, Forum 18 even came across the notice: "Viewing of religious and pornographic sites is forbidden". But with low Internet use in Central Asia and a population too poor to be able to afford access, Central Asia's governments – which to a greater or lesser extent try to control all religious activity - may believe they do not need to impose religious censorship on the Internet.

KAZAKHSTAN: Fines on unregistered religious communities stepped up

A series of raids on Baptist churches that refuse on principle to register with the authorities and fines imposed on their leaders under the administrative code have highlighted continuing attempts by local officials to punish unregistered religious activity, although Kazakhstan's religion law does not make unregistered activity illegal. Jehovah's Witnesses – who do not refuse registration - report that they have seen 28 administrative cases over the past year against communities that have been denied registration on various pretexts. Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee told Forum 18 News Service that the religion law has greater weight than Article 375 of the administrative code – under which the fines have been imposed - and therefore officials have no right to "persecute" believers for refusing to register a religious community.

KAZAKHSTAN: Interrogations and threats follow charity action

Nurbai Arystanov, a Protestant who lives in the town of Arys in South Kazakhstan region, was threatened and briefly detained on 5 March by police, who objected to the fact that he was distributing gifts from the Good Samaritan international charity. One local Protestant, who asked not to be named, claimed to Forum 18 News Service that the Arys deputy police chief, Kurmanal Rakhmatulayev, personally interrogated believers who were listed as having received gifts, and confiscated gifts from those who had received them. He also threatened believers that he would plant hashish in the gifts. "It's all nonsense," Rakhmatulayev told Forum 18, denying that he had threatened Arystanov. But, citing Arystanov's lack of a local residence permit, Rakhmatulayev warned: "I will not allow him to operate in our town."

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