Special Report by ICC
11/27/2012 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) - Thanks to a new controversial religion law adopted by the government of Kazakhstan last year, the number of officially-recognized faiths has shrunk from forty-six to merely seventeen, and the strength of faith-based civic organizations reduced to 3,088 from the previous total of 4,551, according to Eurasianet.org. Among the most affected are Protestant Christian groups.
The law, which mandated religious denominations and faith-based civic associations to re-register within a year, requires a minimum membership of 5,000 nationally, 500 regionally, and 50 locally - a threshold many previously registered groups cannot reach. The law also gives authorities a say in what religious literature those groups produce, and how they train their clergy.
So what motivates Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to make survival difficult for religious minorities, including Protestant Christians?
Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan has had only one president, Nazarbayev, who is now 72 years old. He was re-elected to another five-year term in April 2011. During his previous term, he led the passage of a decree to virtually give himself an indefinite term as well as immunity from criminal prosecution.
Like in most other former Soviet nations in Central Asia, the president of Kazakhstan has remained in power by preempting any possibility of dissent or uprising.
However, it's not just about political opposition. All citizens are deprived of basic freedoms that can one day become a source of threat to the incumbent political party. From interference in the judiciary to restrictions on the media and civil society, marks of totalitarianism can clearly be seen in Kazakhstan.
Authoritarian regimes particularly see religious freedom as a threat. Religion mobilizes people, as it requires believers to meet regularly and engage with society at large. Besides, denominations like Protestant Christianity are associated with civil rights movements and its adherents are known for propagating human rights in the Western sense of the term.
Since right after their independence, most former Soviet nations sought to protect themselves from being challenged by religious groups - any attempt to promote evangelical Christianity was seen as American influence, and Wahhabi Islam was equated with Saudi Arabia's dominance. This is why most nations in the region have laws mandating all religious groups to be registered with the government.
Particularly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Central Asian nations have been cracking down on religious groups under the garb of checking extremism. In recent months, Kazakhstan has portrayed terrorists as a major threat to the country without substantiating it.
Earlier this month, prosecutors in the nation's commercial capital Almaty asked a court to ban two opposition movements as well as eight newspapers and 23 Internet sites, calling them "extremists," according to Reuters. The stated intent of the new religion law was also to control the alleged growing religious extremism in the country. However, critics say President Nazarbayev is tightening control in the country in the wake of calls for reforms.
About 70 percent of the 16.4 million people in Kazakhstan are Muslim, mostly Sunni. Roughly 25 percent of the population is Christian, mostly from the Russian Orthodox denomination that is generally well accepted in former Soviet nations. Protestants, who form a small minority, are seen as "extremists" and a possible source of threat to the regime.