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Forum18 – Kazakhstan is the largest republic of Central Asia , occupying 2,717,300 square kilometres [1,049,175 square miles]. Kazakhstan is also one of the largest countries in the region in terms of population, with an estimated population of 15,185,844, which is much larger than most other Central Asian states, being second only to Uzbekistan where the population is estimated to be nearly 27 million.

Another feature of Kazakhstan , which has a direct impact on the religious situation, is the fact that it is the only Central Asian state in which Russians, who are historically Orthodox, make up almost half the population. Ethnic Kazakhs have throughout much of their history been a nomadic people and are in general regarded as not particularly devoutly Muslim. Among Kazakhs, Islam is practised at a superficial level in everyday life and is closely connected with pagan rituals. The most devout Muslims in Kazakhstan are normally ethnic Uzbeks, who mainly live in densely populated areas in south-western districts, on the border with Uzbekistan . So, compared with other Central Asian states, the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is much less acute in Kazakhstan . In its ethno-cultural characteristics, Kazakhstan is closer to its northern neighbours of Altai and Tuva (autonomous regions within Russia ) and to its eastern neighbour Mongolia , than to other Central Asian countries.

Another characteristic specific to Kazakhstan , which also influences the religious situation, is the relative health of the state’s economy in comparison with the other Central Asian states. Kazakhstan is the only country in the region in which a relatively large wealthy class of entrepreneurs has formed, estimated to be around 10 per cent of the population. The higher standard of living in Kazakhstan has led to a massive influx of illegal workers from other Central Asian countries. Economic development has also attracted many Western investors, making for example the commercial capital Almaty the most cosmopolitan city in the region and allowing many smaller towns to offer a range of services to be found in developed countries. Relatively high income allows many people to travel internationally. All this contributes to a greater informal religious tolerance in society – despite state hostility to many religious communities – than in other Central Asian countries.

Prior to 2005, religious legislation was not too oppressive for religious believers. For example, under the previous version of the Law on Religious Associations, a religious community did not require registration and it was sufficient to collect just 10 signatures in order to register a religious association – this was one of the lowest requirements for registration in the former Soviet Union . However, officials and courts frequently ignored the law and proceeded on the basis that registration was compulsory. But the legal situation changed dramatically this year.

In February, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed laws “On combating extremism” and “Introducing changes and amendments to several legislative documents in the Republic of Kazakhstan on issues relating to combating extremist activity”. These measures were heavily criticised in advance by a wide range of local and international organisations, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Professor Roman Podoprigora, an Almaty-based law professor who specialises in religious law, pointed out to Forum 18 on 23 February that the extremism laws “have so many imperfections it is impossible to list them all briefly. I should like just to note that the term extremism is defined very unclearly in the new laws. So, if one wishes, practically any non-traditional religious organisation could be listed as extremist” (see F18News 25 February 2005

Among many problematic provisions, article 6 significantly strengthens state control over the life of religious communities, by laying down that “the state agency for relations with religious associations will

– study and analyse the activity of religious associations that have been established on the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan and of foreign citizens engaged in preaching and/or disseminating any form of religious belief;

– the agency will also implement information and propaganda measures on issues that are within its competence

– will consider issues relating to breaking the law on freedom of conscience by religious associations,

– and will make representations to forbid the activity of religious associations which have broken the Republic of Kazakhstan ‘s laws on countering extremism.”

No clear definition of “extremism” is given and, as the president of the Almaty Helsinki Committee Ninel Fokina told Forum 18 on 23 February, “in the law on countering extremist activity the term ‘religious’ occurs ten times, although it would seem that religion and extremism are two totally different concepts,” she insisted to Forum 18. “The new law can be used by the state to combat religious organisations it does not like.”

The legal situation became still harsher in July, when President Nazarbayev signed a law introducing amendments and additions to legislation on the pretext of increasing “national security.” Some parliamentary deputies used the passage of this law to express open hostility to democratic values (see F18News 13 May 2005 and to “ideological diversity” (see F18News 30 May 2005

The “national security” legal provisions, like the earlier “extremism” legal provisions, were also heavily criticised in advance by a wide range of human rights and international organisations, including the OSCE. It is unambiguously clear that the “national security” changes also substantially restrict freedom of religion and belief in Kazakhstan (see F18News 15 July 2005

Article 4 of the amended religion law has a new fourth section that forbids the activity of unregistered religious organisations. A new article, 4-1, requires all citizens and foreigners engaged in missionary activity to register before they conduct such activity. The article specifically bans all missionary activity by any individual who does not have such registration.

A new article, 4-2, sets out the way missionaries register with the local authorities annually: the potential missionary has to present the local authorities with proof that they represent a registered religious organisation which has specifically engaged them to do missionary activity in the local area and all literature, video and other materials that the missionary intends to use for local officials to censor. Any new materials to be used after the missionary already has registration also have to be submitted to the local authorities for censorship.

A new article, 10-1, bans all activity by religious organisations whose activities have been suspended or banned by a court.

The new law also made corresponding changes to the Code of Administrative Offences, adding a new article, 374-1, to punish “leadership of and participation in the activity of public and religious associations that have not been registered in accordance with the law of the Republic of Kazakhstan, as well as financing their activity”. Under this article:

– The leadership of the activity of public and religious associations that have not been registered in the proper manner, and also those organisations whose activity has been halted or banned will attract a fine amounting to 100 times the minimum monthly wage, currently 971 Tenge [47 Norwegian Kroner, 6 Euros, or 7 US Dollars].

– Participation in the activity of public and religious associations that have not been registered in the proper manner and also those organisations whose activity has been halted or banned will attract a fine amounting to 50 times the minimum monthly wage.

– The financing of the activity of public and religious associations that have not been registered in the proper manner and also those organisations whose activity has been halted or banned will attract a fine amounting to 200 times the minimum monthly wage.

Additions were also adopted to Article 375 of the Administrative Code, an article that already punished violations of the religion law (including refusal to register a religious organisation). According to the new addition, “Missionary work carried out by citizens, foreign citizens and persons who have no citizenship, without the appropriate registration, will attract a fine of up to 15 times the monthly wage of a citizen, while foreigners and persons without citizenship will be fined up to 15 times the monthly wage and will be expelled beyond the borders of the Republic of Kazakhstan.”

Article 375 also now punishes leaders of religious organisations that break any law with fines of up to thirty times the minimum monthly wage, while the organisations themselves can be fined up to 200 times the minimum monthly wage and banned for up to six months. Religious organisations that “systematically carry out activity in defiance of their statute” or refuse to stop activities that led to their being suspended face fines of up to 300 times the minimum monthly wage and a total ban on their activities, while leaders of such organisations can be fined up to 40 times the minimum monthly wage.

However, Professor Podoprigora has noted that the provisions as passed contradict each other. Article 6-2 of the Religion Law states that “local executive agencies in the regions (and in towns and cities that have regional significance in the republic) will carry out formal registration and re-registration of missionaries and religious groups with a small membership that do not have the characteristics of a juridical person”. This is an apparently contradictory form of notification, for organisations which do not have formal legal status.

As Professor Podoprigora commented to Forum 18 on 2 August, “this article says that formal registration is adequate, which directly contradicts Articles 4 and 9 of the same law, which says that juridical registration is compulsory!” He thinks that the reason for the contradiction is that parliamentary deputies did not notice it (see F18News 4 August 2005

Discrimination against believers

This year numerous clashes have been recorded between the authorities and religious minorities.

Children under 18-years-old have been one particular target for the authorities to apply pressure against religious communities, with some teachers putting pressure on children not to attend Protestant prayer meetings, telling children that prayer “can even cause death,” and turn them into suicide bombers (see F18News 27 May 2005 The Ministry of Education and Science issued a written instruction to headteachers “not to permit teachers or pupils to visit religious associations and confessions,” forced schoolchildren in central Kazakhstan to answer a questionnaire about their religious beliefs and whether they attend a place of worship, banned under-18s from going to places of worship or Sunday School, as well as ordering compulsory “educational work” with children who disobey the ban (see F18News 20 January 2005

In November 2004, the authorities in northern Kazakhstan closed a Baptist children’s home, and followed this with moves to close a church-run charity (see F18 News 7 January 2005

The most widespread conflicts have been between the authorities and representatives of unregistered (usually Protestant) religious organisations. These have involved the authorities finding pretexts to refuse arbitrarily religious communities registration and banning all religious activity, even when the law did not at that time impose compulsory registration (see F18News 3 May 2005 The passage of the “national security” amendments in July provided increased possibilities for the authorities to use registration charges against communities, such as Protestants, who they dislike (see F18News 8 September 2005…[Go To Full Story]