Kazakhstan: More Religious Freedom Restrictions
By Igor Rotar,
2/23/07 Kazakhstan Forum 18. Kazakhstan ‘s religious minorities have told of their concern over the new Religion Law now being prepared by the government’s Religious Affairs Committee. According to one recent draft, all unregistered religious activity would be banned, while communities with fewer than 50 adult citizen members would be prohibited from publishing or importing religious literature, maintaining open places of worship or conducting charitable activity. The head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina, condemned these planned restrictions. “The rights and obligations of members of religious groups would be reminiscent of army regulations,” she complained to Forum 18.
Amanbek Mukhashev, deputy head of the Religious Affairs Committee within the Justice Ministry, insists it is necessary to change the Religion Law yet again. “The need for this Law arose long ago. The old Religion Law was adopted back in 1992,” he told Forum 18 from the capital Astana on 16 February. “So far, it is too early to say definitively what the new Law will say.” He did not discuss why the authorities think a new Religion Law is necessary, when the current Law was last amended in 2005 for what were claimed to be “national security” reasons.
Mukhashev said the draft text would be given to “representatives of the various confessions” to consider “in about a month”, without indicating which religious communities would be allowed to see the draft. He said the draft would go to parliament and then if approved to the President for his signature.
Mukhashev insisted that “any” religious groups may participate in discussions on the draft law, as well as Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) experts and human rights activists. But he did not indicate whether Kazakhstan would ever reply to the OSCE Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief’s November 2006 offer to help resolve the government’s dispute with the Hare Krishna community.
Most Protestant churches have fewer than 50 members, Aleksandr Klyushev, head of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan, said on 14 February. He described the planned changes as “placing severe restrictions on the rights of Protestant believers”.
As has been the case with previous restrictions on religious freedom the Russian Orthodox Church has welcomed the government’s proposed increased restrictions.
Indeed, it thinks that the planned restrictions are not restrictive enough.
“I understand the subtext to your question. The new draft Law will certainly bring difficulties to followers of sects,” Archpriest Aleksandr Ivlev, spokesperson for the Astana and Almaty Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church, said on 20 February. “But unfortunately, not as many difficulties as we would like.” He thinks that the draft Law “holds no fears for Orthodox believers”.
Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, the official Muslim community has not been so publicly enthusiastic about the draft Law. “We have heard that a new Religion Law is being drafted, and we do not think it can bring any difficulties for Muslims,” Muhamadhussein Asalbekov, deputy to the mufti of Kazakhstan , said on 20 February.
The copy of the draft Religion Law clearly shows that, if adopted in its current form, it will introduce even more limitations to religious freedom than currently exist. There are several such drafts being circulated. The new draft Law divides religious communities into “associations”, which must have more than 50 adult members, and “groups”, which have fewer than 50 adult members and have fewer rights. Under the current Religion Law 10 people are enough to found a new religious community. Under the new Law, all religious organizations that are not legally registered with the justice agencies and formally registered with the local authorities will not be allowed to carry out any activities.
According to a new Article 4-3 of the draft Law, “a religious group has the right to perform religious rituals and ceremonies and to give religious instruction and religious education to its followers”. However, it adds that a religious group may not:
1.) Publish, produce, export, or import items that carry religious significance, theological literature or other informational documents with a religious content.
2.) Set up companies to distribute theological literature or produce religious objects.
3.) Establish or maintain open spaces with general access for services or religious meetings, places that followers of one or another religion may revere (such as places of pilgrimage), or religious buildings.
4.) Appeal for or accept financial donations or other forms of aid.
5.) Carry out charitable work.
The draft also radically increases the powers of the Religious Affairs Committee in Article 6-1, requiring its permission for foreigners to lead local religious communities and for the building of any place of worship in the entire country.
Almaty-based law professor Roman Podoprigora, who has long studied religious freedom issues, is highly concerned about the potential impact of the draft Law. He worries particularly over vagueness over how small religious “groups” are to gain formal registration (uchetnaya registratsia in Russian) from local authorities as required in the draft Law. “I find it very alarming that the draft Religion Law says nothing about the procedure for formal registration,” he told Forum 18 on 16 February from Almaty.
“Theoretically, the procedure should merely be of a question of notification.”
However, Podoprigora points out that according to the current Religion Law a missionary must hand in several documents within three days of registering his passport in order to qualify for the required formal registration. “The authorities frequently find inaccuracies in the missionaries’ documentation, and then refuse them registration,”
Podoprigora noted. “If the law does not clearly state that it is sufficient for a religious group simply to inform the local authorities of its existence, then they could end up in the same situation as the missionaries.”
Both Muslim and Christian foreign missionaries have been fined and deported for their religious activity. This has even happened to foreigners who merely take part in the normal activity of churches they are ordinary members of.
Professor Podoprigora and Klyushev of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan have both previously noted that 2005 “national security” amendments of the current Religion Law, to require all religious activity to be registered, contradict themselves.
Current registration procedures are highly intrusive, and clearly designed to provide means of control, and not just a mechanism for acquiring legal status. Fines for unregistered religious activity have continued to escalate.