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Four Church Members May Face Treason Charges

By Jeremy Reynalds
Correspondent for ASSIST News Service
KAZAKHSTAN (Assist News Service) — Members of a Presbyterian church in Kazakhstan are still being questioned by the country’s secret police about their church’s religious activities.
Grace Presbyterian Church Pastor Vyacheslav Vorobyov told Forum 18 News service that members of his flock are being asked by the secret police (KNB) about “all possible aspects” of the church’s operations. The church is located in the north eastern town of Karaganda .

Kazakhstan is located in Central Asia, northwest of China ; a small portion west of the Ural River in eastern-most Europe .

Vorobyov told Forum 18 that 12 church members began a hunger strike on Sept. 7 to protest the KNB initiated raids and investigations. Four members of Grace Church are being investigated on charges of high treason, as well as the senior pastor of the church in the eastern town of Oskemen , Aleksei Kim. Church members deny that the four have committed treason, but fear that the KNB is preparing criminal cases against them.

Article 165 of Kazakhstan ‘s Criminal Code punishes high treason with between ten and 15 years in prison.

Although both the Karaganda and the Oskemen churches have been able to continue to meet for worship, Grace Church members told Forum 18 that continuing uncertainty over what the KNB is planning to do is putting a lot of pressure on the church and its activities.

Vorobyov also complained that the tax authorities are now checking all the documents of many of their 250 affiliated congregations in Kazakhstan . He added that though church leaders appealed for the return of property confiscated during raids in Karaganda and Oskemen on Aug. 24, the authorities would not accept their appeals. Since their computers were taken, Vorobyov said, they were “virtually out of touch with the outside world.”

Vorobyov also told Forum 18 that the KNB branch in Oskemen had earlier called the Karaganda church to ask about the whereabouts of Pastor Aleksei Kim, the Oskemen church’s senior pastor. At the time, Kim was in Karaganda being ordained for the ministry.

The church’s problems began on Aug. 24, when the KNB raided the churches in Karaganda and Oskemen, as well as church-owned private homes in Karaganda . According to Forum 18, the raid on the Karaganda church itself – which was led by KNB officers from the capital Astana – lasted 15 hours.

Forum 18 said its repeated attempts between Aug. 27 and Sept. 11 to find out from the KNB why the churches have had computers and documents seized and church members interrogated were unsuccessful.

Forum 18 said that on Sept.10, Gani Bakizov, who said he was the chief of the KNB’s Karaganda branch, kept promising to contact for the news service the officer leading the investigation, but that never occurred. Other KNB officers in Karaganda told Forum 18 that the cases are being handled from Astana. No one at the national KNB in the capital would talk to Forum 18, the news service reported.

Kazakhstan ‘s Human Rights Ombudsperson Bolat Baikadamov told Forum 18 from Astana on Sept. 12 that he had asked the KNB about the case, but they told him to send a written inquiry. He told Forum 18 that the KNB would take at least ten days to respond.

Mirzabek Mukhamedov, the head of the Oskemen town administration’s Department for Relations with Religious Organizations, confirmed to Forum 18 that Grace church is operating legally and that there should be no problems. He said he would look into why the KNB is conducting an investigation.

Forum 18 twice tried to talk to Amanbek Mukhashev, deputy head of the Justice Ministry’s Religious Affairs Committee. Both times Forum 18 said he declined to answer any of the news organization’s questions, saying he wouldn’t respond by phone. “Send us a fax and we will think about answering you,” Forum 18 said he told the news service.

Grace Church began in Karaganda in April 1991 under the leadership of Pastor Joseph Yu, a U.S. missionary of Korean background. It now claims about 3,000 members in the Karaganda church and a further 10,000 in its 250 daughter churches across Kazakhstan . Yu rejects any suggestion that church members in Kazakhstan could have been involved in treason.

“They say we are spies, but this is not true,” he told Forum 18. “We have maintained very good relations with the authorities in the seventeen years we have been operating. We’ve done much good and helped the poor.”

Although Yu still oversees the church in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region, he was deported from Russia in Aug. 2002. He was banned from entering Kazakhstan in May 2005, he told Forum 18. Yu said he wasn’t given any reason for the ban.

Forum 18 reported that the news service is aware of a number of Protestants, Muslims and a Buddhist who have been denied visas to visit Kazakhstan for religious purposes in recent years. Such entry denials often follow entry denial to Russia , which still shares its entry blacklist with Kazakhstan and a number of other former Soviet republics.

Late last year American citizen Dan Ballast was fined and ordered to be deported from Kazakhstan after taking part in the activity of the Spring of Water Baptist church in Oskemen. The deportation order was subsequently withdrawn, but Ballast left Kazakhstan in Nov. 2006. Forum 18 said that law enforcement officials had secretly attended a youth service at the church to spy on its activity.