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A Special Report by ICC
02/10/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Just over a year after Kazakhstan tightened its laws regulating religion in a purported effort to stamp out “Islamic extremism,” reports reveal that Christians and other innocent faith minorities have increasingly been victimized by the needless reform.
At least eight meetings for worship in Kazakhstan were raided by police and other officials in January “to counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism,” according to Forum 18 News Service. Three Baptist pastors were fined nearly two months’ wages for the unregistered exercise of religious freedom. One of them was charged with “standing at a pulpit” and “reading from the psalms,” after which “those present began to sing Christian hymns.”
Kazakhstan normally requires all religious groups to register with the state and has, to some extent, respected the freedom of registered communities. But a new law nullified all previous registrations across the board and required all religious communities to register or re-register their organizations and churches with the government.
Local registration requires at least 50 members and restricts all activity to the limits of the locality in which they register. National registration requires 5,000 members with sufficient representation in each of the country’s oblasts. The natural outcome is that churches with less than 50 members don’t stand a chance of obtaining legal status and national registration is next to impossible, except for the majority faiths of Islam and Russian Orthodoxy.
Even independent and ethnic minority mosques that were previously registered have been denied re-registration. They no longer have any legal right to exist, unless they join the state-backed Muslim Board.
When the law was signed, rights groups in the West, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), raised concern that the reforms may lead to restrictions of religious freedom – something that has proven to be true in the past year.
The state has taken swift and aggressive action to implement the new laws. By the end of 2012, it stripped 579 religious communities of their registration rights, reduced the number of recognized faiths from 46 to merely 17, and the number of faith-based civic organizations from 4,551 to 3,088. As a result, if any of these groups continue their work, they could face criminal charges.
Many evangelical denominations – Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists – have been affected by the reform, along with other minority groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and certain sects of Islam.
The sweeping re-registration reforms were introduced as a reaction to a suicide bombing in May 2011, the discovery of a terror plot, and growing fears of a surge in militancy. But serious questions have been raised about the legitimacy of these fears, the efficacy of the reforms to serve their purpose, the ethical fallout of their implementation, and even the very motives behind them.
Despite the claims of the State, there is no substantial evidence of the large presence of a terror group. Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor at George Mason University who studies Islamic movements in Central Asia, told The Diplomat that there were far fewer such movements in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and circumstantial evidence in a handful of incidents shouldn’t lead observers to believe there’s an Islamist terror threat emerging in Kazakhstan now.
Even if there is a real threat of the rise of Islamic extremism in the nation, it does not make any sense to curb the religious freedom of all minority faiths across the board. Increased cooperation and partnership with intelligence agencies in the West is surely a more viable means of stamping out extremism. More than anything, this persistent drive to curb religious freedom is going to hurt the nation’s reputation of being religiously tolerant and, perhaps, will even incite extremist Muslims, if any, to react against the new restrictions.
In the government’s efforts to implement the new reforms, the police and the judiciary have been empowered to contradict its own constitution. During a raid of the New Life Protestant Church in the central Karaganda region, an officer immediately began filming the service and refused to stop, despite the church members’ protests. When they were asked if they had permission to film, the officers said they did, but refused to show any authorizing documents.
Seven individuals – four Jehovah’s Witnesses, two Muslims and a Protestant – have been prosecuted since August 2012 for “illegal missionary activity,” something that does not make any sense when held against the constitutional provisions for the freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith, barring coercion and forcible conversions.
Since the reforms’ implementation, members of minority faiths have been subject to raids, fines, detentions, harassment and frustrating denials for re-registration. There have been numerous reports of police disrupting church gatherings, unauthorized filming of services, detaining worshippers, and other minor incidents that were not legally permissible before the new reforms were introduced.
There is also reason to suspect that President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state as a secularist autocrat for more than two decades, could be using the fear of extremism to conceal his distaste for genuine reforms that increase religious freedom. The new reforms could be part of a power play to further establish his authoritarian rule in the nation and snuff out any calls for more freedom for faith minorities.
Despite its noble intentions, Kazakhstan’s strategic plan to counter religious extremism has done nothing more than cause unnecessary problems for minority faiths that have no relation to terrorism. This raises concerns about Nazarbayev’s commitment to freedom of religion, something that is valued by his foreign investors and strategic partners in the West.
Kazakhstan’s unexpected downward turn towards a repressive view of religion needs to be reversed before its claim to be a “multiethnic home” loses its credibility in the international community.