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Will Religious Freedom Prevail or Be Permanently Silenced?

By Kevin White

1/5/2014 Kazakhstan (International Christian Concern) – President Nazarbayev has routinely iterated that one of the greatest needs in Kazakhstan is the development of moral character in the lives of people, especially our young people. Indeed, many of our social problems and hindrances to economic development can be traced back to moral problems such as selfishness, greed and dishonesty. This lack of ethics has resulted in a “survival of the fittest” mentality which pervades our society and shackles our true economic potential. In a 2012 address, Nazarbayev stated: “We are entering a period in the development of our state, when spiritual issues will be of no less important than the economic, material order.” Yet tragically, the Christian church which serves as one of the leading instruments for the moral and character education of society remains under continual scrutiny and persecution.

The Full Gospel Church in the city of Atyrau has experienced routine harassment and persecution from police and government officials in their attempt to register as a church. Religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reported that Kazakhstan Justice Department officials have resorted to intimidation and threats of church members in order to prevent members from achieving the required minimum of fifty parishioners necessary for registration.

Church leader Nurlubek Zhalgasbayev complained that the Justice Department arbitrarily removed names from the founders list in order to bring the number below the required 50 adult citizens. Pastor Zhalgasbayev and the church have been routinely declined registration ever since they first sought it before 2005.

Church leaders have alleged that members have been routinely harassed by Anti-Terrorism Police officer Askar Rakhimov, who warned members that the church is a “destructive sect.” Forum 18 reported that Rakhimov resorted to coercing members to recant their decision to sign, confronting some in their workplaces where they were threatened with loss of their employment if they refused to withdrawal their name from the registration list.

This comes at a critical time for Kazakhstan which is currently seeking membership into the World Trade Organization, as well as becoming one of the most developed economies in the world according to its highly-publicized 2050 program. Kazakhstan is slated to host Expo 2017, the first ever opportunity by Kazakhstan or any other Central Asian nation. These actions are completely incompatible with economic development and represent a travesty for a nation which earnestly seeks to become one of the top thirty most developed economies.

This case follows the highly publicized case of 67-year-old pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev, who remains under house arrest for his ministry work. Pastor Kashkumbayev, who led Grace Church of Astana, was arrested on criminal charges in 2013. Police officials alleged that Lyazzat Almenova, who claimed regular attendance at church, supposedly developed “paranoid schizophrenia”. Both church members and Almenova vigorously rejected these claims.

Kashkumbayev was charged with religious extremism for his possession of the book Healing the Broken Family and New Life for Muslims. During a brief release before being immediately rearrested, he revealed to his wife scars from torture wounds he suffered during his incarceration. Following this, he was then taken immediately again into custody.

This case highlights numerous examples of persecution of the Christian church in Kazakhstan. In one shocking recent incident, Kazakhstan Ministry of Justice court officials confirmed that Bibles, Children’s Bibles and other Christian literature confiscated from Baptist pastor Vyacheslav Cherkasov were ordered to be burned. Cherkasov was arrested while handing out Bibles and other religious literature in the northern Akmola Region of Kazakhstan. Another similar case of Christian literature ordered destroyed has been reported involving Pastor Peter Vatulko in Taldikorgan.

In 2012, Kazakhstan police arrested Uzbek Pastor Makset Djabberbergenov at the bequest of Uzbek government officials.  In spite of being granted refugee status by the UN Human Rights Commission, Djabberbergenov was arrested on his son’s birthday and threatened with deportation to his native Uzbekistan, where is wanted on charges related to his preaching Christianity. Through international pressure, Djabberbergenov was finally released to the UNHCR. He and his family are now residing in Europe.

The Importance of Religious Freedom

Recent studies have substantiated the fact that religious freedom is an important component for political stability and corresponding economic prosperity. In their book The Price of Freedom Denied, researchers Brian Grim and Roger Finke stated “religious freedom is not only strongly correlated with other freedoms and civil liberties, but it is also an important factor in other universally desirable goods such as lower levels of armed conflict and poverty, along with higher levels of income and better lives for women.” 

At the 2010 Religious Freedom and National Security Policy conference at Georgetown University, former National Security Council representative Will Imboden described how any erosion in a country’s religious freedom invariably signals the erosion of all other liberties and human rights. Governments that are not committed to religious liberty become increasingly intolerant and coercive, insisting that they have a monopoly on truth that must be forced on others. Without religious freedom, democracy suffers, economic stagnation becomes inevitable.

Freedom and human rights, as expressed through the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and vote are what produce the vital sense of ownership of the nation by the people. This sense of ownership is what fosters the sense of social and civic responsibility, which motivates private citizens to make a great nation. It is this atmosphere of democracy in which business and free markets thrive.

Ideas Have Consequences

In contrast to the West, Lenin built the Soviet Union upon an atheistic Marxism which was diametrically opposed to and viciously incompatible with Christianity. Lenin wrote: “There is nothing more abominable than religion,” and that under communism: “God does not exist, cannot exist, and must not exist.” Because of this predisposition against the Christian faith, the Soviet Union was deprived of the benefit of moral guidance and instruction provided by the Bible through the institution of the church.

Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that the communists were determined to destroy Christianity. Atheism was not just the underlying worldview of Soviet socialism; atheism was the purpose of socialism. Solzhenitsyn wrote that the communists “flee from Christ like devils from the sign of the cross.”

Indeed, ideas have consequences. Fyodor Dostoyevsky prophetically wrote: “if there is no God, then everything is permissible. Crime will be inevitable.” Atheism removed the basis of personal responsibility and accountability for behavior before God as well as society. Atheism removed any higher moral authority than one’s own. The natural consequence is the mentality of “every man for himself” and “survival of the fittest”, rather than by principle and rule of law. This can account for the lawlessness throughout the CIS, where mafia and corruption is so rampant. Georgian gangster and godfather of the Russian mafia Otari Kvantrishvili stated: “It was Vladimir Lenin who was the real organizer of the mafia and set up the criminal state.”

Dostoyevsky understood that if there is no God, then ultimately there can be no basis for morality and law, or for human rights. If there is no God, then we are just animals engaged in the Darwinist struggle: “survival of the fittest.”  In such case, people’s rights and property do not matter. If there is no God, then there is no higher governing principle, upon which to base justice. Law is then simply determined by power, money, or influence. This can only result in lawlessness, corruption, and injustice; which will ultimately lead to discontent, unrest, apathy, and economic stagnation.

Kazakhstan is at a Critical Point of Decision

Indeed Kazakhstan is at a critical point of decision. If Kazakhstan is to fulfill its 2050 plan to become one of the top thirty most developed nations, it is going to have to embrace the values which correspond to such respectable stature. The convenient labeling of churches as “sects” is a relic of Soviet-era state-sponsored propaganda to arouse suspicion and resentment among the general population. This cultural racism, if unchecked, will naturally extend to discrimination against any group deemed “undesirable” to those who decide what is and is not desirable. This model constitutes the very embodiment of tyranny.

While the Soviet Union collapsed, the Soviet era mentality is still quite prevalent throughout the former Soviet Union. Yet, if those in government insist on such a narrow expression to represent the entire nation, they will succeed only in marginalizing and isolating all other peoples of differing religious faiths. This will eventually devolve into an alienation of differing ethnicities as well.

This will be a catastrophic mistake for the nation from an economic standpoint, because as we marginalize some peoples of society, we also lose their expertise and potential to generate wealth for the nation. The true economic potential of any nation is not its gas or oil, but its people. The governments of developed economies understand their role to protect the rights of its citizens, thereby empowering the true economic potential of the nation – its people.

As Nazarbayev understands in his comments, the success of a nation is completely dependent upon the moral character of its people. While Kazakhstan enjoys a wealth of natural resources, we must also realize that in order to truly be successful, we cannot deny the need of a moral and spiritual foundation upon which success and prosperity can be achieved. This is the God-given role of the church in society, to serve the nation by providing the moral and spiritual support for all people, serving as a light and a guide in national morals and principles.

Kevin White is a Research Fellow and Country Director for the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation in Kazakhstan. He has lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan since 1999.

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