KAZAKHSTAN: Tough New Amendments to Religion Law.

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 19 February 2001

If adopted and fully implemented, the latest draft amendments to Kazakhstan's 1992 law on religion obtained by Keston News Service will place the country among those former Soviet republics with the harshest climate for religious freedom (see separate KNS article). The provisions repeat and extend those of a draft discussed at a 17 January state-organised round table in former capital Almaty and condemned as `unconstitutional and discriminatory' in a 24 January letter to Minister of Justice, Igor Rogov, and Minister of Culture, Information and Public Accord, Altenbek Sarsenbayev, by the largely-Protestant Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK).

Last December AROK raised similar objections to an entire draft believed to be that drawn up by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SDMK) and announced by SDMK head Absattar Derbysalayev in the 25 October edition of national newspaper Kazakhstanskaya Pravda. On 15 January acting culture minister Oleg Ryabchenko informed AROK that this draft had been rejected by his ministry which, together with the secretariat of the government's Committee for Relations with Religious Organisations (CRRO), was currently drawing up amendments to the 1992 law that would `undoubtedly take into account commonly recognised democratic norms'.

Given that none of the October, January or February drafts have any date, signature or indication of origin, government officials can refuse to comment on them by pleading their unofficial status, as did the head of the Department for Religious Organisations at Almaty akimat (council) Vladimir Ivanov when interviewed by Keston on 6 February. This also makes it impossible for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to comment, complained Birgit Kainz, human rights officer at the organisation's Almaty office. `We are very worried - we have been trying to obtain official texts for a month now,' she told Keston on 6 February.

The February draft now appears to be under active consideration by officials in the capital Astana. The president of Emmanuel Christian Society for Evangelisation and Charitable Activity, Roman Dudnik, told Keston in Almaty on 7 February that since the appearance of the January draft a culture ministry official had commented to him that the ministry was considering a further draft it deemed `acceptable'. Following fine-tuning of legal terminology by the CRRO in mid-February, according to the president of AROK, Vladimir Leshevsky, the draft will be presented to parliament at the beginning of March. There is no requirement in law for the draft to be made public before then.

Why such a radical overhaul of the law on religion? Ninel Fokina of Almaty Helsinki Committee suggests two reasons: the threat to state security from Islamic militancy - as exemplified by car bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in February 1999 and incursions by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in the autumns of 1999 and 2000 - and Muslim and Russian Orthodox fears they are losing their flock and income to competing Protestants. Neither the secretary of Almaty Orthodox diocese, Father Sergei Goryunov, nor Mufti Derbysalayev, however, was familiar with the drafts when Keston spoke to them on 7 February, although Mufti Derbysalayev insisted all religious organisations should be registered and commented that members of his organisation did not `walk the streets like totalitarian sects'.

According to Kainz of the OSCE, the religion law `is under permanent threat of being changed'. Since the Muslim and Orthodox desire for state protection predates the more recent attempts to change it, the perceived threat from radical Islam appears to be decisive. On 8 February Oleg Rubets, an influential religious broadcaster and convert to Islam, told Keston that after two years trying to persuade President Nursultan Nazarbayev of the threat to Kazakhstan posed by radical Islam, his warnings were now being heeded.

Religious activity has indeed become a recent concern in Nazarbayev's speeches, which are closely followed by officials in the state administration. In a speech to akims of all levels on 30 January in Astana, Nazarbayev spoke of the necessity of `exhaustive measures' to prevent `the radicalisation of the religious consciousness of Kazakh citizens'. In particular, he complained it had become `the fashion to build mosques, churches and prayer houses... but no one is interested whether a mosque or church is necessary in a particular place or not'. All mosques, he insisted, should be under the auspices of SDMK, before setting `increased control and regulation of religious activity' as the tenth of ten tasks for the akims.

Almost all those interviewed by Keston in Almaty were agreed that radical Islam could pose a threat to state security. However, Leshevsky, Rubets and Roman Podoprigora, a lawyer at Almaty's Adilet (`Justice') Law Institute, all pointed out that the draft laws did not pose the slightest obstacle to Islamic militants, as they refused to acknowledge secular law. Fanatics bent on establishing an Islamic state, Leshevsky argued, `need to be fought not with legal means but with harsh measures'.

The Ministry of Culture, Information and Public Accord was forced to withdraw an earlier highly restrictive draft bill in March 1999 after protests by many religious communities and human rights activists (see KNS 17 March 1999). (END)