KAZAKHSTAN: Reinstated Council for Religious Affairs to Promote Confessions Loyal to the State?

by Aleksandr Schipkov, Keston News Service, 26 February 2001

The Council for Links with Religious Associations (CLRA), a government agency created by a 27 July 2000 statute, looks set to play a major role in regulating religious life in Kazakhstan. If a draft law on religion (see KNS 19 February 2001) is adopted in the former Soviet republic, the CLRA is almost certain to be the 'authorised state agency' charged with implementing its host of state controls over religious organisations.

According to the 2000 statute, the CLRA is 'of an advisory nature' (Article 14). Among the numerous tasks and functions it is allocated, however, are 'participation in the formulation of the fundamental objectives of state policy in the field of providing citizens with the right to freedom of conscience' (Article 7.1), monitoring the operations of religious associations and of foreign missionaries (Article 7.2), 'carrying out information and propaganda drives' (Article 7.3), performing expert analysis, and making proposals for the 'suppression of the activity of religious associations and foreign missionaries who break the law' (Article 8.4).

Reporting directly to the Kazakh government, the CLRA is currently headed by Altynbek Sarsenbayev, minister of Culture, Information and Public Accord and one of the ideologues of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's regime. Although the Council is based in the capital Astana, most of its ten voluntary members live in the former capital, Almaty. Four are state officials, four are academics, and two are 'from among the heads of the leading confessions' (Article 4.16) - Archbishop Aleksei (Kutepov) of Astana and Almaty and Chief Mufti Abdsattar Derbysalayev. In recent meetings with Keston in Almaty, various sources told Keston that Amanbek Mukhashov, the permanently-appointed deputy head of the council, is directly responsible for practical policy, with a secretariat of four officials working under him.

Speaking to Keston in his office on 9 February, lawyer at Almaty's Adilet ('Justice') Law Institute, Roman Podoprigora, voiced fears that the Council will be allocated the sole authority to register religious organisations, license foreign missionaries and give permission to publish religious literature once a new law on religion is passed in Kazakhstan. According to the 2000 statute, however, the CLRA's main task is to work towards the 'harmonisation of interconfessional relations' (Article 2.5), which appears to be the most pressing objective of the Nazarbayev regime.

Speaking to Keston by telephone from Astana on 21 February, Amanbek Mukashov said that on 15 December 2000 the leadership of the Assembly of Nations of Kazakhstan had adopted a decision to organise a council of religious leaders under its auspices. One interreligious initiative already under way, according to president of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan, Vladimir Leshevsky, is a Central Asian forum entitled 'Dialogue Between Confessions - An Imperative of the Times.'

This forum, Leshevsky told Keston on 9 February, was set up in autumn 2000 by the Arab-Turkish Centre, which has close links with pro-presidential political party Otan ('Fatherland'). It meets every two months and is chaired by prominent religious groups, he said, with the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Kazakhstan and the country's Orthodox dioceses having already taken turns. Leshevsky told Keston that the organisers had planned that the Catholic Church would chair the third session, but the Catholics declined to take part in the forum, citing inadequate financial resources. (Keston was unable to confirm this since the nunciature in Almaty declined to give an interview when contacted on 6 February.) The next session, on 27 March, is due to be chaired by Pentecostals, said Leshevsky.

The forum will conclude with the signing of an 'Almaty Declaration', which purports to espouse universal religious values ('an understanding of the priceless value of the soul', 'human conscience as an instinct that opens the way to supreme justice', and so on). However, the declaration also warns that there is 'a widespread emergence within virtually all the world religions of religious extremist and terrorist organisations.' Those who have agreed to this thesis sign the declaration and pledge to enter into a 'dialogue between the confessions', with the aim of eradicating potential religious conflicts. The document thus represents a collective guarantee of loyalty to the Kazakh government's religious policy of war on 'religious extremism.' (END)