KAZAKHSTAN: Religious Liberty Picture Ahead of Pope's Visit.

by Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 17 September 2001

Ahead of Pope John Paul II's arrival in the Kazakh capital Astana in the evening of 22 September (he leaves for Armenia in the morning of 25 September), attention has turned to the religious situation in the Central Asian state. Although Kazakhstan signed an agreement with the Vatican in September 1998 regulating relations between the Church and the state, Catholic leaders report bureaucratic problems over visas for foreign priests and registration of parishes.

More widely, religious liberty concerns in Kazakhstan focus on proposed amendments to the country's religion law - the most recent of five restrictive drafts was rejected last month - and actions by officials – such as pressure on unregistered religious groups to seek registration - that go beyond the terms of the law.

Kazakhstan's Constitution asserts the secular nature of the state (article 1) and guarantees its citizens freedom of conscience with the proviso that this guarantee should not hinder the fulfilment of duties to the state (article 22).

There is a ban on political parties based on religion, while the appointment of leaders for religious organisations by foreign religious centres has to be agreed with state agencies (article 5). Religion is separated from the state: interference by the state in religious affairs, and by religious groups in state affairs, is forbidden by law.

Along with the constitution, the main document defining the rights of believers is the religion law, adopted on 15 January 1992. 'The Kazakh law on freedom of conscience and religious associations conforms to international legal standards and in principle we have no complaints against it,' Birgit Kainz, human rights officer at the Almaty mission of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), told Keston News Service on 7 September. 'But the problem is that it is far from being put into practice universally. State officials frequently ignore legal standards and infringe the rights of believers.'

The Catholic spokesman for the papal visit in the Apostolic Administration of Almaty, the former capital, spoke of some of the concerns of his Church. 'I don't mean to say that Catholics are being discriminated against on a government level. The case is rather that we are being worn down by the bureaucratic red tape wielded by officials who simply have a poor knowledge of the law,' Father Raymond Conard told Keston. 'There have been cases when our missionaries have been refused visas without reason, and our parishes have not been registered on the basis of dreamt-up excuses. In the end we have managed to get the law to be observed, but that took a lot of time.'

According to the Almaty-based lawyer Roman Podoprigora, who specialises in religious liberty issues, a clear pattern can be discerned: the further they are from the capital, the more frequently officials break the law, violating the rights of believers. 'In Almaty and Astana, cases where the rights of believers have been flouted by state officials are comparatively rare,' he told Keston. 'In the provinces, local officials act more crudely and are not afraid of publicity. The low level of legal culture among the population is a serious problem. Even in Russia it's become commonplace for believers insisting on their rights to challenge the authorities in the courts and win. But in our country, each such case is regarded as a sensation.'

The two most numerous nationalities in Kazakhstan are Kazakhs and Russians (making up 52% and 36% of the population, respectively). As the traditional Kazakh religion is the Sunni branch of Islam, while for Russians it is Orthodoxy, it is these two religions that the majority of the country's inhabitants profess.

The head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina, told Keston on 6 September that the authorities break the constitutional principle of non-interference by the secular state in religious affairs and publicly favour these two main religions, Islam and Orthodoxy. In support of this view, she reports that senior state officials, right up to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, regularly visit mosques and Orthodox churches (and almost never visit other religious places of worship), make speeches in them, and greet the population on religious feast-days. The chief mufti of the country and the Orthodox archbishop are invited to almost all state ceremonies, unlike representatives of other faiths.

The state television channels Khabar 2 and Kazakhstan 1 run special broadcasts about Islam, but there are no programmes devoted to other religions. 'We feel like second-class people. I will only believe that believers of all confessions have equal rights in Kazakhstan when at official events not just the mufti and the Orthodox archbishops, but also representatives of other religions stand alongside the president of the country,' Protestant pastor Roman Dudnik, who is president of Emmanuel Christian Society for Evangelisation and Charitable Activity, told Keston on 6 September in Almaty. He accused the authorities of deliberately trying to limit the spread of Protestantism. Dudnik believes such a policy has its own logic in Astana: 'If today people may freely choose a creed, then tomorrow they will be able to choose a president.'

A Baptist missionary from the United States, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Keston that the conversion of Kazakhs to Protestantism evokes the greatest opposition among officials. 'The authorities believe that you do have freedom of choice: you can become Orthodox if you were Russian by birth, and Muslim if you were Kazakh by birth, and Catholic or Protestant if you were German by birth.' The missionary says some 8,000 Kazakhs have become Protestants (the overall population of Kazakhstan numbers around 8 million). 'Astana is interpreting this as a virtual threat to national security.'

Such views are shared by Bashir Damir Muratuly, a spokesman for the country's Hare Krishna community. 'I am a Kazakh by nationality and of course, the fact that I have become a follower of Krishna has made my compatriots unhappy,' he told Keston on 7 September. 'However, I almost always manage to explain to simple people why I have changed my religion, and as a rule they start to respect my choice. To the authorities I remain, as a follower of Krishna, a second class person.'

Kainz of the OSCE has a somewhat different view. 'Harsh opposition to proselytism does indeed exist, but I wouldn't say it was a deliberate state policy. Rather, this phenomenon reflects the feelings of the majority of the population, and the state officials who take decisions are part of that population. For example, even an educated journalist related to me with "horror" that there was a danger that a whole Kazakh village might convert to Protestantism.'

Fokina believes the position for adherents of non-traditional religions has deteriorated markedly since 1998, when the government drafted amendments to the existing religion law directed at 'strengthening the controlling functions of the state and regulating the activity of those non-traditional religious associations that arouse the most disquiet among the local agencies of authority'.

On 9 December 1999, the Ministry of Education sent a circular letter to schools, instructing them not to allow visits to pupils by religious associations, organisations or faiths; not to accept humanitarian or other forms of aid from religious associations; and to ban the rental of buildings to religious associations. Although this circular was revoked on 19 December 2000, even today many school directors interpret it as an instruction. The director of school 154 in Almaty has forbidden pupils from attending meetings of Khanaan Presbyterian Church (see KNS 27 February 2001). The director, Verner Masalim, frightened pupils at the school parade, alleging that 'sect members make mincemeat of children' and use drugs to turn church members into zombies. Masalim told Keston on 9 February that he had heard nothing about the revocation of the circular. Seven months later, the situation of the Khanaan church remains unchanged. The church's pastor, Lyubov Sanyukovich, told Keston on 5 September that the school's pupils are still afraid to attend religious meetings.

Since the end of 1998 the government has produced five drafts of the proposed new religion law, the latest presented to parliament last March. The draft contained numerous clauses restricting religious freedoms. Under this draft, registration of Islamic religious associations had to take place on the recommendation of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan, which also had to approve the construction and/or opening of Islamic places of worship, and the number of people required to qualify for the creation of a religious association was increased from 10 (under the current law) to 50.

The draft also proposed making the regulations for registration more stringent: it extended the list of documents required for submission at registration and introduced the requirement for an expert opinion by a specialist on religion. According to a report published in July 2001 by the Almaty Helsinki committee 'Threats to religious freedoms in Kazakhstan: legislation and practice', 'of the other innovations in the draft law, the most repellent were: a demand for the licensing of religious educational activity and a ban on missionary activity that had not passed through an obligatory registration process, the nature of which was not defined by the law. Nevertheless the draft law made provision for criminal punishment for missionary activity that had not been registered (or that was in breach of registration), extending to imprisonment of up to one year.'

At the same time as the new draft law was presented, the authorities began a mass investigation into the activity of religious associations. Throughout the spring the National Security Committee (the former KGB), the Tax Police and the Ministry of Justice carried out a thorough investigation of religious organisations. Registration of all religious organisations was halted. 'Not one of them has been registered this year,' Fokina told Keston.

Thanks to the intervention of the OSCE and pressure from local groups, the draft law was revoked last month. However, Fokina believes that the 'fly-wheel' of the 'machinery of repression' has already been released and will keep going for at least six months before the situation stabilises.

Others draw some comfort from the withdrawal of the March text of the draft law in August. 'This shows that the religious situation in Kazakhstan is changing for the better,' Kainz told Keston. 'But it is far too early to draw final conclusions. It is possible that a new draft law will appear in the near future, and we don't yet know to what extent it will conform with international legal standards.' (END)