KAZAKHSTAN: New Restrictive Religion Law Goes to Upper House.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 23 January 2002

Kazakhstan's proposed new religion law is set to move a step closer to adoption at the end of this month despite objections from religious groups, human rights activists and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Keston News Service has learned. If adopted unamended it will allow unregistered religious groups to be banned, require all missionaries to be registered and deny legal registration to all Muslim organisations outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan. On the morning of 31 January, the Senate (upper chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament) is due to consider the draft law approved by the Majilis (lower chamber) on 17 January.

For the new version to become law, it must also be signed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, though few now believe it will fail to gain approval. "I have no doubt that the new draft law will be approved both by the upper chamber and by the president," the head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee Ninel Fokina told Keston by telephone on 21 January. "It is an initiative of the authorities themselves and its discussion in parliament was simply a formality."

The new draft of the law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations specifies that Islamic communities can only be registered on the recommendation of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan, and the construction and opening of Islamic centres of worship requires the approval of the spiritual administration. The number of people required to form a religious association has been raised from 10 under the current law to 50.

Among other innovations causing concern to many religious groups are a requirement that religious educational activity be licensed and a ban on conducting missionary activity without compulsory registration, the procedure for which is not specified in the law. According to article 7 (on religious associations) in the new draft, "the activity of foreign religious associations on the territory of the republic of Kazakhstan, including the appointment by these associations of leaders of religious centres in the republic, must take place through religious centres in the republic, of which there should be one for each faith, by agreement with the appropriate state agencies of the republic of Kazakhstan. The manner of the agreement will be defined by the government of the republic of Kazakhstan." According to Article 5 of the draft (on the separation of schools from religious associations and the secular nature of state education) "the religious education of a child must not harm his overall development or his physical and moral health". This vague formulation would in effect allow the state to forbid a child's religious education.

The new provisions of article 11 (on liquidation of a religious association) make it easier for the state to deal with what it regards as "unwelcome" religious organisations. According to the new draft, "the legal grounds for a cessation and ban on the activity of a religious association are: a refusal by the leaders of religious associations to register the associations with state administrative agencies; the existence of activity by a religious association that contradicts the aims and objectives set out in its statute; participation in and provision of financial support for the activity of political parties; infringement of the laws on the conduct of religious functions away from the place where a religious association is based; the organisation and conducting by ministers and members of religious associations of children's youth assemblies and groups that bear no relation to the functions of the cult; forcing citizens to carry out religious rituals or to take part in a particular religious activity."

These grounds for a cessation and ban on the activity of a religious organisation repeat verbatim article 375 of the Administrative Code, adopted on 30 January 2001. This article contradicts the current religion law, but the authorities have already used it to punish members of unregistered religious groups. The new draft law does away with the contradiction between the two juridical acts, and simultaneously tightens control over believers' activity. Neither parliamentary deputies nor state officials have hidden the fact that the new draft law aims to tighten control over "non-traditional religious" movements (particularly Islamic movements).

In its critique of the proposed law, sent to the Kazakh government, the OSCE set out nine points of concern where it said changes were required. Among other concerns, it called for the substitution of the term "freedom of religious confession" with the internationally-accepted phrase "freedom of religion or belief"; the ban on the activity of "extremist religious associations" to be rephrased to avoid potential interference in the activity of legitimate religious associations; clarification of the restrictions on religious activity by minors; and more work on the issue of registration of Muslim communities. The OSCE also feared that the requirement that foreign-based religious groups work through a local religious group might restrict such groups' autonomy and that the requirement for 50 members might violate people's freedom of religion or belief. The OSCE repeated its concerns about Article 375 of the Administrative Code and believed that similar provisions in the proposed law could violate the rights of those who were not party to any offence. (END)