KAZAKHSTAN: Is More Restrictive Religion Law Justified?

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 23 January 2002

One of the justifications presented by Kazakh officials for the new, more restrictive religion law now being adopted (see separate KNS article) is what officials claim is an increased danger to state security from religious organisations. However, Keston News Service has not discovered evidence of such an increased threat on a January visit to Chimkent region of southern Kazakhstan, an area the government regards as a hotbed of religious fundamentalism. An official of the mission in Almaty of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has told Keston that it too fails to share the concerns about the threat allegedly posed by religious extremism.

"It was reported during the discussions that the law had been amended due to the internal situation in Kazakhstan and that on the international arena," Radio Liberty reported on 17 January in the wake of the parliamentary debate. "It was also mentioned by deputies of the parliament that after 11 September, the situation had changed and that the necessity of strict control over all the religious organisations working in Kazakhstan had arisen."

The culture, information and public accord minister, Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed, told deputies that the amendments were prompted by "a real threat of religious extremism to Kazakhstan's security", adding that they are aimed at tightening state control over non-traditional faiths which cause great concern among the public. He said the number of religious associations, especially non-traditional Islamic and other religious organisations, had been growing rapidly and had now reached more than 2,500 religious, representing over 40 religions.

However, it is doubtful whether "extremist religious organisations" do pose a threat to Kazakhstan's security. Between 5 and 9 January Keston visited Chimkent region, which the authorities believe is the main centre of Islamic extremism in the country, and concluded that the situation there is remarkably calm (see KNS 17 January 2002). Local authority officials express very much the same view. "For the time being at least, the situation here is very calm," Vladimir Zharinov, chief specialist at the department for relations with religious organisations in the office of Chimkent's regional akim (administrator), told Keston on 8 January. "Unlike in southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party is practically inactive here. True, last year four members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir party were arrested in the town of Turkestan (165 kilometres north-west of Chimkent), but they were almost immediately released under an amnesty. You will agree that this number of arrests is simply negligible compared to other Central Asian republics."

The OSCE mission in Kazakhstan, which sent the government a detailed critical commentary on the new draft law, does not believe the situation in Kazakhstan requires such controls to be imposed on religious groups. "The [current] Kazakh law on freedom of conscience and religious associations conforms to international legal standards and in principle we do not see any need to introduce amendments to it," Birgit Kainz, the human dimension officer at the OSCE's Almaty mission told Keston by telephone on 22 January. "We very much hope to persuade the senators and the president to vote down the new draft." (END)