KAZAKHSTAN: Controversial Religion Law Goes to President.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 1 February 2002

On 31 January the upper house of the Kazakh parliament, the senate, approved without any changes at all the controversial new draft religion law approved by the lower house on 17 January (see KNS 23 January 2002). The law now goes within ten days to Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev for signature. One human rights activist, Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Keston News Service on 1 February that she believes he will sign it "very quickly". Once signed, 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. In a telephone survey on 31 January of attitudes to the new law among various religious communities, Keston found that only the Spiritual Administration offered unequivocal support for the new law. The Orthodox Church has concerns about the requirements that leaders be chosen by local religious communities, while other denominations had even wider concerns, claiming that the new law turned them into "second-class religions". One group of Baptist churches rejected entirely the provisions allowing the government to ban unregistered religious communities.

"This draft law was drawn up with the active participation of ourselves and of representatives of the Orthodox Church," declared Dairabai Ryskayev, head of the Spiritual Preaching Department at the Muslims' Spiritual Administration. "And we are glad that our comments have been incorporated into the new draft law. One of the chief merits of the new draft law is that it awards fitting status to Kazakhstan's traditional religions - Islam and Orthodoxy - and that it provides for a strict control over the activity of representatives of non-traditional religions in our country."

Ryskayev admitted to Keston that it was at the insistence of the Spiritual Administration that a clause had been introduced into the draft law, requiring that registration of Islamic religious associations should depend on the recommendation of the Spiritual Administration, and that the construction and/or opening of Islamic places of worship should only take place with its permission. "The Hanafi school of law of the Sunni branch of Islam has been widespread on Kazakh territory for more than 1,200 years," Ryskayev told Keston. "But today, preachers have arrived who are trying to impose branches of Islam on us that are not traditional for our country. Such a thing never happened even in Tsarist times, nor under Soviet authority. And naturally, we will not allow this evil to spread in an independent Kazakhstan."

Keston did not succeed in finding out the attitude to the new draft law of Muslims who belong to branches of Islam that are not traditional for Kazakhstan. Today, such people are considered to be breaking the law, and so avoid speaking to journalists on the record. Significantly, however, even Muslims who belong to Kazakhstan's traditional branch of Islam, but who have no links with the Spiritual Administration, are less enthusiastic about the new law. "I think that the new draft law is too narrowly focused on prohibitive and repressive functions, and that can only give rise to animosity," Ali haji Absheroni, chairman of the Al-Medina society, told Keston from Almaty. "There must be a 'happy medium'. I do believe that it is vital that mosques should be registered, but it should not be the Spiritual Administration that decides whether or not to register them, but a council of ulemas (theologians), which should include people who hold the very widest spectrum of opinion."

Representatives of the Orthodox Church were much more restrained than the Muslim clergy. Significantly, Father Sergi Goryunov, secretary to Archbishop Aleksy of the diocese of Astana and Almaty, began by telling Keston that he "did not know much about the new draft law, because it had not been published in the press". Father Goryunov said that on the whole he approved of the new draft, although he was not "in ecstasies" about the fact that the number of people required to set up a religious association had been raised from 10 (under the current law) to 50. "Several of our parishes have fewer than 50 people, and we do not want them to close down," he explained.

There is one clause in the new draft law, Article 7, that directly affects the interests of the Orthodox Church: "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". Formally, the Russian Orthodox Church is a foreign religious association in Kazakhstan, and consequently according to the draft law is dependent on the Kazakh authorities. Nevertheless, Goryunov did not criticise this clause, telling Keston that he did not foresee "any complications" arising from it.

Such apparent lack of concern was not shared in the Moscow Patriarchate, which has reportedly raised its concerns over Article 7 behind the scenes. One senior priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, while declaring that the Orthodox Church "understands" the reasons for revising the religion law, complained privately that Article 7 could restrict not only the right of the Orthodox Church to choose its own leaders from abroad (two of its three bishops in Kazakhstan were born outside the republic), but of the Catholics and some Protestants. The priest suggested amending the draft to specify that such appointments be made not "through", but at least "with the agreement of" local religious bodies.

All the representatives of religions regarded as "non-traditional" who spoke to Keston agreed that the new draft law could severely complicate their lives and virtually turned them into "second-class religions". According to the press-officer of the Hare Krishna society, Bashir Damir Maratula, there was a whole range of clauses in the new draft law that would allow repressive measures to be taken against believers. Similar concerns were echoed by Father Serafim Kenisarin, pastor of the Almaty-based Love ecumenical church. "The battle with terrorism must not turn into a battle with law-abiding believers. Unfortunately, though, the draft law will create a means of persecuting unwelcome believers," he told Keston.

"The draft law is full of hidden ways to persecute believers," agreed Roman Dudnik, president of the Christian Society for Evangelisation and Charity, speaking to Keston from Almaty. "The state will virtually give part of its functions to a few chosen religious associations. We are going back to the European Middle Ages, or else we are mimicking the Taliban regime."

The most extensive critique came from the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which rejects registration on principle in all the post-Soviet republics where it operates. In a four-page appeal to President Nazarbayev, parliamentary deputies and the General Procurator, Rashid Tusupbekov, circulated among Kazakh-based pastors ahead of the 31 January senate vote, the Baptists focused their criticism on Article 8, which covers registration. "The current situation of freedom of religious confession in Kazakhstan rules out for us the possibility of reconsidering the question of registering churches' statutes and registration for conducting missionary activity," the appeal declared. It also objected to provisions limiting the participation of children in religious activity.

The Baptists pointed out that the requirement to register religious organisations and missionary activity and the restrictions on children's involvement in religious activity violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Kazakhstan has signed. (END)