KYRGYZSTAN: Orthodox Stand By Objections to Drafe Religion Law.

Igor Rotar and Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 30 April 2002

A senior priest of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has strongly defended his diocese’s attack on the proposed new religion law which has been drawn up partly with consultation from international human rights experts. “We are not diplomats and possibly we have spoken out too harshly,” Archpriest Valentin, priest of Bishkek’s Cathedral of the Resurrection, told Keston News Service by telephone on 27 April. “However, the essence of the appeal is absolutely correct. Why are Americans writing the draft for a new law on religion? It is intolerable that we should live according to the West’s orders.” The Orthodox have particularly criticised the role of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Kyrgyzstan is a member. However, an official of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) told Keston from Warsaw that his office had been asked to provide advice at the invitation of the Kyrgyz government. “The ODIHR's sole involvement in the drafting of this law has been its analyses of the drafts, prepared by the relevant Kyrgyz authorities, which it has been presented and requested to review.”

Archpriest Valentin argues that restrictions on “non-traditional religions” are necessary, complaining that those living in Kyrgyzstan have already endured “plenty of trouble” from them. “Preachers from the West are turning the CIS countries into a veritable spiritual tip,” he maintained. “In fact, the West is actually engaged in spiritual terrorism, which is much more dangerous than Osama bin Laden’s terrorism.”

The draft religion law, which could be approved by parliament as early as May, would considerably enlarge the state's opportunities to control the life of believers (see KNS 26 March 2002). Among its provisions are the compulsory registration of religious organisations, the requirement to licence religious educational activity and a ban on missionary activity which is not first registered (the process for registration is not defined in the law).

The OSCE provided the Kyrgyz government with analyses of both the version presented to it in March 2001 (which criticised many aspects of the draft) and in February of this year. The second analysis, completed on 7 March, welcomed many “impressive” improvements since the first draft, but made further recommendations for changes to bring the draft into line with international standards. It was concerned that the bill implied that unregistered religious activity might be illegal and recommended that “the bill should eliminate all provisions that suggest the exercise of the rights of the freedom of religion and belief are contingent upon the state’s registering of the organisation”. It also recommended shortening and simplifying the bill and eliminating some of the state-imposed restrictions on religious education, production and distribution of religious literature and missionary activity.

“We have not yet seen a third draft of the law so I cannot say how many, if any, of the recommendations contained in the latest analysis have been incorporated,” Michael McNamara, monitoring officer at the ODIHR, told Keston from Warsaw on 29 April.

In its mid-April statement attacking the proposed new law, the Russian Orthodox Central Asian diocese had insisted that "this bill has been drawn up by the OSCE organisation - the brain of the United States of America - that is trying to turn Kyrgyzstan under the guise of human rights into a religious rubbish dump and under the guise of democratic transformations into a pasture for missionary work." It claimed that the weakening of state control over the activity of religious societies “is opening the sluice gates to sometimes reactionary confessions”. The Orthodox diocese believes the bill fails to take account of the specific character of the region and argue that the complete abolition of restrictions on registering religious organisations cannot guarantee public security and stability in society.

The diocesan appeal urged deputies not to adopt the law as it believed that so doing would cause political instability, extremism and religious wars. “Gentlemen deputies! The aim is to use you to drive pseudo-religious wedges into the still young and growing tree of democratic Kyrgyzstan and through you to legalise this lawlessness dispatched from abroad.”

Parliamentary deputy and chairman of the parliamentary sub-committee for religious affairs Alisher Sobirov has insisted to Keston that his sub-committee will look at all criticisms but reach its own conclusions. “The Russian Orthodox Church’s appeal is just one of many criticisms sent to those working on the draft law,” he told Keston by telephone from Bishkek on 28 April. He said his sub-committee is preparing to discuss in detail all the criticisms received from public organisations. “I can assure you of one thing: we do not intend to limit the rights of adherents of any religion. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution stipulates that our citizens have the right to freedom of conscience, and it is our firm intention to uphold that principle.”

McNamara of the OSCE stresses the importance of consultation, both at home and internationally, pointing out that under its Legislative Alert and Assistance programme, the ODIHR has reviewed “numerous pieces of legislation” in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian states in the past three years. “On a positive note the ODIHR welcomes dialogue and consultation between the governmental authorities and civil society, and in this context, representatives of religious communities, in the legislative process,” he declared. “The fostering of such dialogue has been a central goal of the ODIHR in its activities in the region, as it is only by a process of consultation that workable practices and procedures can be achieved.” (END)