SPECIAL REPORT - KAZAKHSTAN: Restrictive Law Rejected, but 'Persecution' of Baptists Persists.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 1 July 2002

The International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, one of two main Baptist jurisdictions in Kazakhstan and the one which rejects state registration on principle, has expressed increasing alarm at what it calls "persecution" of its congregations because they refuse to register. A 13 June statement from Kazakhstan, received by Keston News Service, complains that regional officials are continuing to take to court, fine and threaten believers despite the country's current laws and despite the fact that earlier this year Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev rejected amendments to the law on freedom of conscience and religious associations that would have restricted the rights of believing citizens.

"This is being done so blatantly and to such an extent that there can be no doubt that the central authorities are participating in and co-ordinating these actions," the statement declares. "Further, one cannot help asking: were the discriminatory amendments to the law on freedom of conscience rejected in order that the world community, pacified and satisfied by this development, would not react so strongly to the repression of believers?"

The statement cites examples of recent moves against Baptist churches. "They are trying to force communities to register in the towns of Zyryanovsk and Leninogorsk, in the rural district of Novopolyakovka, and in the Shu district of Jambyl region by means of fines, legal proceedings and threats. Ministers and brothers who lead these churches experience particular pressure."

Last January the lower and upper chambers of parliament approved amendments to the religion law which would have allowed unregistered religious groups to be banned, required all missionaries to be registered and denied legal registration to all Muslim organisations outside the framework of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan. In its survey of opinion among religious communities in January, Keston found that only the Spiritual Administration offered unequivocal support for the new law, while a range of faiths strongly criticised many of its provisions. Many provisions were also criticised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). President Nazarbayev referred the new version of the religion law for consideration by the country's Constitutional Council, which ruled that some of its provisions violated the constitution. President Nazarbayev did not oppose the Constitutional Council's decision. Thus, the former religion law remained in force (see KNS 15 April 2002).

The decision not to approve the new religion law was welcomed by international and local human rights organisations. At the same time, employees of several international organisations in Almaty told Keston privately that the decisions by the Constitutional Council and the president should not be interpreted with too much optimism. Keston's interviewees believed that the Constitutional Council had recently reached several decisions that were suspect from the point of view of international legal standards, and that the decision not to approve the amendments to the religion law was simply an attempt to restore its profile. In the opinion of these observers, the concession to believers over the religion law was simply a political manoeuvre and that the campaign against believers would be resumed shortly.

The Baptist statement indicates mounting concern in the denomination. For the first time, the Council of Churches has issued a statement not about a particular incident against believers, but has condemned the religious policy of the Kazakh government as a whole.

On 28 June Keston telephoned the deputy chairman of the council for relations with religious organisations at the Kazakh parliament, Amanbek Mukhashev, and asked him to comment on the Baptists' statement. Mukhashev reported that earlier in June several of the country's Baptist leaders had come to him complaining about the persecution of unregistered religious communities. However, Mukhashev told Keston, the Baptists' claims were unfounded. "Under the Kazakh law on freedom of conscience and religious associations, religious communities are obliged to be registered. So it is pointless for the Baptists to cite the fact that the President of Kazakhstan has turned down the amendments to the law. This has nothing to do with the matter in hand, as under the previous version of the law registration was obligatory." He added that Article 374 of the country's Administrative Code also "makes it an offence" to refuse to register. "Nevertheless, given the small number of such Baptist groups, we have sent a letter to the law enforcement agencies in those districts where unregistered groups are active, recommending them not to take harsh measures against the Baptists."

Despite Mukhashev's claims, it is clear that the current religion law does not make it an offence to refuse to register. In Article 9 of the law it simply says that "a religious association assumes the capacity of a juridical person from the time of its state registration". However, Mukhashev is right to cite Article 374 of the Administrative Code. The article was indeed amended in 2000, making the activity of an unregistered religious organisation an offence. In its current wording, Article 374 contradicts both the religion law and the Kazakh constitution.

"The position of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on the question of principle may be summed up thus: registration is not obligatory for a religious association's activity," Birgit Kainz, human rights officer at the OSCE mission in Almaty, told Keston by telephone. "Furthermore, the Kazakh law on freedom of conscience and religious associations does not make registration obligatory. At the same time, I do not think that the persecution of believers who refuse to register is a deliberate state policy, rather it is simply on the whim of local officials. According to my statistics, Baptists who refuse to be registered for ideological reasons form the majority of those who are currently being persecuted." (END)