KAZAKHSTAN: Baptists Bear Brunt of Campaign Against Unregistered Communities.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 18 September 2002

Local Baptists of a denomination that refuses to register its congregations with the authorities on principle have called for support amid "the difficulties that we have been undergoing recently at the hands of the authorities". In statements of 21 August and 30 August, passed to Keston News Service, they report an increasing number of fines and court orders closing down churches. A senior religious affairs official openly admitted that action against unregistered religious communities has been stepped up, but claimed that this was in accordance with the law. "Previously, officials in the provinces simply did not have time to deal with unregistered religious communities," Amanbek Mukhashev, deputy chairman of the government's council for relations with religious organisations, told Keston from the capital Astana on 13 September. "But now at last the law is being observed locally as well."

The Baptists being targeted for fines and enforced closure orders are from congregations that belong to the International Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, which believes that registering with the authorities would lead to unwarranted state meddling (see KNS 1 July 2002).

On 22 August two police officers and one employee from the administration in the town of Kapchagai in Almaty region of southern Kazakhstan entered the Baptist church, where a children's choir practice was underway. Officers took the children out of the church, as well as the member of the congregation leading the choir practice, and sealed the building. The leader of the church, Pastor A. Kalmakov, has already been fined for refusing to register the congregation: on 16 October 2001 a court fined him 15,500 tenge (101 US dollars, 104 Euros or 66 British pounds) under article 375, part 1 of Kazakhstan's administrative code. The court also ruled that the church be closed down.

In Almaty, the city's Ministry of Internal Affairs is investigating the case of Elizaveta Ortlib, who has offered an unregistered Baptist church the use of her private home for meetings. Internal affairs officials have threatened Ortlib that they will bring a criminal case against her if she does not stop allowing her home to be used for church meetings.

On 22 May, an administrative action was brought against V. Zidrashko, pastor of a Baptist church in the village of Balpyk Bi in Koksui district of Almaty region. Currently, the public prosecutor's assistant, a junior legal adviser at the procuracy in Koksui district, B. Akishev, has warned Zidrashko that criminal proceedings have been instituted against him which will soon be brought to court.

On 24 June, the trial took place of pensioner Nadezhda Chernykh, a member of the Baptist church in the Taranov district of Kustanai region in northern Kazakhstan on the border with the Russian Urals. The judge at Taranov district court, T. Mukhatyanov, fined Chernykh 823 tenge (5 US dollars, 6 Euros or 3 British pounds) for refusing to register the community, and banned the church's activity.

On 23 August in the town of Taldy-Kurgan, a regional centre 265 kilometres (165 miles) north of Almaty, staff at the regional akimat (administration) warned local Baptist pastors Yu. Rudenko and S. Yereshenko that if they did not register their church, the authorities would seal the prayer house and refer the case to the procuracy.

Under Kazakhstan's law on religion, the registration of religious communities is not compulsory. However, in 2000, a special amendment was made to article 374 of the administrative code that made the activity of an unregistered religious organisation illegal. In the view of Kazakh human rights activists (such as the chair of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina), the law on religion has greater force than the amendment to article 374 of the administrative code and therefore the prosecution of unregistered religious communities is unlawful.

However, officials argue that, because the amendment to article 374 post-dates the law on religion, one should be governed by the amendment. Members of the ICCECB churches are the most frequent victims of the amendment to article 374.

Speaking to Keston by telephone from Almaty on 13 September, Fokina maintained that "the oppression of religious communities that refuse to be registered has recently intensified", a perception echoed by the chair of the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights, Maria Pullman. However, both human rights activists found it hard to say what had prompted this. "Is it possible to find any logic in the activities of a state that is not based on the rule of law?" Pullman commented to Keston from Almaty the same day.

"I'm fed up with answering journalists' questions about cases against religious organisations that refuse to be registered," Mukhashev told Keston. He claimed that the authorities' action against such religious organisations is "entirely justified and lawful". "Occasionally, improper activities are performed under the cover of religion, and so we will not permit the existence of unregistered religious organisations." He declared that the authorities are governed by article 22 of the law on religion and also by the amendment to article 374 of the administrative code. However, in article 22 - which covers "control over the observance of the law on freedom of conscience and of religious organisation" - there is no mention of any ban on the activity of unregistered religious organisations.

"The overwhelming majority of Baptists do not refuse to be registered," Mukhashev declared. "Only Baptists who are members of the ICCECB make an issue out of this. But there are very few such Baptists here in Kazakhstan." He said the authorities "are trying to find a compromise with these people". He claimed that they had allowed them to make a "purely formal registration", without registering a juridical address. "Some of their leaders have agreed to resolve the issue in this way." (END)