Long antagonistic to a wide spectrum of religious faiths, the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan passed new regulations that critics are calling a blow to religious freedom.
The Kazakh house of parliament approved the bill Thursday. Backers say it will help combat religious extremism. A day earlier, Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament had also voted in favor of the bill.
The bill, now approved by the Senate, requires existing religious organizations to dissolve and register again through a cumbersome procedure that some say is designed to exclude both Muslim and Christian sects outside of the mainstream, such as this Charismatic church led by missionaries from South Korea:
As a result, it will be legal to be a Roman Catholic, but illegal to be a Southern Baptist. One activist estimates that two-thirds of existing Kazakh religious groups could be banned as a result — and added that the bill just legalizes repression that has existed for years.
“This new law has simply legalized the current practice of persecuting unregistered minority religious groups and limiting missionary activity,” said rights activist Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee.
Five congregations of the Baptist Council of Churches were raided in Kzakhstan’s Karaganda Region in September. Riot police shut down a church’s Harvest Festival service in Zhezkazgan on Sunday, September 25, and a church leader was fined nearly ten months’ salary.
“A new wave of persecution has begun once more,” one Baptist told the advocacy group Forum 18 on September 26.
Two Jehovah’s Witnesses from the southern town of Kyzylorda failed in their appeals. One was jailed for seven days and another fined. The home owner was warned her home would be confiscated if she continued to hold religious meetings there.
In Shymkent. the Islamic Ahmadi community has failed to overturn a court-imposed ban on continuing to use their mosque.
Pastor Yerzhan Ushanov of the New Life Protestant Church in Taraz is challenging a heavy fine imposed on September 5 for allegedly harming the health of a man who he prayed for – a charge he denies.
Viktor Gutyar, a resident of the town of Satpaev in the central Karaganda Region, told Forum 18 on September 26 that he was fined for leading an unregistered religious service.
“At its core, the draft law increases surveillance of religious groups by forcing them to re-register with the local authorities. Those considered too small with be refused registration,” reported James Kilner for the British newspaper the Telegraph:
Opponents of the law say it is an infringement on religious freedom but supporters, including Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, have said it is vital to stop the spread of violence linked to militant Islam.
“The bill prohibits religious associations that are bent on the destruction of families, force the abandonment of property in favour of religious communities … and that are harmful to the morals and health of citizens,” the upper chamber of Kazakhstan’s parliament said this week in a statement, according to the AP news agency.
Under the new law a group will be refused registration at a local level if it has fewer than 50 members. At a regional level a religious group is required to have more than 500 members for registration and at a national level more than 5,000.
Kazakhstan is an ethnically diverse, nominally secular state. The majority of Kazakhstan’s 17 million people are Muslims although there are a number of smaller religious groups, including Christians, which would be affected by the new draft law.
The bills also prohibits church services except in officially recognized church-owned buildings and bans prayer in government buildings.