Thursday, December 01, 2011

Religious freedom in Kazakhstan

Religious freedom is not something that most countries in the world subscribe to. In the UK religious freedom is subsidiary to supporting gay rights.

But things are far worse in the former Russian Republics.

A teenager was knocked unconscious by a policeman in a raid on a church meeting in Kazakhstan as the authorities continue their crackdown on religious freedom under strict new laws.

The 17-year-old girl was hit by the officer in a raid on a worship service by an officially registered Protestant church in Atyrau. The congregation was targeted because it was meeting away from its legal address, which is not allowed under the new Religion Law. They had been forced to gather at a hotel because the authorities had blocked them from using their regular venue. Since the new legislation came into force on 11 October, Baptist churches, which refuse to register with the authorities on principle, have reported increased harassment and pressure from officials, who interrupt their services and issue threats. Children who attend Baptist churches are being taunted by their classmates, who say that their churches will be closed down and their parents sent to prison, having apparently heard this on television and from some teachers.

In other developments, churches and mosques in the Almaty’s Turksib District have been instructed to report “on a daily basis” what measures they are taking to counter extremism, while regulations are being drawn up regarding the state censorship of almost all imported religious literature and objects. Only registered religious organisations may import “informational materials of religious content”, apart from small quantities for personal use, with prior approval from the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), which will conduct an “expert analysis” of each title. It will be an offence to import, produce or distribute any literature rejected by the ARA, punishable by fines and, if done by a registered organisation, a suspension of the organisation’s activity for three months.

Observers have highlighted the fact that such censorship directly violates Kazakhstan’s international human rights commitments. The new Religion Law also requires compulsory state registration of both foreigners and Kazakh citizens engaged in “missionary activity” and “spreading a faith”. ARA chairman Kairat Lama Sharif said that this was to prevent and counter “the destructive influence of several non-traditional religious organisations on the process of the spiritual/moral development of Kazakh society”.

The new legislation favours the country’s “traditional religions”, notably the Hanafi school of Islam and Russian Orthodox Christianity, leaving smaller Christian denominations and other religious minority groups concerned that their activities will be targeted and curtailed. The New Life Protestant Church in Almaty has already fallen victim to this. Five foreign guest speakers could not attend a conference the church organised following a ruling from the ARA just four days before the event. Officials have insisted that they did not ban the speakers, but the ARA wrote to the church recommending “refraining from inviting” them, leaving the church with no real alternative in the current climate.

The Kazakh authorities are speedily implementing the new laws; regulations are now being prepared that will govern other elements including the re-registration process, how and where places of worship can be built, and where religious books and materials are allowed to be sold.

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