Kazakhstan Baptists Concerned by Mounting Religious Restrictions

Religious believers in Kazakhstan say they expect mounting restrictions on their rights after a series of reported incidents against the nation’s religious communities, along with a controversial new law on "extremism."

"First the authorities closed down our children's home and are trying to close down the charitable fund we set up. Now they've started to persecute our church's members," Dmitri Yantsen, a Baptist leader in central Kazakhstan, told Forum 18 News Service.

"It seems to me this is not the initiative of local officials, but deliberate state policy," Yantsen added.

Although Kazakhstan’s National Religion Law does not require religious organizations to register with the Government—leading many to believe that the law ensures the right of members of unregistered groups to practice their religion—the law does, however, specify that those religious organizations that wish to receive legal status must register.

But according to the Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), “For churches that understood the suffering and oppression under the former Soviet Union, government registration means government control.”

“As a result, a significant number of Baptist churches refuse to register with the government,” VOM added.

In its annual report on international religious freedom, the U.S. State Department stated that instances of harassment of religious organizations by local Kazakhstan officials decreased during the period covered by the report. However believers such Yantsen claim that in the past few months the authorities' policy towards religious believers has become much harsher recent demonstrating increasing pressure against unregistered religious groups in the country.

As evidence of his claim, Yantsen cited the closure of the Baptist children's home he led in Temirtau and moves to close their church-run charity.

In another case—against a Baptist who led unregistered worship—Yantsen told Forum 18 that court executors in Nurinsk district in the north of Karaganda region seized property belonging to Aleksei Boiko, who had refused to pay a fine under administrative code Article 375, which allows authorities to suspend the activities or fine the leaders of unregistered religious organizations.

Forum 18 reported that Yantsen's claim was also supported by increasing conflicts between the state and believers in other parts of the country, such as the conflict that arose between a Korean Protestant church and the authorities in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan.

According to VOM, the increasing pressure on unregistered Kazakh Christians may possibly be related to the amendments to the controversial draft law on extremism adopted by the upper house of parliament, the senate, in December.

The amendments, which would increase state control over religious groups, would allow law enforcement agencies to stop a religious organization that is suspected of extremist activity from functioning before a court decision had been reached, Forum 18 reported.

In addition, VOM noted that the draft legislation does not define "extremism," but refers to the word "religious" ten times.

Currently Forum 18 reports that the draft law, including amendments to ban religious organizations before a court decision, is now with the lower house of the Kazakh parliament.