Kazakhstan Christians Concerned Over Proposed Religion Law Changes

Religious minorities and human rights activists have condemned proposed changes to Kazakhstan’s religion law that would ban unregistered religious activity, ban unapproved missionary activity by both local citizens and foreigners, and subject religious literature to official approval, a Norway-based religious persecution watchdog group reported Tuesday.

Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, reported yesterday that the draft religion law and other legal changes that significantly restrict believers' rights are likely to be considered at a session of the lower house of parliament on Apr. 16 after current discussions in the parliamentary working group are complete

Religious minority leaders and human rights activists have expressed fears to Forum 18 over plans to require all religious communities to register before they can function and to ban missionary activity by both foreigners and local citizens unless it is licensed. Religious literature and recordings are also set to require approval. “Such sweeping controls violate Kazakhstan's constitution and its international human rights commitments, including as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),” Forum 18 reported.

According to the watchdog group, substantial changes will be made to more than ten laws under the draft law, including the current law on religion.

Article 4 of the draft amended religion law has a new sixth section that forbids the activity of unregistered religious organizations, Forum 18 reported. Kazakhstan would thereby join two of the other Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, whose laws on religion forbid the activity of unregistered religious organizations in defiance of international human rights commitments.

Forum 18 noted in its report that although Kazakhstan's prime minister Danial Akhmetov signed the draft law on Feb. 24, the text did not become known to the general public until the beginning of April, when it was published on the parliament's website.

Some see the hand of the National Security Committee secret police (KNB, the former KGB) in this tightening of state control over religious activity. "This draft law was drawn up in the National Security Committee and has merely been signed by the prime minister," Almaty Helsinki Committee head Ninel Fokina told Forum 18 on Saturday. "Essentially, today it is the former KGB that lays down religious policy in the country."

In a March letter to the head of the parliamentary working group, Protestant churches in Almaty filed complaints that the proposed new restrictions on religious activity violated the country's constitution and international commitments.

"The entire draft bears the clear imprint of mistrust of religious organizations and a desire to put them in a much worse legal position than other legal bodies," the letter obtained by Forum 18 declared. It cited concerns over the requirement to register religious communities and missionaries, to submit religious literature and recordings for approval and the ease with which religious organizations could be liquidated "even for trivial violations". Protestant churches in Karaganda region wrote a similar complaint earlier in March.

As well as making registration of religious communities compulsory, the new draft law substantially restricts missionary activity – defined in the draft as "preaching and promotion of any faith-based doctrine by means of religious proselytizing activity."

Forum 18 reports that additional articles are to be introduced into the religion law which will oblige missionaries to register with the local authorities. Additionally, the local authorities will in future be able to control the activity of a religious organization. Thus, according to the legal amendment, "After registration the additional use of documents with a religious content must be agreed with the local authorities".

In a significant new move, the amendment specifies that not just foreigners but also Kazakh citizens who are carrying out missionary work are to be considered missionaries, Forum 18 reported. Therefore, believers may only promote their views with the agreement of the authorities.

Roman Dudnik, head of the Protestant Emmanuel community, is among those worried by the provisions in the draft law, arguing that the state has stepped up its policy against religious minorities. "In many areas we have communities where there are fewer than the 10 members required for registration," he told Forum 18. "Now it turns out that these believers will be legally persecuted. The discussion about missionary activity in the draft law is also very dangerous. It turns out that no believer can tell people his religious views without the permission of the authorities."

Wide-ranging concerns have been expressed by Aleksander Klyushev, head of the Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan, which has called for more openness in discussing the proposed changes with legal experts and representatives of religious communities.

According to Forum 18, authorities have long sought to restrict religious rights by tightening the 1992 religion law. A harsh new law was adopted by parliament in 2002 (the eighth such attempt) and approved by President Nazarbayev. However, under pressure from international and local human rights organizations, the constitutional council ruled in April 2002 that the new law contradicted the constitution and it was withdrawn.