Kazakhstan Laws Tighten Restrictions on Religious Activity

New national security amendments, signed recently by Kazkhstan's president, have brought in tight new restrictions on religious activity that violate the country's international human rights commitments, a Norway-based watchdog group reported yesterday.

According to Forum 18, which published a report yesterday regarding the new amendments, Kazakhstan has banned all unregistered religious activity and introduced fines for leaders and participants in such activity. It has also restricted missionary activity to licensed missionaries. In addition, literature for use by missionaries requires prior censorship, with fines – and, for foreign nationals, deportation – for those who violate the restrictions.

Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, reported that the controversial changes to the religion law – which echo those taken in neighboring Uzbekistan in 1998 – came in the “sweeping new law” introducing changes and amendments to legislation relating to the provision of national security, which was approved by parliament on June 29 and signed on July 8 by Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Particularly worried have been the Council of Churches Baptists, who reject registration in principle in all the former Soviet republics where they operate. One church member told Forum 18 that congregations in Kazakhstan have written numerous appeals to President Nazarbayev and other officials in recent months calling on them not to adopt the new law. They point out that even when registration was not compulsory, their pastors have been fined for leading unregistered communities.

The law has also prompted strong criticism from international and local human rights organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

According to Forum 18, the OSCE had urged that the ban on unregistered religious activity should be excluded from the law. "Unfortunately this was not done," an official of the OSCE mission in Almaty told Forum 18.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw is preparing a detailed critique of the "overly restrictive nature" of the new law which will be published in the near future.

Forum 18 reports that authorities have long sought to restrict religious rights by tightening the 1992 religion law. A harsh new law was adopted by parliament in 2002 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.