Kazakhstan Considers New Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Kazakhstan's parliament might consider sweeping new restrictions on religious freedom on Wednesday

Kazakhstan's parliament might consider sweeping new restrictions on religious freedom on Wednesday, a Norway-based religious persecution watchdog group reported today.

Forum 18, which monitors religious persecution in Communist and former Soviet states, reported Tuesday that the lower house of Kazakhstan's parliament – the Majlis – is preparing to consider highly controversial amendments to a range of laws that will bring in sweeping new restrictions on religious freedom, perhaps as early as tomorrow.

"The Majlis will consider the draft law in plenary session tomorrow Wednesday and again the following Wednesday, May 11," Aleksandr Klyushev, head of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK), told Forum 18 on Tuesday. Klyushev said the draft would then go the upper house, the Senate, and then to the president for signature into law.

According to Forum 18, the sweeping range of amendments "on national security issues" to various laws and codes – including to the religion law – would criminalize unregistered religious activity, ban all unapproved "missionary" activity by local people or foreigners, require approval for religious literature and dress and widen the powers of officials to ban religious communities. Human rights activists, religious communities and international organizations like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have spoken out against the proposals.

The OSCE, which held a forum on Apr. 22 in Astana to discuss the proposed amendments, strongly criticized the amendments, stating that if adopted in current form, they "would be in breach of international legally binding standards on several accounts." The organization has urged the authorities to reconsider them.

"The proposed legislation contains amendments that may result in non-compliance with a wide range of OSCE commitments regarding human rights, democracy and the rule of law," the OSCE declared. "This raises serious concerns, particularly with regard to freedom of association, freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of opinion and expression."

The organization rejected the government's assertion that the security situation required such amendments, declaring that "national security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations that jeopardize fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, under international law, national security cannot justify restrictions upon the freedom of religion or belief."

Roman Podoprigora, a Professor at the Adilet Law School in the city of Almaty and an expert on religious freedom, said that if the religion law is amended according to the current proposal, pressure on religious communities will only increase.

"There would be persecution as in the Soviet times – or as in Uzbekistan today, where a fight is already underway against unregistered religious organizations," he told Forum 18. "Even if they don't exist de jure, these religious communities exist de facto. No-one can prevent that."

He said that the national security amendments have been drawn up largely in secret with little official desire to see them discussed publicly.

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.