In a bid to reduce the number of legally existing religious organisations, Kazakhstan's authorities have cancelled the registration of 579 “small religious groups” across the country, thereby depriving them of the right to exist. Kazakhstan’s senior state religious affairs official, Kairat Lama Sharif, has described the 13% fall in the number of registered religious communities in Kazakhstan as a “positive dynamic”. He said the number of registered communities “will probably” fall further in the wake of the controversial new Religion Law.
Saule Ibrayeva, Chair of Akmola Region's Departments of the Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), sent a written warning on 7 February to the Heads of Administrations of the Region's Districts and their officials overseeing religious organisations. The letter, signed by Ibrayeva and seen by Forum 18, demands that they cancel the registration of small religious groups and explain to the leaders of these groups that “they must hand back their certificates of registration and stop their activity immediately until they re-register as legal entities." “Now our believers are afraid each time they gather for worship,” one church leader told Forum 18.
Ibrayeva claims in the letter that based on the new Religion Law, which entered into force in October 2011, “the activity of small religious groups in the territory of Kazakhstan is now banned since there is no such form of religious association of citizens” defined by the current Law.
Ibrayeva defended her warning. “We have a new law,” she told Forum 18 on 15 February 2012 from Kokshetau, the central City of Akmola, “and as it does not allow for the existence of religious associations which have fewer than fifty members. They should either re-register with fifty members or stop their activity as a religious association.”
Ibrayeva rejected suggestions that the law allows them to continue their activity until 25 October, the re-registration deadline. “Until re-registration they can pray in their homes alone, why should they gather together as groups?” she asked. When asked, for example, how Christians belonging to a small group can administer the Eucharist to themselves or how they can preach to themselves alone at home, Ibrayeva responded: “This is the law and everybody must obey it. This is not Norway, this is Kazakhstan. We have our own laws.”
Affected Religious Communities
Gaukhar Alkeyeva, the legal representative of Central Grace Presbyterian Church in Karaganda, and Pastor Oleg Vlasenko of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Astana told Forum 18 that their branches, registered as small religious communities, in Akmola and Karaganda, received official warnings to stop their activity and hand back their registration certificates.
Similarly Pastor Franz Thiessen, Head of Kazakhstan's Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that their small communities across the country also received warnings. But he did not want to identify these communities for fear of state reprisals.
Grace Church's small communities in Akmola and Karaganda Regions were told by the Central Church in Karaganda to continue worship. “We advised our communities not to hand back their certificates, and continue worship,” Alkeyeva said. “However, we are worried about possible punishments from the authorities.” She said that in Shakhtinsk alone, Shakhan village Grace Church has up to twelve small groups in various nearby villages.
Kazakhstan has long fined leaders and members of religious communities which meet without registration. Administrative punishments were widened and increased under an Amending Law adopted at the same time as the harsh new Religion Law.
For a personal commentary on how attacking religious freedom damages national security in Kazakhstan, see F18News http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=564.
For more background, see Forum 18's Kazakhstan religious freedom survey at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1352.
More reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Kazakhstan can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=29.
A compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments can be found at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1351.
A printer-friendly map of Kazakhstan is available at http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/mapping/outline-map/?map=Kazakhstan.
SourceForum 18 News Service