Small religious groups say a new law nominally aimed at extremists is really designed to suppress the freedom of belief.by Dariya Tsyrenzhapova 16 April 2012
ALMATY | Five months after a new religion law took effect, some faith groups in Kazakhstan are facing heightened scrutiny from the state. Hundreds of small congregations have already been denied official registration, and many more face the threat of closure by next fall.
In early April, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were put on trial after holding a conversation about the Bible with a grocery store sales clerk in Karasu in the northern Kostanay Province. Each faced the equivalent of a $1,100 fine for conducting missionary work without official registration.
In another instance, members of a small Muslim sect have been unwilling to gather for Friday prayers for almost two months for fear of further official reprisals after they were fined for illegally using a private home as a mosque.
Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other small faith communities in this culturally diverse nation are under pressure to abide by strict rules imposed by the new law. Critics say the measure, passed by parliament in September and sold by the government as a remedy against Islamic radicalism, favors the two recognized main religions, Russian Orthodox Christianity and Hanafi Islam.
The new law classifies Kazakhstan-born religious workers as missionaries, a category reserved for foreigners previously, and requires them, like foreigners, to register with the Justice Ministry on a yearly basis. The registration will license them to conduct religious activity strictly within the organization’s geographic area. Depending on the number of permanent members – 50, 500, or 5,000 – each congregation can be registered on a local, regional, or national level.
Raising the bar for registration from the previous 10 to 50 permanent members has effectively de-registered 579 small congregations, the state Religious Affairs Agency reported in February.
The remaining almost 4,000 religious organizations must renew their official registrations by 25 October or face being shut down by court order.
Small religious groups are concerned the agency will not process their applications and forward them to the Justice Ministry by the deadline. But the most onerous obstacle to re-registration, they say, may be the new requirement that all religious literature, along with the organizations’ documentation, must undergo review by the religion agency.
Religion scholar Artur Artemyev says while it is not unreasonable to review obscure religious texts, it is absurd to require the same vetting for the Bible and the Koran, along with spiritual literature such as the Bhagavad Gita.
“This is an unreasonable waste of public money,” he said.
Soon after the law was enacted, Jehovah’s Witness literature began facing hurdles. The group has had to halt distribution of two of its magazines – The Watchtower and Awake – pending the religion agency’s review.
“This is study material for our devotees that is used weekly in 230 countries around the globe,” said Polat Bekzhan, chairman of the governing committee for the Jehovah’s Witness Religious Center in Kazakhstan.
The church claims 17,000 followers in the country.
With only seven months until the deadline, the Religious Affairs Agency only began accepting re-registration applications on 17 March.
Prominent rights activist Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee says the registration requirement is a means for the state to control the activities of religious organizations.
“In effect, registration amounts to a license for religious denominations to freely exercise their beliefs,” she said.
Ahmadi Muslims say their right to worship is already being restricted, although the denomination has a valid official registration. Ahmadis stopped gathering for the Friday prayer after their mosque, located in a private Almaty home, was raided 3 March and fined 48,540 tenge (about $300) for “illegal use of property.”
Ahmadi Muslims preach an intellectual, pacifist understanding of Islam, Artemyev said.
“The numerous attempts by the Muslim world to blacklist and label them as ‘non-traditional’ are rooted in politics and driven by nothing but the fear of a serious rival,” he said.
For Nurym Taibek, an Ahmadi devotee for 10 years, not reading the namaz prayer on Fridays is sinful. “No matter what the circumstances are, praying is the holy duty of every believer,” he said.
FENCING THE NATION OFF
The debate over tighter control on religious groups came to the fore again in September when President Nursultan Nazarbaev called for the religion law to be updated soon after independent Kazakhstan’s first suicide bombing.
“Since independence, several international religious organizations managed to open their own educational institutions,” Secretary of State Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed told the Izvestiya Kazakhstan newspaper in February. “But at some point, we lost control of what propaganda they were spreading.”
“The point here is not to eliminate freedom of belief, but to fence the nation off from religious extremism,” Nazarbaev said when he introduced the legislation. “This is something done by all states, much more so by those professing Islam as their state religion.”
Tighter controls on religious organizations failed to pass in 2002 and 2008 when the Constitutional Council ruled they breached the rights of equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by the constitution.
But Astana had learned its lesson. “This time it was drafted under strict confidentiality, and did not undergo significant changes compared with its unsuccessful forerunners,” Fokina said.
Human rights defenders, including Fokina, read the law only after parliament had passed it.
“Now the government knows for certain that things may simply go wrong if it leaves the slightest opportunity for civil society to speak out,” she said.
Artemyev sees the new law as nothing but a detailed guide to suppressing believers’ rights and freedoms.
“A secular society that constitutionally proclaims the freedom of faith cannot adopt a law that in fact rules it out,” he said.
New registration procedures require each religious organization to submit personal information on its members.
“They decided to label and sort us, as if to say, ‘You’re a Krishna follower and you’re a Christian,’ ” said Galina Galaus, president of the Society of Krishna Consciousness in Almaty. “Why do this? I’m a free human being.”
Fokina predicted the law will not have the intended effect. “No one can forbid people from belief,” she said.
Religious rights campaigners were relieved on 10 April when the Karasu district court threw out the charges against the two Jehovah’s Witnesses for lack of evidence, although prosecutors may still appeal. But concerns over the long-term effects of the law remain very much alive.
For Artemyev, who as a member of the state religion council in the Soviet period tried to convince Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses to register with the authorities, the new law is worrisome.
Because extremist religious groups will remain unregistered, he believes the law will not serve its official purpose of suppressing terrorism.
“We are heading back to the worst times of the Soviet regime when many religious organizations existed underground,” he said. “Now they are being forced to return to a hole and corner life.”