Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Kazakhstan: When the law stifles religious freedom

Religious freedom in Kazakhstan is at risk.  

AsiaNews agency reported that the new laws on religious freedom have led to the disappearance of 579 Protestant churches, Islamic sects and faith groups and communities with less than 5 members. 

According to Kairat Lama Sharif who is responsible for religious affairs, as of 21 October, the date when the law came into force, the number of churches dropped by 13%.   

Many Protestant churches, including Christian Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists will be forced to celebrate their rituals in their homes and under the strict surveillance of the authorities. 

In recent days, the Kazak government sent a letter to all communities inviting them to adhere to the new regulations or stop their worshipping activities. 

Authorities have given a one year deadline for churches to gather the minimum number of faithful required for registration. 

However, during this period, no church with less than 50 faithful will be allowed to celebrate in public, even if they meet the above mentioned regulations.

Vyacheslav Melnik, pastor at Grace Church in Shakhan, in the district of Shakhtinsk (Karaganda region), stated that the police summoned him to police headquarters so that he could have the government’s communiqué read out to him. 

“Our community – he said – is terrified. Faithful are afraid to pray together or even to meet just to talk.” 

Various leaders have protested against acts that violate religious freedom. But despite the appeals and the consultations requested by minorities, the government has been rigid in its approach, justifying the law as an act that is necessary for the defence of the Country from religious terrorism. 

For this reason, whoever refuses to register or celebrates religious rituals in public without permission will be punished. 

The first victim of this new system was Aleksei Asetov, leader of the Council of Baptist Churches in Ekibastuz. 

Mr. Asetov was forced to pay a fine of 2.486 Euro, equal to 18 months of salary, for not registering his congregation. 

Asetov is a cobbler and father of 10. 

If he fails to pay the fine, not only will he go to jail, but his possessions will be confiscated.

The laws were enforced last 21 October by decision of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and were intended as a means of combating Islamic extremism. 

 But they impact all religious groups in the Country and are aimed at nationalising the faiths that are considered traditional or which have many followers, according to the control model used by the Chinese government. 

In order to survive on a national level and avoid sanctions, non native churches have to demonstrate that they have at least 5000 members. 

The law forbids any form of religious expression in public places and prohibits Muslim women from wearing the veil. 

In theory, only the Russian Orthodox Church and Kazak Islamic communities, considered to be the traditional faiths, had previously been excluded from these restrictions. 

However, the recent discovery of extremist groups in Kazakhstan and the October 31st attacks in Atyran, in the western part of the Country, have pushed the government to clamp down on these faiths too.