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21 February 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Bookshop censorship, ban on all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature

Kazakhstan continues to ban all non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim literature. State-backed Muslim Board spokesperson Ongar Omirbek told Forum 18 News Service that "only Islamic literature from the Sunni Hanafi school can be distributed, as all other Muslim schools - including Ahmadis - are banned". Shia Muslims across Kazakhstan, who asked not to be named for fear of state reprisals, told Forum 18 that Shia literature cannot be found on sale. Local authorities and "law enforcement" agencies have been enforcing censorship – including severe limitations on the numbers of bookshops allowed to sell any kind of religious material – across Kazakhstan with raids and fines. Even some shops with permission to sell religious books such as Korans and Bibles have told Forum 18 that they do not want to do so, to avoid trouble from the authorities. Yerlan Kalmakov of Kostanai Regional Internal Policy Department, asked why people must ask for permission from the authorities, replied: "Imagine what could happen if we allow just anybody to distribute religious materials". He added that "unregistered religious organisations, which are illegal in Kazakhstan will use this and attract people to their ranks. They will thus continue their illegal existence".

5 February 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "To counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism"

At least eight separate meetings for worship in Kazakhstan were raided by the authorities in January, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Raids on Baptists were made, police claimed, "to counter manifestations of religious extremism and terrorism". It seems that some raids – which police insist were not raids - took place after official monitoring of the religious communities. Speaking of a raid on Jehovah's Witnesses, police Major Kanat Rakhmetzhanov told Forum 18 that: "It is not against the law to gather to watch football, read poetry or drink vodka. But our lads wouldn't have gone to such a meeting for no reason. We had reliable information that prayers were being said." Fines for the unregistered exercise of religious freedom were imposed on three Baptist pastors. Police gave evidence that Pastor Aleksandr Kerker illegally "stood at the pulpit and read Psalms from the Bible, then those present sang Christian hymns". He – with the other two pastors – were each fined the equivalent of nearly two months' average wages for this "offence".

25 January 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: "Protect us from officials' lawlessness"

Mosques in Kazakhstan continue to be denied re-registration – and so permission to exist – if they will not join the state-backed Muslim Board, Forum 18 News Service has found. Independent and ethnic minority mosques are being particularly targeted. In one example, Imam Nurmuhamed Ahmedyanov of Abai District Mosque was "deceived .. into writing a letter" to a court that "I do not mind the liquidation of the Mosque". The Mosque has now been closed and officials denied all responsibility when questioned by Forum 18. Members of the only remaining ethnic Tatar-Bashkir mosque, the historic Din-Muhammad Mosque in Petropavl, have come under heavy pressure. For example, one night the state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) telephoned the Imam and some elderly members of the community for an 09.00 meeting with the Head of the Region's administration Serik Bilyalov. He threatened them that if they did not join the Muslim Board the community would be liquidated and the mosque would be taken over by the local authorities who would use it for some public non-religious purpose. A central ARA official claimed to Forum 18 that "there is no pressure on the mosques".

22 January 2013

KAZAKHSTAN: Seven large fines for "illegal missionary activity" – so far

Seven individuals - four Jehovah's Witnesses, two Muslims and a Protestant – are known to have been prosecuted since August 2012 for "illegal missionary activity", Forum 18 News Service has learned. Many are being given the maximum fine of 100 Minimum Financial Indicators, which in many parts of Kazakhstan represents several months' average wages. At least three more individuals are known to be expecting prosecution. Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 they fear that the fines already handed down "will no doubt further embolden the Agency of Religious Affairs [ARA] and local law enforcement officials to arrest Jehovah's Witnesses". Zhorabek Daurenov of the ARA Department in Astana defended such fines on a local Jehovah's Witness and a Protestant. "If the Religion Law had been against the Constitution, it wouldn't have been adopted," he claimed to Forum 18.

11 December 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Mosques and churches forcibly closed

Kazakhstan is enforcing though the courts the closures of many religious communities after the deadline for re-registration applications expired. Communities complain of arbitrary and flawed decisions. One Protestant church was liquidated for providing "false information" after one of its 54 founders died shortly before the re-registration deadline, its pastor told Forum 18 News Service. Registration requires only 50 founders. An independent mosque was closed down for failing to give extensive information about its beliefs in its application. The judge in the case refused to explain to Forum 18 why her verdict said the mosque's representative was present in court, while the imam told Forum 18 they knew nothing of the hearings. A Protestant Church complained to Forum 18 it was closed down because most of its members are ethnic Kazakhs. No one at the government's Agency of Religious Affairs in the capital Astana was prepared to discuss the court-ordered closures with Forum 18.

7 December 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: "There can be no Tatar, Chechen or Tajik mosques"

Among the many religious communities denied the legal right to exist as Kazakhstan completes its compulsory and cumbersome re-registration process are mosques catering to Muslims mainly of one ethnic minority community. Members of Almaty's Azeri Shia community – already liquidated in court – told Forum 18 News Service they fear it may be forced to stop worship. Denied re-registration, the 160-year-old Tatar-Bashkir Din-Muhammad Mosque in the northern city of Petropavl is "on the verge of closure", community members complained. "This would be a blow not only to our religious traditions but also to our culture as a whole," one mosque member told Forum 18. "There are no divisions in Islam based on ethnic identity. There can be no Tatar, Chechen or Tajik mosques," Nurislyam Gabdullin, the religious affairs official who refused to approve the re-registration, told Forum 18. "I have in front of me the Charter of the Community, which calls itself the Tatar-Bashkir Din-Muhammad Religious Community. That is not possible in Kazakhstan."

5 December 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Government "did the right thing" in allowing wanted Uzbek pastor to leave

Uzbek Protestant pastor Makset Djabbarbergenov was released from prison in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty yesterday (4 December), reunited with his wife and four children and taken to the airport. They boarded a flight for Germany in the early hours of today (5 December), arriving safely in Europe, his friends told Forum 18 News Service. Facilitating the release and asylum in Europe was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Uzbekistan has been seeking to extradite Djabbarbergenov on charges which carry a maximum 15 year prison term to punish him for leading an unregistered Protestant community. His friends in Almaty told Forum 18 "we need to thank the Kazakh government – they did the right thing". Meanwhile, the Kazakh government – condemned by the United Nations Committee Against Torture for sending back to Uzbekistan 29 Muslim asylum seekers who alleged they would face torture – has insisted to the UN that they have checked that none was tortured in prison in Uzbekistan.

22 November 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: Muslim Board Islamic monopoly, Catholic exemption

Kazakhstan's Muslim and Catholic communities have been given different treatment to other communities in state decisions on whether they are allowed to exist, Forum 18 News Service has found. All Muslim communities must be part of the state-backed Muslim Board. No independent mosques or Shia Muslim communities have been given state permission to exist. Neither have any Ahmadi Muslim communities, all of whom having been forcibly closed by the state. The Ahmadis have only applied for re-registration for one of their communities, in Almaty. The Muslim Board's spokesperson told Forum 18 that all Islamic communities "must be Hanafi Sunni Muslim". "We don't have other sorts of Muslims here", he added. Asked about Shia mosques or mosques of other schools of Sunni Islam, he replied: "There aren't any." Explaining different treatment for Catholics under an Agreement with the Holy See, a Justice Ministry official stated that international agreements override the Religion Law. But he did not explain why this reasoning does not also apply to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose provisions would abolish most of the Religion Law including its provisions on compulsory state registration to exercise human rights.

21 November 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: "Complex", "arbitrary", "unnecessary" and "expensive" re-registration process

Many religious communities in Kazakhstan have complained to Forum 18 News Service of what they variously describe as the "complex", "burdensome", "arbitrary", "unnecessary" and "expensive" compulsory re-registration process – which breaks the country's international human rights obligations. Few were prepared to give their names, for fear of state reprisals. One community denied re-registration was the Kostanai congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. "ARA officials told us that as we don't have a place of worship there to meet in we couldn't apply for re-registration," Fr Gennadi Subbotin told Forum 18. Not having a place of worship has not prevented others from gaining re-registration. Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) spokesperson Svetlana Penkova told Forum 18 that those failing to gain re-registration "can still meet until they have been liquidated through the courts". And in an apparently co-ordinated move, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Won Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal leaders have written to President Nursultan Nazarbaev praising him for ensuring what they claim is "religious tolerance" in Kazakhstan. All their communities have been re-registered.

5 November 2012

KAZAKHSTAN: "What difference does it make whether you are registered or not?"

Kazakhstan continues to attempt to make exercising freedom of religion or belief dependent on state permission, Forum 18 News Service has found. Council of Churches Baptists face possible confiscation of their homes if they continue to meet, Pastor Dmitry Yantsen asking rhetorically "What difference does it make whether you are registered or not?". Pastor Yantsen also noted that raids are continuing against both registered and unregistered communities. An independent mosque has been threatened with demolition with a bulldozer, Imam Kinayat Ismailov noting to Forum 18 that he thinks criminal allegations against him are to "create the grounds for his firing or closing the Mosque". Other independent mosques are being pressured into joining the state-backed Muslim Board. And the state Agency of Religious Affairs continues to find a variety of excuses to refuse to re-register churches belonging to Grace Presbyterian Church.

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