21 November 2008
Police from the Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism, and Terrorism have raided a church anniversary meal, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The raid, in Kazakhstan's north-western city of Aktobe, happened while a video was being shown at a celebration meal in a restaurant. Police broke up the meal and demanded to know why people from outside the city were present. Aktobe's deputy police chief, Navruzbai Kadyrkozhaev, evaded answering why anti-terrorist police raided a church meal, and claimed that police "check organisations since there are so many dangerous sects, faith healers, etc." In the long-running struggle of Kazakhstan's Hare Krishna commune to prevent more of their buildings being destroyed, a court has found that the commune's buildings had been constructed and were used lawfully. However, the case is due to continue on 25 November. Also, Kazakh officials are still claiming that an OSCE legislative review of proposed harsh new restrictions on freedom of religion or belief cannot be made public at the request of the OSCE. However, as Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, Director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), said today (21 November) "the ODIHR would welcome the publication of the legal review".
18 November 2008
Kazakhstan's Senate has significantly harshened the draft Law amending several laws on religion, before returning it to the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Officials are still refusing to make the draft text public, but Forum 18 has seen the latest changes. Among the increased restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience or belief, the Senate changed the draft text to require permission from both parents for children to attend any religious event, and removed judges' discretion over the level of fines imposed for violating the Religion Law. The draft Law already contains many restrictions, including only allowing religious literature distribution in permanent buildings designated by the state, and possibly endangering religious-based charitable activities. Kazakhstan has also not agreed to publication of an OSCE review of an earlier text of the Law, although the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights told Forum 18 that it "has recommended to the Kazakh authorities that the legal review be made public, as is normal practice." Kazakh officials have refused to say when the Majilis will discuss the Senate changes, but Forum 18 has learned that this will be on 24 November – the same day a roundtable with OSCE experts is scheduled to begin.
28 October 2008
A court in Akmola Region has punished Baptist pastor Andrei Blok with 150 hours' compulsory labour for refusing to pay fines imposed to punish him for leading unregistered worship, according to the verdict seen by Forum 18 News Service. "If not for many telephone calls to the court and city officials from around the world Andrei could have been put into prison for several months," his family told Forum 18. Yuliya Merkel of the local Justice Department insisted to Forum 18 that Blok "needs" to register his church, and refused to say what would happen if the church continues to worship without registration. A Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian port city of Atyrau is preparing to complain in court against the Atyrau Justice Department, which has rejected its eighth registration application in seven years. Meanwhile Karasai District Court in Almaty Region on 28 October resumed the twice-postponed hearing over the demolition of the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan. The next hearing is due on 3 November. "But we already saw the first signs that the court is trying to get a decision against us at any cost," a Hare Krishna devotee told Forum 18.
14 October 2008
Kazakhstan's controversial amendments to various laws affecting religion or belief reached the Senate on 29 September after being approved by parliament's lower house and are now with the Senate's Committee for Social and Cultural Development. Committee chairman Akhan Bizhanov three times refused to tell Forum 18 News Service whether the new Law aims to increase state controls on the activity of religious communities and individuals. The text of the Law as approved by the lower house – and seen by Forum 18 – would for the first time explicitly ban unregistered religious activity, ban sharing beliefs by individuals not named by registered religious organisations and without personal registration as missionaries, require all registration applications to be approved centrally after a "religious expert assessment" of each community's doctrines and history, and impose a wider range of fines on individuals and communities and bans on religious communities who, for example, conduct activity not specifically mentioned in their charter. Groups without full registration would not be able to maintain publicly-accessible places of worship.
10 October 2008
The remaining parts of Kazakhstan's only Hare Krishna commune are threatened by a court case due to begin on Monday 13 October, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Karasai Akimat (administration) has brought a case to seize the buildings on the commune – which include a temple – and demolish them. Aysara Uglanova of Karasai District Court stated that "the case is about whether or not to demolish the buildings on the farm." Told that one of the buildings is the only Hare Krishna temple in Kazakhstan, Uglanova responded: "Now only the President of the country could stop the process of demolition. Let them write to the President," she advised. Maksim Varfolomeev of the Hare Krishna community stressed to Forum 18 that the temple is the valid registered legal address for the religious community, and fears that the community could be stripped of state registration if the address is demolished. Kazakh officials often insist - wrongly - that unregistered religious activity is banned in the country. A court case against a Baptist, Andrei Blok, for unregistered activity has been postponed.
6 October 2008
If convicted at his trial due on 9 October in the northern town of Esil, Baptist pastor Andrei Blok could face up to four months' imprisonment. He is being tried for refusing to pay an earlier fine for leading his unregistered church, part of what local Council of Churches Baptists describe as the authorities' "economic war" against them. Local Baptists told Forum 18 News Service Blok considered the fine "unfounded and illegal". The town police chief admitted to Forum 18 Blok is being prosecuted because of his unregistered religious activity. In mid-September another Baptist pastor Aleksandr Kerker was given his second massive fine for leading unregistered worship, amid moves to seize his land and two cows for failure to pay his first fine. "The Baptists still go on holding their meetings - no one is really pressuring them," the judge who rejected Kerker's appeal told Forum 18. In the southern city of Shymkent, officials raided the Protestant New Life church's Sunday morning worship service. Like other religious leaders the pastor was forced to fill out an intrusive questionnaire asking about the ethnic composition of his community. One official accused the pastor of "corrupting Kazakh nationals to change their religion".
3 October 2008
Atyrau's Jehovah's Witnesses first applied for registration in 2001. Their 2007 application was rejected because they failed to supply work telephone numbers for some of the founders. Their December 2007 application was rejected in August 2008 despite successfully passing two "expert assessments" at the Religious Affairs Committee in the capital, Jehovah's Witnesses told Forum 18 News Service. The Justice Department rejected it because one of the 20 founders (twice the required legal minimum) could not provide an uptodate identity document. "Tens" of Protestant churches have been denied registration in recent years. Kuanysh Sultanov, head of the Kazakh government delegation to an OSCE human rights conference, boasted of a "simplified mechanism" for registering religious organisations. Yet Lyudmila Danilenko, head of the registration department at the Religious Affairs Committee, told Forum 18: "There have been no changes to the registration procedures over the past year." She claimed they were already "simple", even though for the past year any religious community applying for registration must undergo an "expert assessment" by her Committee.
29 September 2008
Kazakhstan's controversial new restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience and belief have passed the lower house of parliament, the Majilis, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "The Senate will consider the Law within days, then it will go to the President," Kayrat Tulesov, Deputy Head of the state Religious Affairs Committee told Forum 18. "We're trying to have this law adopted in its current form." He brushed aside the many strong criticisms from human rights defenders and religious organisations of the draft Law, which amends the Religion Law, the Administrative Code, and other laws. Kamal Burkhanov, who leads the Majilis Working Group preparing the text of the Law, is finalising the text. He refused to make it public, telling Forum 18: "We cannot provide you with a copy of the text - it is our law after all, and it should be none of your concern." Kazakh human rights defenders, such as Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, strongly criticise the lack of openness and delay in releasing the text. She pointed out to Forum 18 that "clarifications" can still be introduced into the draft before it is sent to the Senate. A senior official has allegedly suggested that the authorities plan to "very delicately, very exactly, in a very coordinated way and without noise" close some religious organisations.
11 September 2008
Baptists who do not wish to receive state registration continue to be punished for meeting for worship without legal status, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Three local administration officials and a police officer raided the Sunday worship service of a small congregation in Ayagoz in East Kazakhstan Region in July. Church member Pavel Leonov was later fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage after refusing to register the congregation. On 3 September the Regional Court rejected his appeal, court officials told Forum 18. In Pavlodar Region, Oleg Voropaev was fined ten months' minimum wages for leading his Baptist congregation. "The state's compulsion of the community to register violates the rights to freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the Constitution," Voropaev told the court. Both Leonov and Voropaev have been fined in earlier years for their peaceful religious activity. Baptists have described the state's actions against them as an "economic war". As well as the Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses have been raided, banned and given large fines in July and August.
9 September 2008
A mass campaign against Jehovah's Witnesses in South Kazakhstan Region was unleashed on 27 July, with raids by police, Anti-Terrorist police, the KNB secret police and other officials on nine congregations. Court documents seen by Forum 18 News Service show that two of the three that had state registration have been closed down and leaders fined for holding religious meetings outside registered religious premises. One private home has been confiscated. "The South Kazakhstan regional authorities organised a massive campaign against our communities with the purpose of putting an end to their activity," Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18. Prosecutors refused to discuss the cases with Forum 18. "It is absolute nonsense to demand religious organisations to hold meetings only in one building where they are registered," human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis told Forum 18. Baptists and others have similarly been fined.
20 August 2008
Almaty regional Public Prosecutor's Office seems keen to seize property from religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Six property cases against Christian and Muslim religious organisations in the region are known to have been initiated since mid-June. Amongst them is Agafe Protestant Church, the regional Economic Court ruling – despite numerous violations of due process – that the Church's building and land should be confiscated. A defence lawyer has received anonymous death threats, and an appeal will take place on 27 August. The regions' Hare Krishna commune also continues to struggle to retain its property. Similar attempts to seize religious property continue elsewhere in Kazakhstan. Near the north-western town of Alga, New Life Protestant Church has been evicted from its building. Grace Protestant Church in Semey, eastern Kazakhstan, has been forced to brick up windows, as the Fire Brigade insists on this "in case there is a fire in the neighbouring property." The Church has also been prohibited from using its own building.
3 July 2008
Kazakhstan continues to try to close places of worship, Forum 18 News Service has found. The latest incident is a court case brought against Grace Protestant Church in Semey, in eastern Kazakhstan. The Fire Brigade claim that their newly constructed place of worship does not meet fire safety requirements, stating that there must be a six meter gap between their building and the next building. However, a church member told Forum 18, "there is no building on that land, it is an empty plot." Church members and their lawyer insist that all relevant building permits, including those from the Fire Brigade, are in order. But "the court ignored these documents." A church member told Forum 18 that "it looks like they are trying to close down our church with any excuse." The state's long-running attempts to intimidate Almaty's Hare Krishna commune also continue. In a separate case, a Soviet-era prisoner of conscience, Yegor Prokopenko, pastor of an unregistered Baptist church, has been fined for a second time in three years for unregistered religious activity. Local prosecutor Tatyana Semynina told Forum 18 that "they can believe as much as they want, but should not organize religious meetings."