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25 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Increased pressure to complete intrusive questionnaires

For some years, Kazakhstan has been demanding that non-Muslim religious communities complete highly intrusive questionnaires, Forum 18 News Service has noted. However, there has recently been an apparent increase in both the numbers of communities asked to complete the questionnaires and the pressure officials exert to get the questionnaires completed. The questionnaires, which come in two basic forms, contain very similar questions. Amongst the numerous highly intrusive questions are: the ethnicity of congregation members, their profession, political preferences, "the most influential and authoritative people in the community," foreign missionaries, media contacts, "facts demanding attention on the part of state bodies," military service of congregation leaders, their foreign language knowledge, media articles written, and the full names of leaders' "close friends and comrades." A State Programme, stressing increased monitoring and supervision of religious communities, has recently been adopted. Some religious believers, who wish to remain anonymous, have told Forum 18 that the KNB secret police have increased efforts to recruit spies inside religious communities.

22 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: New wave of raids on Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses

Amid tightening state control on religious activity, Baptists who refuse to apply for state registration and Jehovah's Witnesses are facing increased state hostility, Forum 18 News Service has found. After about 200 ethnic Kazakh Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for a meeting, a varied group of officials, including the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service, arrived and closed the meeting hall for two days. They claimed that this was because of a bomb allegedly planted by an unnamed group or person. "We suspect the authorities are worried above all about ethnic Kazakhs becoming Jehovah's Witnesses," Forum 18 was told. "Events we hold in Russian do not arouse such hostility." As a series of raids take place on unregistered Baptist congregations, the state-controlled media is being used to promote intolerance of peaceful religious groups, one article describing the Baptists as "God-fearing lawbreakers" and their meetings for worship as "illegal meetings."

15 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Revival of state hostility to religious organisations fuels intrusive check-ups?

The KNB secret police, the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor's Office appear to have stepped up their intrusive check-ups on religious communities, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Fourteen Protestant churches and one Hare Krishna community have faced heavy-handed check-ups in January and February in the country's commercial capital Almaty alone. The Protestant Alpha and Omega Centre faced a two-day check which followed slanderous coverage of the Centre on television. "They checked sanitary-hygiene conditions, fire-prevention measures, and all the documents," the Centre's director Leonid Zavyanov told Forum 18. "What's the worry, it's just a check-up, and we have found nothing serious yet," the Prosecutor's Office told Forum 18. Although Muslims and the Russian Orthodox deny that their communities are being checked up, a Religious Affairs Committee official told Forum 18 that such check-ups have led to mosques being closed down and muftis sacked. Human rights activist Yevgeny Zhovtis sees the check-ups as part of a revival of state hostility to religious organisations.

5 February 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: How threatening are President Nazarbayev's comments?

Kazakh officials have played down to Forum 18 News Service the significance of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's recent call to "suppress the activity of illegal religious movements." He also claimed that "tens of thousands of different missionary organisations work in Kazakhstan. We don't know their purposes and intentions, and we should not allow such unchecked activity." Independent Kazakh observers are unsure how seriously to take the comments, but do not think that they are meant to start a campaign against religious communities. A state programme "On the provision of freedom of belief and enhancement of state-confessional relations" has been introduced by the Justice Minister because of "radical religious movements whose aim is total Islamisation or evangelisation." Recently, Protestant churches, a Hare Krishna commune, Jehovah's Witnesses and an independent mosque have faced threats to their property, cancellation of their registration and harassment of their members. Accusations of espionage and high treason have also been made.

30 January 2008

KAZAKHSTAN: Secret police operation to close down entire denomination?

The KNB secret police subjected the Grace Presbyterian Church in Almaty to a 17-hour raid on 25 and 26 January. "They checked everybody and everything and confiscated all the computer hardware," Dmitri Kan of the church's headquarters in Karaganda told Forum 18 News Service. The raid is part of the campaign begun with a 15-hour raid in Karaganda last August. The Financial Police, Justice Department, and KNB have stepped up investigating and questioning Grace Church members across Kazakhstan since mid-January, he added. Leaks through the media allege that church members are engaged in spying, appropriating church members' property, failing to file financial information, inciting inter-religious enmity and holding illegal drugs, even though no-one has ever been brought before a criminal court. "All these efforts are done to close down the entire Grace Church in Kazakhstan," Kan told Forum 18. The Karaganda Regional Department of the KNB told Forum 18 that the operation against the Church is being led by the central KNB in the capital Astana. Vyacheslav Kalyuzhny, the Deputy Human Rights Ombudsperson, says the Church has not complained to his office. "People are not persecuted on religious grounds in Kazakhstan," he claimed.

12 December 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: "Ridiculous excuses" for denying legal status

Lack of work phone numbers for the founders of the Jehovah's Witness community in the Caspian Sea port of Atyrau on its registration application was enough for the regional Justice Department to deny legal status. Jehovah's Witness lawyer Yuri Toporov complained to Forum 18 News Service of "ridiculous excuses" in rejecting this and all the community's previous applications since 2001. Law professor Roman Podoprigora told Forum 18 that state bodies sometimes use "just any excuse", even an insignificant one, to reject religious communities' registration applications. Atyrau Region officials have denied legal status to at least two local Protestant churches, and this summer pressured an independent Muslim community to hand over its mosque to the state-backed Muftiate. Unregistered religious activity in Kazakhstan is illegal and punishable. Local Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestants have been fined for unregistered worship. Officials deny any restrictions. "Look, we don't have any problems related to religious freedom in our region," deputy regional head Kenes Kosybaev told Forum 18. "Just don't listen to those negative reports about us."

8 November 2007

TURKMENISTAN: Baptist freed, Jehovah's Witness threatened with new sentence

Baptist prisoner of conscience Vyacheslav Kalataevsky has been freed after being amnestied from a three year labour camp sentence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. "My wife Valentina wrote an official statement that I will not violate the law," he told Forum 18. "I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who supported me and my family during my imprisonment." Asked about his health in the wake of his eight months in prison, Kalataevsky responded: "God strengthened me physically." Two Jehovah's Witnesses, who are serving suspended sentences have not been amnestied. Begench Shakhmuradov received a two year sentence in September 2007, and Bayram Ashirgeldyyev was given an 18 month sentence in July 2007. Ashirgeldyyev has been threatened with a new sentence, even though he is still serving his current suspended sentence. He has been barred from work unless he receives a stamp from the Military Commissariat, which refuses to give him this. Another Jehovah's Witness, Ashirgeldy Taganov, also faces prosecution for refusing military service on grounds of religious conscience.

2 November 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: State and former user fight over Hare Krishna farm

A court in Kazakhstan has decided to hand a confiscated Hare Krishna farm to the person who sold the rights to use the land in 1999, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Hare Krishna community, whose lawyer was not allowed to participate in the hearing, describes it as "very strange that the government took back the land and then gave it to another individual. In Kazakhstan this is incredible." They think that their commune will "definitely" be expelled from the farm and that the authorities will claim that "any expulsion is a private matter between the owner and us." Yet a conflict has emerged since the court decision between the state and the new "owner." Yerali Tugzhanov, Kazakhstan's senior religious affairs official, angrily rejected the court ruling. "The land still belongs to the authorities. Why should any private individual have any claim to it?" he told Forum 18, claiming that the land had "long been in the hands of a children's home." Amongst other religious minorities facing Kazakh official hostility are Presbyterians, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Ahmadi Muslims.

28 September 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: "The secret police's persecution by proxy"

Members of the Grace Presbyterian Church in the north-eastern town of Karaganda – who have already faced the police, the KNB secret police, the Prosecutor's Office and the Sanitary-Epidemiological Service – now face intrusive questioning from the Tax Police. Among the questions are why they go to the church and not to the mosque. Members of the Hare Krishna commune near Almaty in the south equally face relentless pressure from a succession of different government agencies in a bid to crush their activity. Migration Police raided the commune on 20 September checking the documents of all those present at an important religious festival. "This is the KNB secret police's persecution by proxy," one observer familiar with both cases, who preferred not to be identified, told Forum 18 News Service. But Amanbek Mukhashev of the government's Religious Affairs Committee claimed to an OSCE conference in Warsaw on 26 September that "freedom of belief and freedom to express religious beliefs have become one of the leitmotivs in the work of Kazakhstan's state and local organs of power".

12 September 2007

KAZAKHSTAN: Treason charges against Grace Church leaders?

Four members of the Grace Presbyterian Church – including its leader Igor Kim - are being investigated on treason charges which the National Security Committee (KNB) secret police have refused to explain to Forum 18 News Service. KNB officers in Karaganda told Forum 18 that the cases are being handled from the capital Astana, but no-one at the national KNB would talk to Forum 18. Church members are still being summoned for questioning. Pastor Vyacheslav Vorobyov of the church in Karaganda told Forum 18 that 12 church members began a hunger strike on 7 September to protest against the raids and investigations. He said the tax authorities are checking up on many of their 250 congregations across Kazakhstan, while computers and documents confiscated in 24 August raids have not been returned. Amanbek Mukhashev of the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Committee refused to answer Forum 18's questions by telephone. Kazakhstan's Human Rights Ombudsperson Bolat Baikadamov told Forum 18 that he has asked the KNB about the case.

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