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8 June 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Conference cancelled after pastor's visa denied

The New Generation Pentecostal church in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty cancelled a conference due to have begun on 12 June after the church's Latvian-based chief pastor was denied a Kazakh visa. The Kazakh consulate in Latvia told Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev, who was born in Kazakhstan, that a visit to his homeland was "not desirable" but refused to give a reason. "We're asking the authorities for an explanation – and we'll lodge a fresh application for Pastor Aleksei to get a visa," Viktor Ovsyannikov, pastor of the Almaty church, told Forum 18 News Service. Ledyayev was blacklisted by Russia in 2002 and is also barred from Belarus. Others barred from Russia on religious grounds remain barred in Kazakhstan, though Lutheran bishop Siegfried Springer, deported from Russia in April, told Forum 18 he has received a visa for Kazakhstan.

1 June 2005

OSCE COMMITMENTS: CENTRAL ASIA: OSCE Conference on Intolerance regional survey

As participants prepare for the forthcoming OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism and on Other Forms of Intolerance, Forum 18 News Service notes that religious believers face intolerance in the form of attacks on their internationally agreed rights to religious freedom – mainly from their governments – in many countries of the 55-member OSCE. Despite binding OSCE commitments to religious freedom, in some OSCE member states religious communities are still being vilified, fined and imprisoned for peaceful exercise of their faith, religious services are being broken up, places of worship confiscated and even destroyed, religious literature censored and religious communities denied state registration and hence the domestic legal right to exist. Events in Uzbekistan offer one warning of what the persistent intolerance of religious freedom and other internationally agreed human rights can lead to.

30 May 2005

UKRAINE: People barred entry on religious grounds now free to appeal

In a new move, the SBU security police has told Forum 18 News Service that people barred entry by other CIS countries – including Russia – on religious and other grounds can now appeal against any visa bar to Ukraine. Appeals can be made either to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry or the SBU, Forum 18 was told. The move follows the ending of an entry ban against Japanese Buddhist monk Junsei Teresawa. The SBU refused to tell Forum 18 why Teresawa had originally been denied entry, but insisted it was not for religious reasons and denied that there is a religious category for blacklisting. Not every religious figure blacklisted by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan has been barred from Ukraine and Latvian-based Pastor Aleksei Ledyayev - barred by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan – is now in Ukraine. One of the most prominent recent deportees from Russia was Catholic Bishop Jerzy Mazur, a Polish citizen, but the SBU told Forum 18 that "no-one with the surname Mazur is on the Ukrainian blacklist".

30 May 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Officials enforcing Religion Law before it is passed

The harsh new Religion Law has not yet been passed, but the authorities are already behaving as if it is law Forum 18 News Service has found. Religious communities do not yet need state registration – a requirement imposed by the new Law. But a Protestant church in the Caspian Sea port of Aytrau is the latest religious community to be attacked because it does not have registration. Diyaz Sultanov, the Prosecutor's assistant, told Forum 18 that "it is impermissible for a church to operate without registration." Another proposal put forward – but then apparently withdrawn - allowed religious communities to be closed without a court hearing. New Life Protestant Church, close to Almaty, has been "banned" by local administration chief Raspek Tolbayev, who told Forum 18 that "I will take the decision whether or not to open the church." Parliamentary deputies Forum 18 has spoken to described the new law as a weapon against the "ideological diversity" of the West.

27 May 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Schoolchildren told prayer "causes death" and suicide bombers

Teachers north of the capital Astana are putting pressure on children not to attend Protestant prayer meetings, telling children that prayer "can even cause death," Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Children who attend prayer meetings are kept behind after school for "educational talks" in which they have been told that they are being turned into "shahids and zombies". (The Islamic term "shahid" is frequently used in former Soviet countries to describe suicide bombers.) Parents have been ordered by teachers not to take their children to prayer meetings. The head of the regional Education Department has confirmed to Forum 18 that she ordered "educational work" with children who attend prayer meetings, and also that the national Education Ministry orders officials "at every meeting" to stop children going to church. Religious believers in Kazakhstan link these ongoing actions of the Education Ministry with current parliamentary moves to seriously restrict the religious freedom of all faiths.

18 May 2005

COMMENTARY: National security suffers if religious freedom attacked

Wide-ranging national security amendments now in parliament will negatively affect many groups – including the media, NGOs, business people and religious communities – but religious believers will suffer the most, argues Aleksandr Klyushev, chairman of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK), in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. If adopted, these amendments will cause unjustified suffering to law-abiding believers, who could be punished for peacefully practising their faith. He believes that this will cause national security to suffer, both by alienating citizens from the state and also by enabling incompetent law-enforcement personnel to claim successes in combating illegal but harmless religious organisations, instead of effectively policing real criminal and terrorist threats to Kazakh society. He calls on the international community to influence the Kazakh government not to adopt the amendments.

13 May 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: "Draconian amendments" approved by Majilis

"The ban on the activity of unregistered religious associations and the draconian amendments to the administrative code significantly limit believers' rights," Aleksandr Klyushev, of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK) told Forum 18 News Service after 12 May Majilis parliamentary approval of sweeping "national security" amendments to eleven laws. The parliamentary debate had been expected on 18 May, but was suddenly brought forward. Klyushev said to Forum 18 that "deputies discovered that the discussion of the draft would take place on 11 May only on the day of the session. I believe this was done deliberately to prevent deputies from preparing for the consideration of the draft and from submitting amendments." Communist party deputy Yerasyl Abylkasymov told Forum 18 that "in the time of Genghis Khan such ideological saboteurs were hung, drawn and quartered. Alas it is now unfortunately not possible to do this and so we have to defend ourselves by means of laws." Having been approved by the Majilis, the lower house of parliament, the amendments now go to the upper house, the Senate, for approval.

3 May 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Parliament considers restrictions on freedom tomorrow; Baptist heavily fined and church activities banned

Kazakhstan's parliament will possibly tomorrow (Wednesday) consider sweeping new restrictions on religious freedom, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Concurrently, a Baptist leader has been given a heavy fine for leading an unregistered religious community, and his church's activities have been banned. Law Professor Roman Podoprigora commented to Forum 18 that "the religion law does not require registration. This unjust demand is not in any law." Public Prosecutor Galim Kojekenov claimed to Forum 18 that "this is not persecution – we have freedom of conscience here." Planned restrictions on freedom include criminalising unregistered religious activity, banning unapproved "missionary" activity, requiring state approval for religious literature and dress, and widening officials' powers to ban religious communities. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has commented that this will "result in non-compliance with a wide range of OSCE commitments regarding human rights, democracy and the rule of law," and raise "serious concerns, particularly with regard to freedom of association, freedom of religion or belief, as well as freedom of opinion and expression."

12 April 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Fears over planned sweeping new restrictions on religion

Religious minorities and human rights activists have condemned planned new restrictions that would ban unregistered religious activity, ban unapproved missionary activity by both local citizens and foreigners and subject religious literature to official approval. The proposed changes to the religion law, part of sweeping changes to more than ten laws now being discussed by a parliamentary working group, are set to go to the lower house of parliament on 16 April. "The entire draft bears the clear imprint of mistrust of religious organisations and a desire to put them in a much worse legal position than other legal bodies," a group of Protestant churches in Almaty complained in a letter seen by Forum 18 News Service. "Essentially, today it is the KNB secret police that lays down religious policy in the country," human rights activist Ninel Fokina told Forum 18. One Orthodox priest welcomed the proposed restrictions, declaring: "Now Protestants and religious missionaries will not be so free in their activities in Kazakhstan."

4 April 2005

CHINA: Xinjiang - Apparent tolerance of religious belief, but with tight state controls

Religious believers in Ghulja (Yining in Chinese), a Xinjiang provincial town with Muslim, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities, do not on first glance currently appear to experience difficulties from the Chinese state. Authorised Christian and Muslim places of worship are frequently built at state expense, Forum 18 News Service has found. But the state tries to keep all religious organisations under complete control, and also, so Forum 18 has been told, limits the size of Catholic and Muslim places of worship, as well as restricting the number of mosques. "I have land and the money to build a mosque, but the authorities think it inexpedient to open a religious building in the new housing districts," Abdu Raheman, Muslim owner of Ghulja's largest honey-producing company, complained to Forum 18. Unregistered Chinese and Uighur Protestant communities do exist, but they mainly have to operate in secret. Although Jehovah's Witnesses have been in Ghulja, as far as Forum 18 has been able to establish they have not set up a religious community.

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