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17 March 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Will confiscated Baptist literature again be burnt?

For the third time in recent years, religious literature confiscated from Baptists returning to Uzbekistan has been confiscated. The literature was seized on 6 March from seven church members from Tashkent, together with the car they were travelling in. The seven – who were quizzed for six hours - now face an administrative court, though a customs official insisted to Forum 18 News Service they were being investigated not for importing religious literature but for crossing the border on an unmarked road. "For us as believers, Christian literature is a great treasure, and so we are highly concerned that this time too our literature will be burnt," local Baptists told Forum 18. Religious affairs official Begzot Kadyrov told Forum 18 that as members of an unregistered church, the seven have no right to import any religious literature, which is subject to vigorous official censorship in Uzbekistan.

15 March 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Guilty verdict ahead for Protestant dance teacher?

A local Protestant who has been attending the continuing criminal trial of fellow-Protestant dancing teacher Vladislav Polskikh, which began in the north-eastern town of Pavlodar on 22 February, fears the teacher will be found guilty of using his lessons to promote Christianity, an accusation Polskikh rejects. "The judge is behaving just like the prosecution," the Protestant told Forum 18 News Service, though Polskikh's lawyer said it is too early to say what the verdict will be. Meanwhile, in southern Kazakhstan Baptist Valeri Pak has had his identity documents confiscated and faces criminal trial for refusing to pay earlier fines imposed to punish him for leading an unregistered church. An official has denied to Forum 18 that the state is stepping up moves against believers.

25 February 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: New extremism law "serious danger" to religious believers

A controversial new extremism law, actively promoted by the KNB secret police, has now been signed by the Kazakh President. As well as being criticised by some religious believers, the law has been criticised by a wide range of local and international organisations, including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But Almaty city's official chief specialist on religious affairs, Vladimir Ivanov, told Forum 18 News Service that "I do not understand this concern. The law on extremism and also the amendments to other laws have no relation to religion and consequently do not represent a threat to believers." Strongly disagreeing was Ninel Fokina of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, who told Forum 18 that "the term 'religious' occurs ten times (…). The new law can be used by the state to combat religious organisations it does not like." Religious law specialist Roman Podoprigora pointed out to Forum 18 that, under amendments to other laws brought in with the extremism law, Kazakhstan can now decide "to close religious communities on the basis of information from the relevant organs of odious regimes," such as North Korea.

15 February 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Saints and martyrs relics banned

Uzbek authorities have banned the relics of two saints, recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church, from entering the country. The two saints, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fyodorovna and a lay-sister Varvara, were both nuns martyred by Communists in 1918, by being thrown alive down a mine shaft. The Russian Orthodox diocese of Central Asia told Forum 18 News Service that "we cannot understand why the Uzbek authorities have deprived [Orthodox believers] of the opportunity of venerating the holy relics." The relics have already been brought to eight other former Soviet republics. Shoazim Minovarov, chairman of the Committee for Religious Affairs, whose committee was asked to allow the relics to enter, categorically refused to comment to Forum 18 on the ban, saying "You can think what you want! I don't wish to express my opinion on this question. After all, you don't need to receive a comment at a ministerial level every time!"

1 February 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Linked moves against Protestant organisations?

In what may be linked moves, public prosecutor's offices in central and southern Kazakhstan have both attacked the statutes of Protestant organisations, Forum 18 News Service has been told. In central Kazakhstan, the prosecutor is trying to close down a Baptist charitable fund which ran an orphanage that the authorities previously closed, and in the southern city of Almaty, prosecutors are trying to force a Protestant community's statute to be re-written, which may result in its closure. Baptists in central Kazakhstan insist to Forum 18 that the moves are part of a recently toughened central government policy. But Protestants in Almaty have told Forum 18 that they are unsure whether the legal move against them is the result of central policy, or the result of local decisions. Also in Almaty, local officials are continuing to try to close the only Hare Krishna farming commune in the former Soviet countries.

24 January 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Signs of worsening religious freedom?

A criminal case against a Baptist who has refused to pay fines for leading unregistered worship, the decision to seize the property of another Baptist who also led unregistered worship, and two simultaneous legal cases against a Hare Krishna commune, are the latest events in a series of incidents which, along with a controversial new law on "extremism", are leading religious believers to tell Forum 18 News Service that they expect mounting restrictions on their rights. The "extremism" bill, which does not define this term, mentions religion 10 times in its wording and would greatly increase state control over religious groups, including a provision to "forbid the activity of religious associations which have broken the Republic of Kazakhstan's laws on countering extremist activity." The draft law, including amendments to ban religious organisations before a court decision, is now with the lower house of the Kazakh parliament.

20 January 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: No under-18s to attend worship or Sunday School

Officials forced schoolchildren on Tuesday (18 January) in central Kazakhstan to answer a questionnaire about their religious beliefs and whether they attend a place of worship. This is illegal under Kazakh law, according to lawyer Roman Podoprigora, who told Forum 18 News Service that teachers do not have the right to do this. It follows an earlier directive to conduct compulsory "educational work" with children who attend places of worship and to ban children under the age of 18 from attending places of worship or Sunday School, Forum 18 has found. This is claimed, according to an instruction from the Ministry of Education and Science, to have "the aim of ensuring the security and health of the life of children". The central Education Ministry has denied sending the instruction, although the head of a regional education department has confirmed to Forum 18 that it was sent by the Education Ministry. The instruction is thought to be part of a wider increase in state action against religious activity in Kazakhstan.

19 January 2005

UZBEKISTAN: Why does government restrict haj numbers?

It remains unclear why the Uzbek government is limiting the number of adult Muslims who can go on the haj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca that Islam requires. This year, only 4,200 of the more than 6,000 Uzbek citizens who wanted to make the pilgrimage were permitted to go, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The numbers are controlled under an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, by which the Saudis only issue haj visas to Uzbeks whose names are on a list drawn up by representatives of the state Committee for Religious Affairs and the state-controlled muftiate, or Islamic religious leadership. Uzbek state control is further ensured as, unlike in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where haj pilgrims can travel privately, Uzbek Muslims have to travel to Saudi Arabia by air using only the state-run Uzbek Airways. This cost of these flights is prohibitively expensive for most Uzbeks. The minority Shia Muslim community also experiences problems in making the haj with Sunnis.

11 January 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: Justice official "grossly distorting the facts"

Vidya Volkova, head of the Hare Krishna community in Kazakhstan, has told Forum 18 News Service that the deputy head of the Almaty regional justice department, Murat Tanirbergenov, was "grossly distorting the facts" about the land ownership of the only Hare Krishna farming commune in the CIS. Volkova showed Forum 18 legal documents proving ownership, and Tanirbergenov has now backtracked to Forum 18 about some claims he made to a local news agency, saying "we were just generalising about the facts but later, if the procuracy finds it necessary to bring a case, the court will decide on the issue of closing the Krishna commune." Tanirbergenov stood by claims he made – disputed by the commune – that they fail to meet hygiene and fire safety standards and trade illegally. This is the first time that the authorities have officially – as against unofficially - raised the possibility of closing down the Hare Krishna farm, which has been put under pressure since its foundation.

10 January 2005

KAZAKHSTAN: "Quite enough missionaries" in the south?

Both the South Korean-led Synbakyn Protestant church and the Ahmadi Muslim community in southern Kazakhstan have come under pressure from south Kazakh authorities recently, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Late in 2004, the authorities tried to close down the Synbakyn church's seminary, and both foreign Protestant and foreign Ahmadi Muslim missionaries have encountered visa problems. The regional local authority's chief specialist on religious affairs, Vladimir Zharinov, told Forum 18 that "all our region's authorities are trying to do is to ensure that religious associations operate in accordance with the laws of Kazakhstan." But Zharinov could not say in what precise ways religious believers were breaking the law.

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