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
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
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.
17 March 2005
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.