30 January 2009
Kazakhstan has barred the Hare Krishna community's leader in Central Asia from visiting the country, Forum 18 News Service has found. Kazakh officials have claimed that US citizen Seane Hobgood (religious name Govinda Swami) was found guilty of "illegal missionary activity" by Aktobe Regional court in 2008. The alleged "illegal missionary activity" was a private talk to devotees. However, Aktobe Regional Court, Aktobe City Administrative Court and City Civil Court all confirmed to Forum 18 that they did not hear any case relating to Govinda Swami (Seane Hobgood) in 2008. Also, Govinda Swami had previously visited Kazakhstan since the alleged conviction, without being banned. Human rights defender Yevgeni Zhovtis pointed out to Forum 18 that describing Govinda Swami's talk to a registered religious community as "illegal missionary activity" is "absolute rubbish". Aktobe City Prosecutor's Office confirmed to Forum 18 that police filmed the gathering. In 2006, an American university lecturer was fined and given a deportation order, after the authorities filmed him taking part in a Bible discussion at a Baptist church he attended.
13 January 2009
Kyrgyzstan's President, Kurmanbek Bakiev, has signed the restrictive new Religion Law, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Tursunbek Akun, the country's Human Rights Ombudsperson, told Forum 18 that "this Law is not in accord with international human rights standards," as it "imposes a range of restrictions that will prevent small religious communities from developing." Human rights defender Aziza Abdirasulova, of the Kylym Shamy (Candle of the Century) Centre for Human Rights Protection agreed, stating that "the new Law contradicts international human rights standards – and it is not the only Law now being signed that does so," she told Forum 18. She complained that civil society and smaller religious communities had been "left on the sidelines" in the Law's drafting. Also condemning the new Law were religious communities including Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Baha'is and Hare Krishna devotees. Jens Eschenbaecher, Spokesperson for the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told Forum 18 from Warsaw on 13 January that: "It appears that the law as signed by the President still contains many of the problematic features that were highlighted in the legal opinion which was prepared by the ODIHR and the Venice Commission."
9 January 2009
President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan has sent a repressive new law severely limiting freedom of religion or belief for review by the country's Constitutional Council, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Meanwhile, the government continues to repress the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and belief. A Baptist has this month had his main source of income confiscated and been fired from his job, because he led worship without state permission. Speaking of his former employer, who fired him after being visited by court officials, Pastor Aleksandr Kerker said that "he is not to blame though – he was afraid." Hare Krishna devotees have been detained by police in Almaty for handing out religious literature. Officer candidates and other students at the Kazakh Air Force's main training establishment have been warned against "religious extremism" and "religious groups non-traditional for Kazakhstan". They were also shown a film claiming that the Hare Krishna faith incites devotees to commit murder.
22 December 2008
As a law severely restricting freedom of religion and belief awaits Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature, Justice Ministry officials attacked local human rights groups for criticising the Law, accusing them of "openly lying." Denying that the Law will impose restrictions, Ministry officials claimed that "benevolent conditions" have been created for religious communities. The Law has been condemned by many religious leaders, such as Protestant leaders and Murat Telibekov of the Union of Muslims. Fr Vsevolod Chaplin of the Moscow Patriarchate pointed out to Forum 18 News Service that, under the proposed Law, "if a young person is walking past and goes into a mosque during prayers, the imam could be arrested." Fr Chaplin pointed out that he was himself a believer at the age of 13, against the wishes of his parents, which would be forbidden by the Law. Pope Benedict XVI has made an apparent oblique criticism of Kazakh policy. In a personal letter, he wrote to the Kazakh Ambassador to the Holy See that "it is incumbent upon the State to guarantee full religious freedom, but it also has the duty of learning to respect what is religious, avoiding interference in matters of faith and the conscience of the citizen."
19 December 2008
Kazakhstan continues to actively violate its international human rights commitments, Forum 18 News Service has found. In the most recent of many known state actions against everyone's right to freedom of thought, conscience and belief, a Baptist is facing threats by the authorities to confiscate the major source of income for himself and his family because he led worship without state permission, the country's only Hare Krishna commune is still being pressured to accept a rubbish dump in exchange for their land, and Jehovah's Witnesses are still being denied the rights to use a private home and a Kingdom Hall they built for worship meetings. These human rights violations take place as President Nursultan Nazarbaev considers new legislation to even further restrict fundamental freedoms in the country. Among many other breaches of international human rights standards, the legal amendments would explicitly ban all unregistered religious activity. President Nazarbaev is formally due to sign or reject the amendments by around 2 January 2009.
12 December 2008
A Protestant church's Sunday afternoon prayer meeting in the town of Aral in October was raided by police and KNB secret police without a warrant, church members told Forum 18 News Service. Officers filmed those present without their consent, summoned seven of them to the police station and tried to prosecute the leader, Indira Bukharbaeva, on administrative charges. But she was acquitted in December. Public Prosecutor Abdukarim Abdullaev told Forum 18 it was too sensitive to discuss by phone whether measures would be taken over the unauthorised filming of the church meeting. Meanwhile the KNB secret police in Taraz have lodged serious criminal charges against Protestant pastor Sarybai Tanabaev for "inciting religious intolerance" over two sermons he gave. One recording was confiscated from one church and the other apparently covertly made by the KNB secret police. The KNB secret police officer involved in the case, Major Mukhamedjan Paezov, told Forum 18 the case was initiated from the capital Astana and is being run from there.
26 November 2008
Kazakhstan's parliament finally adopted today (26 November) a Law seriously restricting freedom of religion or belief, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Immediate deep concern about the Law, which changes the Religion Law and other laws, was expressed by Kazakh human rights defenders and Lutheran, Hare Krishna, Baptist and Ahmadi Muslim representatives. "We expect persecution in the future because of this very harsh Law," Baptist Pastor Yaroslav Senyushkevich told Forum 18, "not just on us but on others too. It will be like under Stalin." More measured is Archbishop Tomasz Peta, who leads the Catholic diocese in Astana. "We hope that the President – who will have the last word on this – won't allow Kazakhstan after 17 years to return to the path of restrictions on religious freedom," he told Forum 18. Ambassador Janez Lenarcic of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) expressed disappointment at the "hasty" adoption of the Law. He added that he hopes President Nursultan Nazarbaev "will use his constitutional power to allow for a more transparent and inclusive law-making process that would lead to the adoption of legislation fully reflecting OSCE commitments and other international standards".
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.