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Kazak Faith Groups Face Curbs

New law falls below standards of a country that will soon chair the OSCE, rights groups say.
By IWPR Central Asia
International and local human rights groups have criticised the Kazak government for pushing through legal changes that make significant changes to the way religious organisations are allowed to operate.

Critics say the previous law on religion was already restrictive, but the amendments which parliament approved on November 26 introduce even tighter regulation.

They argue that the new legislation is not compatible with the international conventions to which Kazakstan has signed up, and warn that if President Nursultan Nazarbaev signs the changes into law – the next and final stage in the process – it will undermine Kazakstan’s credibility when it takes over the chairmanship of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, OSCE, in 2010.

The changes mean that for the first time, faith “associations” – defined as formal groups with over 50 members – are legally bound to register with the authorities, and banned from operating if they fail to do so. That applies equally to groups which have already registered, which will need to re-submit their documents.

Smaller entities are defined as “religious groups” with virtually no legal status, and are only allowed to hold services in private locations such as members’ homes.

Members of proselytising groups now have to obtain individual permits if they want to act as missionaries.

Imported religious literature has to be submitted for inspection by an appropriate government agency, and can only be distributed at designated locations.

The package of amendments include changes to criminal legislation as well as to the Law on Religion itself. Penalties for breaching the law will include hefty fines and a collective ban on the offending group.

The controversial changes went through parliament in a first reading in June, and represent the most radical change the Kazak law on religion has seen.

Their main aim seems to be curbing proselytising activities by faith groups of foreign origin, often described as “non-traditional” to distinguish them from the long-established majority faiths – mainstream Islam, as defined by the official clerical establishment or Muftiate, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to official figures, around 4,000 religious groups representing more than 40 different faiths currently exist in Kazakstan, and at least 3,000 have registered with the justice ministry. The bulk of them are Muslim, with 1,200 Protestant groups of various persuasions in second place, followed by Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The Kazak authorities are wary of religious groups – Christian, Muslim or other – that arrived in the country after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and began seeking converts.

One of the new provisions refers to an accusation commonly levelled against such groups, stating, “It is forbidden to conduct charitable activity designed to disseminate religious teachings by exploiting the material needs of citizens.”

An Orthodox Church spokesman was supportive of the new legislation because it targeted what he called “sects”. Alexander Iyevlev, press secretary for the Diocese of Astana and Almaty, told IWPR that if certain groups encountered problems in acquiring legal registration, it was only because they “confused religion and politics”.

The content of the law has come in for a lot of criticism from local and international watchdog groups, as has the hasty manner in which it was finalised in parliament.

The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, ODIHR, which had earlier provided the Kazak government with a legal review of the amendment bill, expressed regret that the document was passed in a “hasty” manner and without significant input from domestic groups and the international community.

In a statement, ODIHR director Janez Lenarcic expressed hope that President Nazarbaev would exercise his constitutional powers so as 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".

Such a move, added Lenarcic, would represent a “positive signal” given that Kazakstan is to chair the OSCE in 2010.

Kazakstan’s application to chair the OSCE was approved in November 2007, after a delay caused by disquiet among some members of the grouping about Kazakstan’s record on democracy, human rights and freedom of speech.

On December 1, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch released a report criticising the Kazak government’s past treatment of small faith groups as well as the new restrictions it planned to put in place.

"Before it becomes chair of the OSCE in 2010, it should show its people and the world it is serious about reform," said a statement by Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Yevgeny Zhovtis of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law was one of three co-authors of a comprehensive commentary on the bill. In an IWPR interview, he said Kazakstan was not meeting any of the obligations it has undertaken as a signatory to various international agreements.

“Everything here is founded on restrictions, on total control,” he said. “By making registration compulsory, the state assumes the right to allow or forbid religious activity.”

Zhovtis went on, “Under international law, the state has no right to force someone who joins with others to practice their faith into acquiring official status if they don’t want to do so.”

He noted that members of parliament had cited practice in some European countries as justification for the changes, but said they had drawn false analogies, for example with Austria, which in fact has no mandatory registration.

President Nazarbaev is supposed to decide on the bill within a month of it being passed. Rights groups are clearly hoping that instead of putting his signature to it, he will ask for further revisions.

Natalia Napolskaya is an IWPR-trained journalist in Almaty.

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