Kazakstan: Muslim Villagers Lash Out at Sect

The recruiting tactics of the Jehovah's Witnesses are bringing them into conflict with Muslim villagers in the southern oblasts.

Kazakstan: Muslim Villagers Lash Out at Sect

The recruiting tactics of the Jehovah's Witnesses are bringing them into conflict with Muslim villagers in the southern oblasts.

A religious conflict is brewing in a small south Kazakstan village whose Muslim residents are increasingly angry at the recruiting methods of the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation.

The villagers of Kainar-bulak made a verbal appeal to the city administration of Shymkent at the beginning of August, complaining that the religious group was enticing the community's children to join its ranks by offering them chocolates and sweets to attend services.

Their parents, who are mainly Muslim, are categorically against the young generation joining the sect and consider such recruitment methods to be "dishonest to say the least", according to village activist Raushan Nigmatulina.

However, Robert Shibelgut, a spokesperson for the Jehovah's Witnesses, denies this charge and told IWPR that material incentives are never used to attract new members. He describes the practice of giving treats to the village youngsters as "a manifestation of sympathy and goodwill towards poor children".

Living on a minuscule unemployment benefits or from occasional jobs, the majority of village residents are unable to afford regular treats for their children.

This is not the first time there has been anger at the activities of the Jehovah's Witnesses, some of whom are local Muslims and Christians who have adopted the new faith. At the beginning of this year, the aksakals (elders) of the Nauryz village, located in the south of the provincial centre of the city of Shymkent, sent an official letter to the authorities with an appeal to do something about the group.

The elders of the village said, "We are Muslims, and our children will also be Muslims. The Jehovah's Witnesses should get out of our village or we will solve the problem by force."

The letter was examined at a meeting of the akimat (regional government), and the proposals were sent to the city prosecutor's office. However, officials studied the document and could not see any violation of the law, so the religious group was given a mild warning and asked not to force the situation.

The stand-off has already erupted into violence elsewhere in the province. Three years ago, in the Makhtaaral district, a group of angry citizens waited for Jehovah's Witnesses to return from a church service to voice their complaints, which resulted in a fight, though there were no casualties on that occasion.

According to information from the department for work with religious organisations, there have been no official complaints about the Jehovah's Witnesses except the letter from Nauryz, and there have only been verbal grievances by Christians and Muslims.

The situation may yet end in conflict. Ordinary citizens are appealing to the authorities for support and protection, while government representatives can only shrug their shoulders if everything is done according to the law.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are a protestant sect that was founded in 1872 in Pennsylvania, USA, by Charles Russell. Until 1931, it was called "The International Bible Students' Association".

According to information from the social and political department, there are 62 religious organisations officially registered in Shymkent. More than 30 are Islamic, and the rest are Christian - Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant - Buddhist, and Jewish. Relations between the region's traditional religions and the new arrivals are not always cordial.

Father Oleg, a senior Orthodox priest in Shymkent, said that the Jehovah's Witnesses try to establish complete control over a person's actions. He alleged the group was totalitarian and dangerous not just for individuals but for the entire state.

In spite of this official disapproval, representatives of such professions as doctors and teachers have joined the group. A doctor at one of the ambulance stations in the town, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: "There are two of us working at the station, and my colleague is a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Many patients call me in emergency situations, although we work according to schedule. People in the village say that instead of prescribing treatment, my colleague calls on them to pray and join the sect."

Shibelgut told IWPR that there are no foreign missionaries at work within these areas, only members of the local population who have converted.

"We are engaging in greater contact. We speak with people everywhere, preaching in homes, work places and on the streets. We don't wait for people to come to us," he said.

Sociologist Elena Eliseeva suggests the group is popular because it offers people a method for surviving in the world. For many, the sect has filled a moral vacuum left following the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic hardships that followed, which have affected professionals and state employees worst of all.

Vladimir Jarinov, head specialist in the department for work with religious organisations, told IWPR, "Recently we held a roundtable session with representatives of religious organisations, government structures and police officers. All of the participants spoke disapprovingly of the work methods used by the Jehovah's Witnesses."

"The group was officially re-registered with the Justice Ministry of Kazakstan on October 17, 2001. Accordingly, we should work with them as we do with other religions, and not allow ourselves to be biased just because something is not liked," he added.

Olga Dosybieva is an Interfax correspondent in Shymkent

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