Kazakhstan (CAM) — Is religious freedom a reality in Kazakhstan? The answer depends on who you ask.
While the constitution of this Central Asian country provides for freedom to worship, in truth it is adherents of traditionally recognized faiths and denominations who enjoy that privilege.
Ironically, says Christian Aid Mission, more restrictive laws were enacted to stem the tide of growing Islamic radicalism in Kazakhstan. In the process, intense government scrutiny of all minority religious groups has led to persecution of Christians, particularly evangelicals.
A law passed in 2011 requires churches and religious organizations to apply for state registration. The process is not that simple, however, as official registration is restricted to groups of 50 people or more. Most Christian congregations in Kazakhstan are small and meet in private homes.
To comply with the new regulations, a group of believers can only gather for worship or prayer in a state-approved location, such as a church building. Since the purchase or construction of building costs anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000 on average, congregations find themselves facing a great dilemma.
Even believers who are members of government-sanctioned churches sometimes encounter harassment from local authorities and have to prove their case in court.
The crackdown has resulted in arrests, steep fines, and imprisonment. According to the Forum 18 News Service Web site, fines were imposed on at least 62 Council of Churches Baptists since the start of 2013. The denomination refuses to pay the fines on principle, considering them in violation of human rights.
In response, the government has reportedly imposed a new set of restrictions on the Baptist churches, banning the members from traveling outside of the country until the fines are satisfied.
The following report was taken verbatim from a Christian Aid-assisted ministry in Kazakhstan. It reveals the extreme measures taken by local authorities to try to stamp out unregistered churches.
On March 31 in a town in eastern Kazakhstan, nine Christians (mainly elderly people) gathered to celebrate Easter, to pray, communicate, and have some tea. After a while, seven police officers came into the apartment. They brought two drunken men with them as witnesses.
Without presenting any documents, the police began to take a video and do a search of the apartment. The senior captain offered to take the Christians to the police station for questioning, but the Christians refused, demanding a good reason for why they should. The answer was that they were engaged in unregistered religious activities.
On April 3, this group of Christians was called to the police station. After police kept them in the office from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., they were given the interrogation report to sign. The report stated they were engaged in illegal religious activities and storage and sale of drugs. Some of the elderly people signed the report without reading it. But after one woman pointed out the information about drugs, all of them refused to sign it. The authorities threatened to place the group in jail overnight. The Christians sent a statement to the regional prosecutor’s office, including a copy of the document that accused them of storage and sale of drugs.
An administrative court proceeding took place April 18, where four of the Kazakhs were each fined $577 to be paid within one month. The next day, a trial was held for three more of the Christians. Two were fined a penalty of $577 each, and the other individual was fined $1154. Two more people are in the hospital at the present time and haven’t been given a summons to the court. The total sum of fines was $4616.
Before the “law of religious activity,” this small group of Christians was without any need of registration. With the introduction of new rules, the legal features were established. They applied for registration a couple of times since September of last year and were rejected because there were less than 50 people.
Despite opposition, the Kazakh churches continue to grow. About 25% of the country’s population is Christian, most of whom are from the accepted Russian Orthodox denomination. Protestants, making up 0.8%, are viewed with suspicion as dangerous sects that may pose a threat to the government.
Christian Aid assists ministries in Kazakhstan that have planted more than 120 churches and comprise some 12,000 believers. Donors have also provided funding for a Bible school that graduates over 100 students each year and an orphanage that provides compassionate care in the name of Christ to some 300 youngsters.