Kazakhstan (MNN) — Fears about Kazakhstan's new religion laws are coming to fruition.
Forum 18 News Service reported last week that the first known use of Kazakhstan's amended religion law went into effect against a Baptist shoe-repairer and father.
Aleksei Asetov was fined what locals estimate to be about a year and a half's average wages for leading a small congregation of believers in his home, according to Forum 18.
"Apparently this was done under some provision that was introduced in the new amendments to the religion laws that we've been talking about thus far. Then this judge, I guess, also banned the congregation from meeting," explains Joel Griffith with Slavic Gospel Association.
SGA has had a close eye on the new religion laws since their inception in October, 2011. The laws seem to incorporate harsher punishments for unregistered religious groups and put into question ministry to small numbers of people or to children. SGA and its Kazakh contacts have been nervously waiting since then to see just how far these laws would go.
The situation with Asetov appears to be one clue as to how the law will be enforced. Although Asetov is not the first religious person to be fined since the new laws were introduced, he is the first to be tried under new penalties. Forum 18 reports that when prosecutors presented a case against Asetov, it was to try him under the old law's conditions. The judge apparently told the prosecutors to start over with punishment suggestions from the new law instead.
It's not a good sign for the direction of Kazakhstan, says Griffith. "At least from what I'm seeing, we're going to start more and more incidents like this from varying degrees of severity just as this new law begins to be implemented across the country."
A number of raids have indeed been conducted on religious groups since October. In one incident, officials raided a church and confiscated all of their literature and religious DVDs, claiming the church was violating the law by distributing the literature. Though the church does not seem to have been distributing it at the time, officials say they must hold onto the materials for at least two months to investigate whether or not they contain anything "negative."
This is only the beginning for this religion law in Kazakhstan, a nation that until recently has been one of the freer countries in Central Asia when it comes to religious rights.
At this point, though, there are still a number of questions as to how this law will affect its nation.
"What sort of obstacles are going to be in their way for forming a new church because of the numbers of requirements that would be imposed?" wonders Griffith. "Let's say if they're innocently trying to witness their faith out on the street, are they going to be arrested for doing so because they're outside their church building? Who knows? Are they going to be prohibited from working with children?"
For those answers, we will have to wait and pray.
Pray for the church to stay bold and encouraged. Pray that new laws would not prohibit the Gospel from spreading.