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Special Issue No 22



Category: General
Posted by: admin

Special Issue No 22, December 22, 2008


Recently, there has been a lot of controversy and all sorts of allegations in the press with regard to Kazakhstan’s new amendments to its religious legislation. Kazakh Government has been widely demonized as a wicked oppressor deliberately discriminating against religious groups and suppressing religious freedoms in the country.

Kazakhstan, however, is a multiethnic and multi-religious country with a long-standing tradition of peace, accord and harmony in relations between numerous groups living on its territory. Never had a single conflict erupted in Kazakhstan based on religious or ethnic grounds. International religious dialogue initiatives of Kazakhstan are widely recognized and enjoy full support of many foreign governments and non-governmental groups. Next summer the country will host the Third Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, a prominent event which has found a regular venue in Kazakhstan’s Pyramid of Peace and Accord in Astana.

Judging by the critical NGOs and some press reports, Kazakhstan’s Government may seem as acting as a madman with split personality: supporting and nurturing interreligious dialogue and tolerance in one guise and ruthlessly suppressing it in the other. We have to leave this assumption aside, though, as it is very far from likelihood. The root of the criticism, it seems, lies in the lack of knowledge of the majority of critics on the essence and goals of the amendments.

The truth is that nothing preoccupies the Kazakh Government more than preserving and enhancing the pattern of interreligious and interethnic harmony and friendship that currently exists in the society. It is these best intentions that are at the core of the new legislative initiative. Kazakhstan strongly believes that the amendments will help better protect the religious rights of its citizens but remains open for further discussions and suggestions.

Here are some facts on the amendments that we present for our readers’ own judgment.

Amendments to Kazakhstan’s Law on religious freedom

“The intolerant must be tolerated but only insofar as they
do not endanger the tolerant society and its institutions”
John Rawls, American philosopher

•    Kazakhstan’s Law “On Freedom of Worship and Religious Associations” was adopted on January 15, 1992. Since the country’s independence in 1991, the number of religious organizations has increased sevenfold. In accordance with the “International Religious Freedom Report 2006” released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the US Department of State, Kazakhstan “has outperformed other former Soviet Union nations in its encouragement of religious tolerance and its respect for the rights of religious minorities. Religious leaders praised the role the Government played in ensuring their groups' right to the peaceful practice of religious beliefs”.  

•    Before and particularly after 9/11 the level of intolerance of certain groups which use religious beliefs as means to violate fundamental freedoms has significantly increased, stirring up public outrage in Kazakhstan. As the result, numerous groups of members of public from different parts of the country requested the Parliament to initiate amendments to the Law on religious freedom in order to protect their rights in view of certain insensitivities by a number of religious groups. Most blatant examples include:
-    two years ago the South Kazakhstan region experienced a true moral shock when parents did not allow a blood transfusion for their ill-to-death son because of their religious convictions. In three days the boy who could have been saved passed away.
-    there were public reports that in a number of areas throughout Kazakhstan school children avoided attending classes on certain science subjects on religious grounds;   
-    with the economic growth and religious freedoms at full swing, Kazakhstan witnessed over the last years a significant growth in rural religious schools, where in many cases the issues of proper and well organized schooling and curriculum were left unattended;
-    there were hundreds of reported cases when young people illegally evaded the military draft citing their membership in certain religious groups without trying to cooperate with military authorities to find a mutually acceptable solution;
-    public registries reported numerous cases of families break up on the grounds of nontraditional beliefs of one of the spouses, etc.

•    As in any democracy members of Kazakh Parliament were obliged to respond to this public pressure. While working on the first draft of amendments, Kazakh parliamentarians have taken an accentuated open and transparent approach and have initiated a number of round tables and public discussions with human rights, religious and public groups as well as with the OSCE.
The debating process demonstrated the high polarity of public opinion. For instance, representatives of major religions sought to limit the clout of nontraditional confessions, whereas representatives of smaller and new denominations asked for greater freedoms. The Parliament through a number of open discussions has tried to find the golden middle that would grant equal legal rights and responsibilities to all religions.  

•    Since March, 2008 the draft has been openly discussed, including with the OSCE and the original undebated text was submitted for the Organization’s consideration in compliance with Kazakhstan’s commitment to fully cooperate with the OSCE. Along with that, cooperation with religious and public groups on the amendments was carried on – many proposals of religious groups were included into the text during the process and significantly changed the language of the first draft.

•    Since June 11, 2008 the Lower House of Kazakhstan’s Parliament (Majilis) had been formally considering the draft and submitted it to the Senate in October, 2008. With little changes the Senate approved the final version on November 26, 2008 and submitted the draft for the President to sign it into law.

OSCE and the draft amendments:

•    The OSCE produced its assessment of the first, undebated draft with significant delay only on June 17, 2008. By then, the language of the amended draft has been significantly changed and the new text has already been debated in the Lower House. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan did its best to take OSCE proposals into account and established an ad hoc negotiation platform to discuss them. Since June, 2008 Kazakhstan had a number of expert level exchanges with the Organization up until November, 2008.

•    However, the ODIHR/OSCE kept on reviewing the first, undebated version of the draft. Throughout the process ODIHR’s experts have demonstrated the lack of knowledge of Kazakhstan’s legislation and of the improvements to draft amendments made by parliamentarians through domestic public debates. Moreover, ODIHR/OSCE was late to respond to the invitation of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister to visit Kazakhstan to discuss the improved draft. The invitation was sent to the ODIHR on August 5, 2008. ODIHR team visited Kazakhstan for the discussion only on November 25, 2008.

•    Nevertheless, in compliance with the spirit of constructive dialogue and in line with OSCE recommendations, Kazakhstan has given up on 16 amendments which were allegedly in some conflict with the country’s international human rights commitments. “Missionary quotas” which fix the number of missioners allowed to work in Kazakhstan and the term “religious property” have been removed from the draft. The following originally proposed amendments have been also removed at the request of OSCE and different groups:
-    children should have their guardian’s written consent to take part in religious activity;
-    no later than 10 years after the start of their activity in Kazakhstan religious organizations should have regional offices in at least 8 regions of the country;
-    special conditions should be applied for granting the “religious” status to the buildings where religious organizations hold their liturgies;
-    public distribution of religious literature in government agencies, educational and health establishments and within 100 meters of them should be banned;
-    all religious materials (published in Kazakhstan) should go through official “theological expertise” (ie should be subject to approval);
-    religious organizations should obtain official approval for the list of religious materials and property to publish or produce in the country;
-    obligatory use of “cash registers” in religious buildings and mandatory participation of local authorities in organizations’ accounting procedures;
-    donations from unknown or foreign sources should be banned;
-    religious organization should send reports on their financial, religious and public activity to the Ministry of Justice;
-    there should be regular cooperation between the state and religious organizations to coordinate joint activities in shaping spiritual and cultural traditions in Kazakhstan, etc.
•    In the spirit of constructive cooperation Kazakhstan has up-taken all in all more than 60% of the OSCE recommendations in the amended draft.  

Common misconceptions about the amendments and Kazakhstan’s policy on interreligious consent:

•    “The process of drafting the amendments was not transparent”.
-    The draft was prepared on the basis of public proposals sent by regular and electronic mail to the Lower House and discussed with religious leaders, NGOs (Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Almaty Helsinki Committee etc.), mass media, OSCE etc. at round tables in Shymkent, Kostanay, Almaty, and other regions of Kazakhstan.
-    In accordance with the request of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptist Churches the parliamentarians have removed the aforementioned “missionary quotas” (the same request was submitted by the OSCE).
-    The draft has been a matter of discussion with the OSCE/ODIHR since March, 2008.
•    “The new legislation provides for potential liquidation of organizations which will be unable to register or re-register after the law comes into effect”.
-    The first and more complex form of registration is envisaged for religious organizations which would like to apply for the legal entity status. This type of registration can be approved or declined by government agencies. The same practice is in place in many Western democracies.   
-    The second and much simpler form of registration is envisaged for all religious organizations which would like to operate in Kazakhstan without the legal entity status. This registration implies  only a simple notification of local authorities which includes name, surname, birth date, religious denomination of the organization’s leader and the address where the group would like to hold its liturgies. The state has no authority to approve or decline this notification. The purpose of notification to local authorities is to keep statistical records and to protect Kazakhstan’s citizens from the onerous activity of extremist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Aum Sinrike, Islamic Movement of Turkestan etc.
•    “The new legislation imposes severe restrictions on religious groups, religious worshipping and religious meetings, and bans missionary activities”.
-    The amendments provide no restrictions on religious groups – everyone is free to worship and local authorities should be simply notified of organized religious activity;
-    Everyone has the right to practice missionary activity. This activity is unlimited within the borders of a single region, but if this activity goes out of this region it should go through the process of official registration.  
•    “State restricted religious freedom through the proposed “theological expertise”
-    the only purpose of the so called “theological expertise” is to allow local authorities to identify the nature of the activity of a “religious organization” (profit or non-profit etc.) to grant tax-free status (a similar process is in place with religious organizations in the US).
•    “The amendments impose severe restrictions on faith based charity activities”.
-    The final draft of the amendments contains no related wording and does not entrench upon the spirit of freedom for charity activities.
•    Kazakh authorities arbitrarily oppress some religious organizations, including the Hare Krishna Community, Evangelical Christian-Baptists Churches and Jehovah’s witnesses based on their religious beliefs.
-    The situation around Hare Krishna Community in the Karasay District is a property dispute. Legal actions (the local court authorities issued orders of eviction and an order to demolish 12 illegally erected buildings in the District) against some members of the local Hare Krishna Community were initiated to stop violations of Kazakh legislation in terms of improper use of property, falsification of property titles; violation of building, design and sanitary norms, as well as fire safety. Despite the obvious violations and the fact that the local Community has no legal basis for claiming the property, Kazakhstan’s authorities are doing their best to help the Community and have offered the Community members the choice of a number of various free of charge land slots to move their houses there. There are 10 Krishna Consciousness community groups legally active in Astana, Almaty and six other regions of Kazakhstan. These law-abiding communities are actively participating in strengthening inter-religious dialogue and have never had any problems with Kazakh authorities.
-    Leaders of 300 Evangelical Christian-Baptists Churches have registered their communities and freely operate in Kazakhstan. The Government has established friendly and stable relations with Evangelical Christian-Baptists communities. However, some Evangelical Christian-Baptists leaders are deliberately evading from any form of legally prescribed registration or simple notification at all levels citing religious creed. Having faced administrative fine imposed by local courts for violating Kazakhstan’s legislation, they twisted the situation by presenting law enforcement actions as “vivid examples of religious persecution” in Kazakhstan.    
-     Jehovah’s Witnesses community faced restrictive court decisions in Southern Kazakhstan for alleged violations of Kazakhstan’s legislation. However, having thoroughly examined their case the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan issued protests against the court order. On October 28, 2008, the Religious Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Kazakhstan received a letter from the General Prosecutor’s Office informing them about the supervisory protests. The letter stated that the General Prosecutor had ordered the regional prosecutor offices in the Southern Kazakhstan and Kyzylorda regions to “take measures to protest” the court decisions against Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also advised the regional prosecutor’s offices as well as their subordinates that they “should not allow violations of the religious rights of people.” Later on, a supervisory collegium of the Kyzylorda Regional Court restored the legal status of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Kyzylorda Region. According to the organization’s recent press release, “With today’s decision, the supervisory collegium of the Kyzylorda Regional Court has restored religious freedom for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Kyzylorda Region. This decision came following protests initiated by the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan… Jehovah’s Witnesses rejoice over the upright stand taken by the Kazakhstan General Prosecutor’s Office and the supervisory collegium of the Kyzylorda Regional Court protecting the right for religious freedom guaranteed by the Kazakhstan Constitution”.
•    Kazakhstan intends to improve its religious legislation in the best interests of its citizens, based on their own requests and longer-term prosperity and stability of the country. Kazakhstan is known as the island of stability in the region but wants to safeguard itself against the potential threats of extremism and terrorism which exist in our volatile part of the world.
•    The new legislation is aimed not at restricting but better organizing religious activity in the country in an orderly manner for the benefit of the people of Kazakhstan belonging to numerous religious and ethnic groups. Moreover, the legislation will preserve traditional spirit of tolerance and interreligious harmony nurtured by Kazakhstan throughout its history. For instance, the country’s capital, Astana, is proud to have a diverse representation of religious organizations that can also be found in any other part of the country. In Astana, there are 4 Muslim, 4 Orthodox Christian, 34 Protestant and numerous other religious organizations.
•    Kazakhstan is strongly against any forms of religious oppression and stands for the principle of religious freedom as one of the cornerstones of its national policy. However, the government is continuously enhancing the rule of law and will not tolerate any organizations or individuals violating the national legislation as it believes that everybody should equally obey the law.
•    Kazakhstan was, is and will be open for a meaningful and informed cooperation with international religious communities, NGOs and multilateral organizations, including the OSCE.
•    Kazakhstan promotes the domestic and international interfaith dialogue as a matter of its internal and foreign policy. Kazakhstan has initiated and hosts a triennial Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions since 2003. The next, III Congress is scheduled on July 1-2, 2009 in Astana.

Embassy of Kazakhstan to the United States