The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference; however, government officials sometimes harass Islamic and Christian groups whose members are regarded as religious extremists.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Relations among the various religious communities are generally amicable. There were reports that law enforcement, prosecutorial, and intelligence officials in some jurisdictions routinely review the activities of religious organizations. Government scrutiny of religious groups is often tied to the requirement that groups register with the government in order to conduct legal transactions such as renting property or hiring employees. Increasing activities of extremist, self-described religious groups in the Central Asian region led to calls for greater control of religious groups in the country. In July 1999, government forces raided a religious meeting near Taraz detained 70 persons and reportedly beat several of them.
Ultimately, one of the meeting's organizers was convicted of promoting the activities of an unregistered organization and jailed. He was released in a general amnesty a few weeks later.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its dialog about regional security threats and as part of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.
Section I. Government Polices on Freedom of Religion
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference; however, government officials sometimes harass Islamic and Christian groups whose members are regarded as religious extremists. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state. It also requires foreign religious associations to carry out their activities, including the appointment of the heads of religious associations "in coordination with appropriate state institutions." There were credible allegations that the Government played a significant role in the appointment in June 2000 of the new Mufti, the head of the National Muslim Organization. He denied these allegations. In general, the Government does not interfere with the appointment of religious leaders or the activities of foreign religious associations.
Religious organizations, including churches, must register with the Ministry of Justice in order to receive legal status. Without registration religious organizations cannot buy or rent real property, hire employees, obtain visas for foreign missionaries, or engage in any other legal transactions. Although religious organizations, unlike other nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), are entitled by law to carry out their work without government registration, in practice many local officials insist that they register. Registration requires an application submitted by at least 10 persons and is usually a quick and simple process. Some religious groups out of favor with the authorities in some jurisdictions encounter difficulties registering in those jurisdictions. There were no reports that the Government prohibited the activities of any religious group whose registration application it turned down.
Religious organizations receive no tax privileges other than exemptions from taxes on church collections and income from certain religious activities. The Government has donated buildings and provided other assistance for the construction of new mosques and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Society is ethnically diverse, and many religions are represented. However, due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past many residents reject religious labels or describe themselves as nonbelievers (see Section II). Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. In a 1998 government survey, 80 percent of ethnic Kazakhs described themselves as Muslims, although government and independent experts believe that a large number of these are nonobservant. Other traditionally Sunni Muslim groups, which constitute approximately 5 to l0 percent of the population, include Tatars, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Turks, and Chechens. Slavs, principally Russians and Ukrainians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox and constitute about one-third of the population. The 1998 government survey found that 60 percent of ethnic Slavs identify themselves as Orthodox. An independent expert estimates that two-thirds of Slavic citizens would say that they belong to no religion or are indifferent to religion. Ethnic Germans, largely Lutheran and Catholic, constituted approximately 5 percent of the population when the country became independent in 1991, but the majority of these are thought to have emigrated to Germany. A small Jewish community is estimated at well below 1 percent of the population. Two new synagogues, in Astana and Pavlodar, opened. President Nazarbayev personally presented historical records on Rabbi Shnerson's father, who was exiled to the country during the Soviet period, to the Lubavitcher community in a December 1999 visit to New York.
Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Government officials frequently express concerns about the potential spread of religious extremism. They point especially to the risk of political Islam spreading north from Afghanistan and other states. Their longstanding concerns intensified following a series of bombings in the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan in February 1999, and incursions by armed militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from Tajikistan into neighboring Kyrgyzstan during the summer and fall of 1999. In September 1999, the National Security Council, which is chaired by the President, created a commission to develop policies to combat religious extremism.
Religious groups out of favor with the authorities encounter difficulties registering. These groups include Jehovah's Witnesses, many Protestant groups, Muslim groups independent of the national Muslim organization headed by the Mufti of Kazakhstan, and Orthodox Christian groups independent of the Orthodox Archbishop.
Despite leaders' concerns about regional security threats from groups claiming a religious basis, the Government refrained from imposing new legal restrictions on religious freedom. Draft restrictive amendments to the Law on Religion, withdrawn by the Government in March 1999, were not reintroduced. However, the country's highest law enforcement officials called for toughening the Religion Law. The Procurator General of the Republic and the Interior Minister both called for prohibiting the activities of unregistered religious organizations. In February 2000, the Interior Minister publicly expressed his dissatisfaction with the presence of conservative Muslims in the country and criticized a local official for attending a stadium meeting of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The Committee for National Security (KNB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB) on several occasions has characterized the fight against "religious extremism" as a top priority of the internal intelligence service. The official Russian-language newspaper, Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, and the official television station, Khabar, presented as news reports allegations that unregistered religious groups present a threat to national security and social cohesion.
On June 26, 2000, the Third Congress of Muslims in Kazakhstan voted to appoint Absattar Derbisaliyev as the new Mufti (spiritual chief) of the National Muslim Organization. Senior government officials, including reportedly the Chief of the Presidential Administration and the Minister of Culture, Information, and Public Accord, took part in the Congress. Some Muslims alleged that the government officials engineered Derbisaliyev's appointment and the resignation of his predecessor. Derbisaliyev publicly denied that government officials present at the Congress influenced the votes of congress participants, indicating that they were not there when the voting was conducted.
Some local officials continued to assert, contrary to law, that unregistered religious organizations could not conduct religious activities. In March 2000, the city prosecutor's office in Astana, the national capital, issued a written warning to a group of Schismatic Baptists for not being registered. Earlier in the month, the head of the Ministry of Culture, Information and Public Accord visited the leader of the Schismatic Baptists to recommend that they alter their charter prohibition against seeking government registration and apply for registration. Law enforcement authorities in Akmola oblast, the province that includes Astana, conduct regular inspections of religious organizations in order, they assert, to prevent the development of religious extremism and to ensure that religious groups are paying taxes.
Representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses alleged incidents of harassment by a number of local governments. They claimed that city officials in Astana, Almaty, and Shymkent sometimes blocked the group from renting stadiums or other large public or private sites for religious meetings. In other cities, officials allowed the church to rent facilities for such gatherings. Church representatives alleged that the director of one facility in Almaty told them that city officials had given instructions not to rent space to Jehovah's Witnesses. A city official denied the allegation. Church representatives also alleged that the prosecutor's office in Kostenai requested information from the church about its clergymen, organizational structure, and schools, and in April 2000 inspected documents of Jehovah's Witnesses congregations in Taraz and Abay. The church faced difficulties registering communities of church members in Petropavlovsk, where registration has been denied several times, and Aktau, though it ultimately was registered in Aktau.
Foreign missionary activity is authorized under law, but only when missionaries are accredited by the State. In practice many missionaries operate without accreditation. Although legally entitled to register religious organizations, foreign missionaries generally find that they must list a majority of local citizens among the 10 founders of the religious organization.
A 1999 law on education forbids the activities of educational institutions, including religious schools, which have not been registered by the Ministry of Education. Although no religious schools are known to be registered, the Government apparently took no action against religious schools over registration pending full implementation of the law.
Governmental Abuses of Religious Freedom
On July 14, 1999, a group of more than 100 armed special forces and police raided a camp outside Taraz where a Muslim group was holding a private religious study retreat. The authorities detained 70 group members, including, reportedly, a 6-year-old and 11 other minors. Group members alleged that the authorities beat all 70 detainees in jail. One minor reportedly suffered a broken nose; another detainee reportedly suffered broken ribs. Although the Interior Minister publicly alleged that the group was terrorist, not religious, in nature, the authorities later publicly announced that they uncovered no weapons or politically subversive literature at the camp. All 70 detainees were freed by September 1999. Only one group leader was charged with a crime (promoting the activities of an unregistered organization), but he was released under a general amnesty law passed in August 1999.
In September 1999, police closed an Islamic school in Karasu village, near Almaty. The authorities alleged that a Pakistani teacher at the school was promoting religious extremism and that students were being kept forcibly at the school. The school was allowed to reopen, but it closed again in October 1999.
In June 2000, immigration officials at Almaty airport refused to admit an American missionary into the country. The missionary, who held a valid visa, alleged that airport authorities did not give an explanation for his exclusion, saying only that the reasons were secret. The missionary suggested that his exclusion might have been related to problems that he had 6 months earlier with customs officials in Russia, where he had performed religious work. He subsequently was denied a visa to return to Russia. Government officials subsequently confirmed the refusal to grant entry to the missionary and indicated that his name matched one on an immigration lookout list that had been circulated to members of the Confederation of Independent States.
Other foreign missionaries, unwelcome to some Muslim and Orthodox citizens, have complained of occasional harassment by low-level government officials. In particular evangelical Protestants working in schools, hospitals, and other social service institutions have alleged government hostility toward their efforts to proselytize.
On June 7, 2000, local KNB and interior ministry officers, accompanied by local government officials, raided a prayer house belonging to a registered community of Jehovah's Witnesses in the village of Derbesek (South Kazakhstan oblast). The officers confiscated religious literature and church correspondence. Church representatives complained to district and oblast KNB officials that the raid was illegal because the officers did not have a prosecutor's warrant. In response, the director of the KNB department for South Kazakhstan oblast wrote a letter confirming that no evidence of "illegal missionary activity" was discovered and that the local KNB officers who participated in the raid had been ordered to return the seized literature and correspondence.
The Government often invites the national leaders of the two largest religions, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, to participate jointly in state events. Leaders of other religions were invited to appearances by the Islamic Mufti and the Orthodox Archbishop, often in the presence of the President, which are intended to promote religious and ethnic harmony. Many government officials attended the founding session of the All Kazakhstan Jewish Congress in December 1999. Some members of other faiths, including Muslims not affiliated with the national Muslim organization headed by the Mufti, criticize the Government's inclusion of the Mufti and Archbishop in state events as official favoritism and a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Many also believe that the distinction government officials sometimes make between "traditional" and "nontraditional" religions violates the fundamental standard of equality among religions.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.
Other than the 70 persons detained near Taraz, in July 1999, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Relations among the various religious communities are generally amicable. Since independence the number of mosques has increased greatly.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
In a series of private meetings with senior officials about threats to regional security in Central Asia, the U.S. Ambassador and visiting officials from Washington urged the Government not to increase state control of religion because regional extremist groups call themselves religious. The Ambassador addressed the inaugural meeting of the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan in December 1999. To publicize the release of the first annual report on International Religious Freedom in September 1999, the Ambassador hosted a gathering for a wide range of religious figures, human rights activists, government officials, and foreign diplomats. The Embassy human rights officer met often with representatives of a wide array of religious groups, including groups that alleged harassment by government authorities. The officer also met with human rights activists about religious freedom and attended a December 1999 conference on religious freedom in Kazakhstan organized by the Almaty Helsinki Commission, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Commission.
After immigration officials refused to allow an American missionary to enter the country in June 2000, the Embassy formally requested an explanation from the Government.