U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 2003 - Kazakhstan

Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various religious communities worship largely without government interference; however, local officials attempt on occasion to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups. Such attempts are often corrected upon the intervention of higher-level officials or courts.

The overall status of religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev began an initiative to promote dialog among religions; an international conference drawing regional dignitaries and religious figures was held in February. However, the President and other senior officials also spoke out on the need to contain religious extremism, and officials at all levels continued to regard religious extremism with concern. Following the Constitutional Council's April 2002 determination that restrictive amendments to the National Religion Law were unconstitutional, no further attempts have been made to amend the legislation. Instances of harassment of religious organizations by local officials, including legal actions against the Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptists, decreased during the period covered by this report. There were credible reports from throughout the country that local law enforcement officials regularly visited religious organizations for inspections. There were several instances during the reporting period when the intervention of higher-level officials corrected unwarranted harassment of religious groups by local officials.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. In 2001 Presidents Nazarbayev and Bush issued a joint statement reaffirming "our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and promote religious freedom and other universal human rights." The Ambassador and other U.S. officials continually remind Government officials of their commitment and international standards for religious freedom, and have supported the country's efforts to increase links and understanding among religious groups. The Embassy sponsored the 2-week visit to the U.S. of the country's senior Muslim leader as well as exchange programs with other Muslim leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 1,052,540 square miles, and according to an unpublished June 2003 estimate of the Government's Agency for Statistics, its population is approximately 14,892,500.

The society is ethnically diverse, and many religions are represented. Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. Ethnic Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tatars, comprising less than 10 percent of the population, also largely are Sunni Hanafi. Other Islamic groups, which account for less than 1 percent of the population, include Shafit Sunni (traditionally practiced by Chechens), Shiite, Sufi, and Akhmadi. Slavs, mostly Russians but also Ukrainians and Belorussians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox and constitute approximately one-third of the population.

Due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past, many residents describe themselves as nonbelievers. Data from a 1998 government survey suggest that 80 percent of ethnic Kazakhs consider themselves nominally Muslim, while only 60 percent of ethnic Slavs accept the Orthodox Christian designation. The Kazakhstani Association of Sociologists and Political Analysts has estimated that approximately 20 to 25 percent of adults practice a religious faith. A large proportion of devout Muslims traditionally live in southern regions, bordering Uzbekistan and largely ethnic Uzbeks.

According to government statistics in 2003, evangelical Christian and Baptist congregations outnumber Russian Orthodox, although it is unlikely that the number of adherents is also higher. Other Protestant associations with a sizable number of congregations include Lutherans (traditionally practiced by Kazakhstani Germans who still account for approximately 2 percent of the population, despite sizable emigration), Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Pentecostals.

A small Jewish community, estimated at well below 1 percent of the population, has synagogues in several larger cities. There is a Catholic archdiocese, adherents of which account for a similarly small proportion of the population.

Foreign missionaries are most active in the southern regions of the country and often come from Turkey, Pakistan, and other predominantly Muslim countries. According to government statistics, there were 275 foreign missionaries in the country at the end of the reporting period; others are present under tourist visas and not registered with the Government as missionaries.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference; however, local officials attempt on occasion to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state and grants the right to everyone to decline indicating a religious affiliation.

The National Religion Law, in contrast to laws governing other public associations, does not require religious organizations to register with the Government. It states that all persons are free to practice their religion "alone or together with others." Because the clause makes no reference to registration, many legal experts and government officials interpret it to ensure the right of members of unregistered groups to practice their religion. However, the law does specify that those religious organizations that wish to receive legal status must register. Registration requires a group to have at least 10 members and submit an application to the Ministry of Justice. Religious organizations must have legal status in order to buy or rent real property, hire employees, or engage in other legal transactions.

Article 375 of the Administrative Code allows authorities to suspend the activities or fine the leaders of unregistered religious organizations. Legal experts disagree about whether Article 375 supercedes the National Religion Law on the obligation of religious groups to register. Government officials also have varying interpretations of the discrepancy between the Administrative Code and the Religion Law. Lower courts have cited Article 375 in sanctioning religious organizations for nonregistration, but fewer cases under this charge were brought during the reporting period than in the past, due to the body of such decisions that have been overturned on appeal. One religious rights activist estimated that more than 80 percent of cases brought on Article 375 violations are dismissed, either by prosecutors, lower courts, or on appeal.

In practice local officials, particularly in remote locations, often insist that religious organizations register at the local level. However, neither law nor regulation grants such officials the authority to register a religious group. Only the Ministry of Justice, which has branches at the national and oblast levels, may legally register a group. Although the law specifies a maximum of 30 days for authorities to complete the registration process, many religious groups have reported delays of several months.

The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center reported that they have attempted unsuccessfully since 1997 to register in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast. On November 21, 2002, a city court in the oblast ordered the Ministry's oblast branch to resolve the delay. The Ministry branch appealed for guidance in January to the Ministry's national headquarters. In June, the latter ordered the branch to submit the Jehovah's Witnesses' documents for registration and chastised it for repeated failure to follow the law. The Jehovah's Witnesses were still not registered in the oblast at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' May 2001 application to register in Atyrau Oblast was formally turned down in April, whereupon the Jehovah's Witnesses resubmitted it. Their December 2001 application to register in Akmolinsk Oblast also remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report. The group is already formally registered nationally and in the country's other 11 oblasts.

The Government made no attempt during the period covered by this report to settle the discrepancy between the National Religion Law and the Administrative Code. Previously, it had offered a new religion law or draft amendments as a means to reconcile the inconsistency. The last time the Government took such action was in November 2001 when it submitted to Parliament amendments that included registration requirements for religious groups. In 2002 Parliament passed them, despite several objections raised by international experts and religious organizations, but the Constitutional Council rejected them after determining that certain provisions were unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Council specifically ruled that the provision requiring the Muslim Spiritual Association (a national Muslim organization headed by the Chief Mufti) to approve the registration of any Muslim group violated the constitutional principle separating church and state. The Council also noted more broadly that the amendments might infringe on the constitutional right to spread religious beliefs freely. Other provisions of the amendments not specifically ruled unconstitutional included: Requiring that religious organizations be registered; banning "extremist religious associations;" increasing the membership required for registration from 10 to 50 persons; authorizing local officials to suspend the activities of religious groups for criminal violations of 1 or more of their members, or for conducting religious activity outside of the place where they are registered; and requiring that foreign religious organizations be affiliated with a nationally registered organization. President Nazarbayev chose not to challenge the Council's April 2002 ruling; such a challenge would have required the Council to uphold its ruling by a two-thirds vote. The Government has proposed no new religious legislation since that time.

Neither law nor regulation prohibits foreign missionary activity; however, there is no mechanism governing such activity. In 2001, in anticipation of passage of amendments to the Religion Law, the Government annulled the previous regulation setting out procedures for the registration of foreign missionaries. Since then there have been widespread reports of inconsistency at the local level regarding the length of validity and cost of visas for foreign missionaries. Government officials maintain that the regulation cancelled in 2001 will be reinstated; however, there remained no such regulation at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government exempted registered religious organizations 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, synagogues, and Russian Orthodox churches.

The Government invited the national leaders of the two largest religious groups, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, to participate jointly in some state events; Catholic and Jewish leaders have been included in such events as well.  Leaders of other faiths, including Baptists, Adventists, and other nontraditional religious groups, have at times also participated in some events; events organized by the city administration in Almaty exclude no religions.

No religious holidays are state holidays.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The President and other senior officials continue to regard with concern the presence of what they consider religious extremism; however, unlike in previous years, none of them have publicly discussed the issue of registration of religious groups during the reporting period. Law enforcement authorities conducted inspections of religious groups throughout the country, claiming the right to do so as a means of preventing the development of religious extremism and ensuring that religious groups pay taxes.  These inspections also provided the authorities with information about the registration status of the groups being inspected, which in some cases led to suspensions pending the registration of the groups concerned.

The Government typically claims that religious groups' charters do not meet the requirements of the law when refusing or significantly delaying registration for some religious groups. Often authorities cite discrepancies between Russian and Kazakh language versions of groups' charters or refer charters for expert examination. In addition, because the law does not allow religious groups to engage in educating children without approval from the Ministry of Education, applications for religions whose charters include such activities often are refused.

The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center alleged continuing incidents of harassment by a number of local governments. It claimed that city officials in Kostanay, Karaganda, Aktubinsk, Petropavlovsk, Atyrau, Kokshetau, Pavlodar, Semipalatinsk, and Taraz denied the group permits to rent stadiums or other large public or private sites for religious meetings during the reporting period.  However, the Center also reported that such denials were inconsistent and that officials in these and other jurisdictions have at times granted such permits. No other religious groups have reported similar instances of permits being denied.

During the period covered by this report, local KNB or police officials disrupted some meetings in private homes of unregistered groups of Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants, Adventists, Baptists, and other nontraditional groups throughout the country.

During the reporting period, the number of court cases against unregistered local Jehovah's Witness congregations throughout the country declined. Leaders of Baptist organizations reported a similar decline, and religious rights activists regard the situation as improving. Courts that still issued administrative injunctions against unregistered religious groups issued warnings, levied fines of $50 or less, or suspended the activities of the group. When adequate legal counsel was brought in on appeal, the decisions most often were overturned.

In May police in the Zharminskiy region of Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast opened a criminal case against Baptist pastor Sergey Nizhegorodtsev. He was charged with nonpayment of a fine levied on him in February 2002 by the Zharminskiy District Court for failure to register his congregation. However, Zharminskiy prosecutors dropped the case on May 28, agreeing with Nizhegorodtsev's assertion that the February 2002 court decision had been illegal.

Another Baptist pastor in Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast, Pavel Leonov, was convicted of failing to uphold a court order. In November 2001 the Ayaguz District Court ruled that Leonov did not comply with a September 2000 court order requiring his church to register. He was assessed a fine of approximately $135 (20,575 tenge). By the end of the period covered by this report, Leonov had not paid the fine and authorities had made no attempt to collect it. Leonov did not appeal his case to a higher court.

In October 2001, a court in Kyzl-Orda sentenced a Baptist church pastor, Valery Pak, to 5 days in prison for failing to comply with a 2000 court order that had suspended the church's activities until it was registered. 

The Zharminskiy, Kyzl-Orda, and Ayaguz congregations belong to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, which has a policy of not seeking or accepting registration in former Soviet countries. Police and prosecutors also sought to suspend the activities of Baptist churches associated with the Council in Aktobe, Pavlodar, and Eastern Kazakhstan Oblasts.

Government officials frequently expressed concerns regarding the potential spread of religious extremism in the south of the country. The KNB has characterized the fight against "religious extremism" as a top priority of the internal intelligence service. International organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, often remind the Government that religious extremism should be addressed by the Criminal Code and that no legislation restricting religious groups is justified on security grounds. Local religious rights advocates also have made this point in appeals to the Government and have lobbied for no restrictions to be placed on the fundamental right of religious freedom. Nonetheless, observers contend that security officials informally monitor religious activity, including imams' sermons.

Foreign missionary activity is not prohibited by law. The Constitution requires foreign religious associations to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of religious associations, "in coordination with appropriate state institutions." Foreign missionaries legally are entitled to register religious organizations; however, they generally also are required to list a majority of local citizens among the 10 founders of the organization. Other foreign missionaries 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 obstruction of their efforts to proselytize.

The 2001 annulment of the regulation of foreign missionary activity has led to widespread reports of inconsistency in the rules applied to foreign citizens engaged in religious work. Some local jurisdictions continue to register foreign citizens as religious workers; however, in many cases foreign missionaries who have entered the country on tourist visas engage in religious activities. Travel agencies have reported difficulty in obtaining ordinary tourist visas for persons whom they say the Government suspects of entering the country to conduct missionary work. The duration and cost of temporary visas varies by jurisdiction. When the Government knows or suspects the visa is for the purpose of conducting religious work, the Government often requires foreign missionaries to produce lengthy documentation regarding their affiliated church. Other religious rights activists have claimed that local officials use the lack of legal protection for missionaries as a pretext to extract bribes for registration. Although government officials have promised to reinstate procedures to accredit and register foreign missionaries, no such regulation had been promulgated by the end of the period covered by this report.

In early March, police in the town of Arys in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast briefly detained a missionary with the New Life Church, Nurbay Arystanov, and reportedly threatened to confiscate his property. Police had objected to the fact that Arystanov, although a citizen of the country, was not formally resident in the town. Later in the same month, an oblast official traveled with Arystanov to the town and told local police they had erred. Police apologized to Arystanov, who considered the matter resolved.

In November 2002, officials in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast refused to grant a visa extension to Sayid Bukhari, a foreign missionary with the Akhmadi Muslim Community. Bukhari had worked in the country for four and a half years without such problems. Bukhari stayed in the country with uncertain status and was granted a 3-month visa in January. After local authorities again threatened not to renew his visa at the conclusion of that term, the Akhmadis reported that the local officials received orders from their superiors to relent and to grant Bukhari a longer-term visa.

Both the Government and the national Muslim organization deny that there is any official connection between them. However, the Government has proposed several times in the form of amendments to the Religion Law, that the organization assume a quasi-official role by determining which Muslim groups be allowed to register with authorities and by approving the construction of new mosques. In April 2002, the Constitutional Council ruled that these provisions of the proposed amendments were unconstitutional.

Unlike in previous years, no religious organization, other than the Hare Krishnas, reported during the period covered by this report that they had been the subject of a news account portraying them or nontraditional religions in general as a threat to security or society. The Hare Krishnas reported that they intend to sue several media outlets for defamation based on news coverage of them as a threat to Christian and Muslim values.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities maintain that Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the practice of its interpretation of "pure" Islamic doctrine and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, is an extremist group. On several occasions during the period covered by this report, authorities detained their members for distributing literature. In most cases, the individuals were held in custody for a brief period and then eventually released.

At the end of the period covered by this report, two alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members, Asan Shagibayev and Baurzhan Kultayev, were scheduled to face criminal charges in an Almaty court for distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets in June 2002. In February the court referred the case back to police for additional investigation. Both men denied the charges against them and maintained that the KNB manufactured the cases. Kultayev further alleged in a complaint filed with the Almaty prosecutor that KNB officials had beaten him.

In 2001, according to local press reports, local KNB officials in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast beat 21-year-old Kanat Biyembitov to death after they detained him for allegedly belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir group. The Government concluded that two KNB officials bore some responsibility for the death and stated that it had released them from their duties; however, no criminal action had been taken by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Society for Krishna Consciousness alleged that in early 2003 the Karasay District prosecutor filed suit against them for irregularities in their registration documents. The prosecutor asked the district court to revoke their registration, but the court threw out the lawsuit on April 18 as groundless. The Krishnas further alleged that other officials have pressured them to renounce their registration. On May 18, 2002, the Krishnas' application for registration in Almaty Oblast was approved, after an 8-month delay. The Krishnas, registered only in Almaty City and Almaty Oblast, plan to apply for national registration.

In April 2002, regional authorities raided an unregistered farm run by the Society for Krishna Consciousness in the village of Yeltay, in the Karasay District of Almaty Oblast. Tax, immigration, fire, and health and hygiene officials all were involved in the inspection. Police confiscated the passports of 15 foreign members of the community, 5 of whom were sentenced to deportation at a May 2002 local court hearing, at which no charges were stated and the lawyers for the accused were not permitted to speak. In early June 2002, the Hare Krishnas appealed the deportations and the court also levied fines against three other members. Ultimately no members were deported. Leaders of the Krishna Center, registered in Almaty City, alleged that the authorities arrived for the April inspection with television camera crews and then ordered the stations to report on the raid. In one television report, the Krishnas were described as extremists and criminals.

There were no reports of the prolonged detention of members of religious organizations for proselytizing. On occasion the authorities took action against groups engaged in proselytizing; however, such actions were limited to the confiscation of religious literature and brief detentions.

Other than the brief detentions of a New Life missionary in Arys and several Hizb ut-Tahrir members, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversions

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

National and regional officials have become more proactive in stopping restrictions on religious freedom and harassment of religious groups by local officials. Several of the cases cited in this report illustrate this trend, including the Ministry of Justice intervention on behalf of the Jehovah's Witnesses' application for registration in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast, Zharminskiy prosecutors' decision to drop criminal charges against Baptist pastor Sergey Nizhegorodtsev, and action to assure that the legitimate missionary activities of Nurbay Arystanov in Arys were allowed to continue. In at least the last of these cases, the offending officials apologized to the group they had harassed. During the period covered by this report, courts have been less willing to sanction religious groups or suspend their activities for not being registered. Prosecutors brought such cases to the courts less often than in previous years.

In February President Nazarbayev launched an initiative called "Peace and Harmony," which was intended to open a dialog among religions and cultures. The President invited regional heads of state, international Muslim and Jewish leaders, and representatives of many of the country's religious faiths to a conference highlighting the need for interfaith understanding. The Government has stated that it intends to continue supporting the initiative with future conferences, expanding the number of international religious delegations invited.

In May the Government supported a conference to establish a branch office of the International Association of Religious Freedom. National and Almaty officials attended the conference and representatives of all religions were invited.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Since independence the number of mosques and churches has increased greatly. There exists general wariness within the population, particularly in rural areas, of nontraditional religions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The U.S. Ambassador and other Embassy officers are proactive in reminding government officials of these commitments and have also pressed the Government to resolve the legal uncertainty surrounding the registration of religious groups and the status of missionaries. The Embassy's human rights officer maintains contact with a broad range of religious communities and reports on instances of violations of their constitutional and human rights. Department of State officials met with government officials and members of faith-based groups in the country and the U.S.

In April the Embassy sponsored a 2-day visit of a U.S. academic expert on Islam to conduct a series of programs in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast on the role of Islam in a secular society. The scholar met with religious, academic, and NGO leaders and lectured at universities. From the beginning of 2003, the Embassy also distributed several hundred Russian- and Kazakh-language copies of a publication discussing Muslim life in a multicultural and interfaith society.

In October 2002, the Embassy sponsored the visit to the United States of the leader of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims – the Chief Mufti – and one of his senior aides. The program of the visit included meetings with U.S. government officials, academics, NGO leaders, and representatives of multiple U.S. religious organizations. The Embassy also sponsored the 2-week visit to the United States in April of a group of 20 Imams and other Muslim religious leaders from the south of the country. Their program included meetings with a variety of religious organizations, U.S. government officials, academics, and NGO leaders. They were also hosted by U.S. families and participated in religious services. Upon their return to the country, the group produced a multimedia presentation of their visit and presented it to numerous audiences.

In February the U.S. Embassy helped provide logistical support for the visit of a 50-member delegation of Jewish leaders who traveled to the country to participate in the Peace and Harmony conference.


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