Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has said the two highly restrictive laws on religion he signed on October 13 are meant to check Islamist extremism. The truth, however, appears to be the opposite.
“It is commonsense that unreasonable restrictions on religion will isolate religious people and thus help extremist groups to garner support and gain sympathy,” said the Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents over 600 million evangelical Christians around the world.
Days after the signing of the laws, two explosions rocked the western city of Atyrau and killed one man on October 31. A previously unknown Islamist extremist group, Kateeba Jund al-Khalifat (Soldiers of the Caliphate), claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were to protest the new laws.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), human rights groups and country’s religious communities had warned President Nazarbayev that instead of controlling extremism the restrictions would actually encourage it.
“The President went ahead with the laws without consulting affected parties or general populace apparently because he cares little about extremism,” the Rev. Godfrey Yogarajah, Executive Director of WEA-RLC, said. “What the President is really concerned about is perhaps that religious actors could one day challenge his autocratic regime – a typical trait of authoritarian rulers.”
Kazakhstan has a considerably high literacy rate and is rich in resources, and yet there is virtually no civil society. President Nazarbayev apparently doesn’t want the country’s citizens to have the freedom of association and the freedom of expression, even if these essential freedoms are meant for religious groups. He views people coming together and expressing themselves in any way as a potential threat to his office, which he has held since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kazakhstan has signed and ratified many international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but restrictions in the country remain almost unchanged. Repression is rather increasing.
The two new laws – “The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations” and “The Law on introducing Amendments and Additions to several legal acts questions of Religious Activity and Religious Associations” – flout international laws.
It’s a Muslim-majority country, but the first law bans prayer rooms in government buildings. It also requires existing religious organizations to dissolve and re-register. Smaller groups may not even qualify for registration under the new law. To register at a local level, a religious group must have 50 members. At a regional level, a group must have at least 500 members, and for the national, 5,000 members across the country’s regions. The law also requires all missionaries to register with the authorities annually.
The second law provides for stricter penal provisions for existing offenses, especially Article 375 of the Code of Administrative Offences which relates to activities of unregistered organizations.
“If Kazakhstan is allowed to reap benefits of international covenants for trade and diplomatic purposes despite an open show of disrespect for civil liberties, what’s the purpose of those covenants?” asked Yogarajah.
WEA-RLC urges the international community to raise its voice in protest against the blatant defiance of international obligations.
[Source: WEA Religious Liberty Commission]