Astana (AsiaNews/F18) - Kazakhstan's new Religion Law bans 579 religious groups, including Protestant Churches and Muslim sects, if they have less than 50 registered members. According to the government's top religious affairs official, Kairat Lama Sharif, the law adopted on 21 October 2011 has cut the number of registered religious organisations by 13 per cent. Many Protestants, including Seventh-Day Adventists, will be forced to hold services in private homes under close government watch.
Kazakh authorities wrote to the affected communities telling them to follow the new rules or disband. They have a year to meet the new requirement for registration. However, no group with less than 50 members will be able to conduct public services even if they were legal under the old rules.
Rev Vyacheslav Melnik, pastor of the Grace Church in Shakhan, Shakhtinsk district (Karaganda), said he was summoned by the police to inform him of the new law. "Now our believers are afraid each time they gather for worship," Alkeyeva of the Grace Church said.
Various leaders have protested against the law for violating religious freedom. Yet, despite appeals and demands for consultations by minorities, the government has remained inflexible, justifying the new law as a tool to defend the country against religious terrorism. Henceforth, anyone who refuses to register or celebrates services publicly outside the law will be punished.
The first victim of the new rules was Aleksei Asetov, head of a Baptist congregation in Ekibastuz that is affiliated with the unregistered Council of Churches. He was fined more than US$ 3,000, the equivalent of 18 months of the average salary, for not registering his community. A shoemaker by trade, the clergyman is the father of 10 children and could go to jail and see his property seized.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev strongly backed the law adopted on 21 October, ostensibly to counter Islamic extremism, but so sweeping that it affects all religious groups.However, one of the law's goals is to nationalise traditional or large religions along Chinese lines.
Groups originally from abroad must have at least 5,000 nation-wide members to avoid sanctions and survive. At the same time, the law bans the display of religion in public places and prohibits women from wearing the vel.
In principle, Kazakhstan's Russian Orthodox Church and Islamic community, the country's mainstream religions, are not subject to the restrictions.
However, the recent discovery of extremist groups operating on Kazakh territory as well as attacks on 31 October in Atyrau in the west of the country have pushed the government to tighten its control over them as well.