Astana (AsiaNews/Fergana) – An orthodox priest has been accused of violating the ‘Law on Religious Activities and Religious Associations" by holding religious meetings in unregistered places.
Vladimir Vorontsov, rector of the parish of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God, went on trial in Merke, a town in Jambyl Region, southern Kazakhstan.
An anonymous source had reported him to the police, saying that the clergyman with children and some parents was taking part in a Sunday school prayer at a camp in the mountains.
On 2 August, officials from the local government, police and National Security Committee (NSC) travelled to the camp for an inspection.
Initially, the authorities laid charges against Fr Vorontsov for extremism, illegal detention of minors, and smuggling religious literature.
Officials tried to interrogate the children, and only a phone call from the deputy head of the regional administration convinced them to stop and leave, allowing camp participants to continue their vacation.
However, two days later, Fr Vorontsov was notified that he was in breach of administrative rules and on 6 August he was summoned to appear before a court to respond to charges of holding religious meetings in inappropriate places.
Under Kazakh law, religious functions must be held in a place of worship. For religious minorities (Protestants, Hare Krishna, certain Muslim groups), this means, for example, fines and administrative detention for praying in private dwellings.
However, this is the first time that such a measure is applied to a representative of the Orthodox Church, the second largest religious denomination in Kazakhstan.
The regional Religious Affairs administration summoned Orthodox clergy to appear before them on 10 August to discuss the case. "The conversation was tense," Vorontsov said.
Department chief “Omarov treated us as guilty subordinates. The Religious Affairs administration did nothing to resolve this situation, to reconcile."
In an interview with Esquire.kz, Fr Vorontsov said that the authorities did not like the fact that he had set up a Sunday school and opposed the felling of some ancient trees.
At the same timer, Vorontsov noted that the incident was not a case of "national and religious oppression", but a wrong interpretation of the law. "I still trust the laws of my country," the clergyman said.
Orthodox Christians are the second largest religious community in the country after Muslims who follow the Hanafi school.
The country has 3,464 places of worship: 2,550 are mosques, 294 Orthodox churches, and 198 Catholic churches.
Recently, Kazakhstan has tightened controls on religions to counter the rise of radicalism.