Religious freedom in Kazakhstan means “one nation – one religion”
A new agency is set up to control religious groups. President Nazarbaev calls for greater surveillance of religious extremism. Religious minorities fear instead more repression. Many are already being forced out of their places of worship.
Astana (AsiaNews/F18) – For Kazakhstan’s new Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), religious freedom means “one nation – one religion”. In fact, Kazakh authorities have announced new measures to increase controls on religious groups, including legal penalties.

On 22 July, Kazakh President Nazarbaev said, “It is necessary to strictly suppress the spread of elements of extremist religious ideology in the country, especially, open actions which are aimed at undermining the constitutional system and which pose a threat to citizens' lives and health".

At a meeting of the country's Security Council, the president said that local governments “should step up educational and preventive measures, as well as keep a close watch on religious associations' strict compliance with the existing legal norms.”

This set off alarm bells among religious minorities. In April, Nazarbaev had already called for greater controls against an unspecified “extremist religious ideology”, which was followed by a police crackdown against religious minorities and a hostile campaign against them in state media.

In fact, in the absence of any clear definition of “religious extremism”, ARA has gone on an offensive against all Muslim groups that do not adhere to what it considers mainstream moderate Islam.

Set up on 18 May, the new agency is responsible directly to the prime minister, and is preparing to change the Religious Freedom Law to make it more restrictive.

On 17 June, ARA president Lama Sharif said, “Each citizen of Kazakhstan has a right to freedom of conscience and choice, and we have made our own choice. Our choice is objective and based on the principle of 'one nation – one religion', and it is exactly this principle that makes us one nation. In this context, we will prepare a concept on the 'Development of moderate Islam in Kazakhstan'."

However, such a view has drawn fire from critics. For lawmaker Serik Temirbulatov, a statement like Sharif’s could be expected from a member of the clergy, not a public official. It “contradicts the constitution of Kazakhstan, and violates the principle of non-interference of the state in the affairs of religious communities.”

In the meantime, the country’s administrative and penal codes have changed. They now give government agencies more power to interfere in the activities of religious groups.

On Wednesday for example, in the southern town of Shymkent, a regional court said that the local Ahmadi community could not meet in the mosque, and that the ban would be in place until a final appeal is heard.

Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other small religious groups are also suffering from persecution. In 2010, the authorities told the New Life Protestant Church that its members could not meet in its registered building on the grounds that the latter was not meant for religious activities.