10/28/2006, 00.00
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Changes to law on religious freedom planned

The authorities have said the amendments will not make things worse but many Protestant groups fear further restrictions on their activities. Small communities are often hassled, fined or forced to wait for a long time to get compulsory registration.

Astana (AsiaNews/Forum18) – Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) is planning to modify its law on religious freedom by the end of the year. Concern is running high among religious communities although Askar Amerkhanov, Deputy Chief of Staff of the KNB's Anti-terrorist Centre said "these changes are not going to affect believers".

Forum 18 News Service reminded Amerkharov that on 15 September, he had announced his intention to tackle religious groups held to "exert a destructive influence on people". On 23 October, the official responded by saying his words had been "distorted".

Amanbek Mukhashev, Deputy Head of the Justice Ministry's Religious Affairs Committee, said no Christian organizations were held to be "destructive". He said: "Kazakhstan is a law-governed state and only the court can decide whether an organisation is a destructive sect."

Religious groups fear possible restrictions of their missionary activities and bans on contributions from the faithful. Aleksandr Klyushev, chairman of the Association of Religious Organisations, said he feared the amendments "will put Protestant churches in a very difficult position".

In 2005, the state introduced drastic restrictions on religious freedom, making registration and state approval obligatory for every single religious activity and related material, for the stated purpose of safeguarding "national security" and "fighting extremism".

But the law does not clarify what "extremism" and "national security" are, so there is always the risk that the law could be used to strike religious associations that do not enjoy approval. Many small Protestant groups encounter difficulties to get the necessary registration and believers have been given heavy fines for "illegal activities", often consisting of unauthorized religious services.

Franz Tiessen, head of the Kazakh Baptist Union, said many communities "have been waiting for over a year" for the required registration, especially in southern regions like Jambyl and Chimkent. He said some church members had been fined between 13,000 and 20,000 Kazak tenges (from 80 to 125 euros) for illegal religious activities. Average monthly salaries have been estimated to be roughly equivalent to 31,500 tenges (200 euros).

Local sources said one Pentecostal church in Chimkent finally got registration as a branch of a church in Almaty two and a half years after applying. "If they [the authorities] see the pastor has a Kazakh name there are always problems," the source told Forum 18. "Those who adopt Christianity are under strong pressure, both from relatives and from officials."

Out of a population of 14.29 million inhabitants, 42.7% of Kazaks are Muslim. Christians account for 16%, and Catholics number around 200,000. In general Kazak Islam is moderate but there are fundamentalist sprinter groups coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

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