printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Kazakhstan


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Share

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various religious communities worship largely without government interference; however, the Government's concerns about regional security threats from alleged religious extremists led it to encourage local officials to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups.

Respect for religious freedom deteriorated during the period covered by this report. While Kazakhstan's tradition of religious tolerance and interfaith harmony remained strong, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called on local officials to increase monitoring of religious organizations, closing some if necessary. Two courts in Kyzl-Orda Oblast ordered a group of Jehovah's Witnesses to suspend religious activities until the group is registered, and local prosecutors in Atyrau Oblast issued a similar order against a Baptist group. Neither group had the 10 adult sponsors required for registration. Local government officials increasingly harass Islamic and Christian groups whose members are regarded as "nontraditional" or extremist. In April 2001, a court in Aktau fined three foreigners for allegedly carrying out "missionary" activities in violation of their visa status, and expelled them from the country. There were credible reports from around the country that local law enforcement officials regularly visited religious organizations for inspections.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The Ambassador and other U.S. officials lobbied intensively against provisions in draft amendments that the Government proposed to the religion law that would have fallen short of international standards for religious freedom. Embassy officials interceded with national and local authorities in the case of the foreigners expelled from Aktau. The Embassy sponsored the visit of a U.S. scholar of Islam who conducted programs on the role of Islam in a secular society.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 1,052,540 square miles, and its population, as of the September 2000 census, was 14,859,8000.

The society is ethnically diverse, and many religions are represented. However, due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past many residents reject religious labels or describe themselves as nonbelievers. Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. In a 1998 government survey, 80 percent of them described themselves as Muslims, although government and independent experts believe that a large number of these are nonobservant. Other traditionally Sunni Muslim groups, constituting approximately 5 to 10 percent of the population, include Tatars, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Turks, and Chechens. Slavs, principally Russians and Ukrainians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox and constitute about one-third of the population. The 1998 government survey found that 60 percent of ethnic Slavs identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. An independent expert estimates that two-thirds of Slavic citizens would say that they belong to no religion or are indifferent to religion. Ethnic Germans, largely Lutheran and Catholic, constituted approximately 5 percent of the population when the country became independent in 1991, but the majority of these are thought to have emigrated to Germany. A small Jewish community is estimated at well below 1 percent of the population. Seven new synagogues were open or under construction as of the end of the period covered by this report.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various religious communities worship largely without government interference; however, the Government's concerns about regional security threats from alleged religious extremists led it to encourage local officials to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state.

The National Religion Law, in contrast to laws governing other public associations, does not require religious organizations to register. It states that all persons are free to practice their religion "alone or together with others." As this clause makes no reference to registration, legal experts interpret it to ensure the right of members of unregistered groups to practice their religion. However, it does specify that those religious organizations that wish to receive legal status must register. Religious organizations must have legal status in order to buy or rent real property, hire employees, obtain visas for foreign missionaries, or engage in any other legal transactions. However, the more liberal provisions of the National Religion Law appear to have been undermined by a new Administrative Code, which entered into force in February 2001 and that allows the national and local authorities to suspend the activities or fine the leaders of unregistered religious organizations.

In practice many local officials insist that religious organizations register. Under the law, registration requires an application submitted by at least 10 persons. It is usually a quick and simple process; however, Korean groups continued to face problems obtaining registration. At the end of the period covered by this report, four protestant churches in different cities were experiencing delays of up to 8 months in obtaining approval of their registration applications.

Religious organizations receive no tax privileges other than exemptions from taxes on church collections and income from certain religious activities. The Government has donated buildings and provided other assistance for the construction of new mosques and Eastern Orthodox churches.

No religious holidays are state holidays.

Joint appearances by the Islamic Mufti and the Orthodox Archbishop, often in the presence of the President, were intended to promote religious and ethnic harmony. In the past, some members of other faiths, including Muslims not affiliated with the national Muslim organization headed by the Mufti, have criticized the Government's inclusion of the Mufti and the Archbishop in state events as official favoritism and a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state.

In April 2001, as part of its campaign to prevent the development of religious extremism, the Government sent to Parliament a draft series of amendments to the National Religion Law that would have placed significant restrictions on religious freedom. It included provisions that would have banned "extremist religious associations;" increased from 10 to 50 the number of members required to file for registration of a religious organization; limited the right of registration for Muslim groups to those "recommended" by the Mufti's organization; forbidden missionary activities, including charity activities conducted by citizens if these activities are not formally declared to local authorities in advance; prohibited giving children a religious education or bringing them into religious groups against their will; and authorized local officials to suspend the activities of religious groups that conducted a religious activity outside of the place where they are registered. On June 27, 2001, the Government withdrew the draft amendments in order to thoroughly review the recommendations and comments of non-governmental and international organizations.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

In two cases local courts used a provision in the new Administrative Code that requires religious organizations to register, to suspend the activities of at least two religious organizations in two different cities. There had been no previous reports of such actions. The previous Administrative Code prescribed fines for unregistered religious organizations but not suspension of their activities. It rarely, if ever, was employed against unregistered groups.

On March 14, 2001, a city court in Kyzl-Orda suspended the activities of a local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses because the group was not registered. A Kyzl-Orda Oblast court upheld the suspension on April 9, 2001. The group had not registered because it did not have the required 10 adult members to file for registration. However, the national organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as many of its local associations, are registered.

On May 2, 2001, a local prosecutor in Kulsary (Atyrau Oblast) ordered the Iman (Love) Kazakhstani Baptist Church to stop meeting until it was registered. The church appealed; however, on May 6, 2001, an Atyrau regional prosecutor upheld the order. Church representatives claimed that they did not have the minimum of 10 adult members willing and eligible to sponsor the registration application. According to a press report the unregistered New Life Pentecostal Church in Kulsary, led by Pastor Taraz Somalyak, was also forbidden during the first half of 2001 from having further meetings until it registered.

On May 29, 2001, a city court in Taraz rejected an appeal by the city prosecutor to revoke the registration and suspend the activities of one of the Taraz Jehovah's Witnesses congregations. The prosecutor's appeal asserted that Jehovah's Witnesses had violated the Constitution by such actions as calling on members to refuse to perform military service or honor national symbols.

Religious rights advocates alleged that the Government had issued informal instructions to local authorities in September 2000, before the entry into effect of the new provisions of the Administrative Code in February 2001, not to register religious associations until a revised National Religion Law was in place. The Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan reported that at least three Protestant groups that applied for registration in October 2000 had received no response to their applications by June 2001. However, at least one foreign religious group received national registration after September 2000.

Representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses cited continuing instances of harassment by a number of local governments. They claimed that city officials in Astana, Almaty, Shymkent, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kostanay, Karaganda, and Aktubinsk sometimes blocked their adherents from renting stadiums or other large public or private sites for religious meetings.

According to reports from the Keston News Service, a Krishna community living on a farm in Karasai region was harassed on several occasions by police. Keston alleges that this was a consequence of a September 2000 memorandum to local officials by the akim of Almaty region requesting more information about religious groups and reminding officials their responsibility to take measures against those violating procedures relating to religious activities. However, one Krishna leader reported that in most oblasts, officials leave their followers alone.

The Government frequently identifies the prevention of religious extremism as a top priority. Government officials point especially to the risk of political Islam spreading north from Afghanistan and other states. Their longstanding concerns intensified following a series of bombings in the capital of neighboring Uzbekistan in February 1999 and incursions by armed militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from Tajikistan into neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. The National Security Council, chaired by the President, created a commission in 1999 to develop policies to combat religious extremism. No information had been released, as of the end of the period covered by this report, describing its activities.

President Nazarbayev expressed the government's mood of greater wariness of religion in remarks he made on January 30, 2001, to an assembly of regional and local executive authorities known as akims. "What else are akims for? Is it really difficult for you to use your powers to monitor the legality of the activities of (religious groups) -- closing them, if necessary?... It has become fashionable to build mosques, churches and prayer houses willy-nilly on land set aside by akims, but nobody is asking whether the mosques and churches are needed."

In April 2001, as part of its campaign to prevent the development of religious extremism, the Government sent to Parliament a draft series of amendments to the National Religion Law that would have placed restrictions on religious freedom. In meetings with foreign representatives about the draft amendments, government officials placed special emphasis on a provision giving the Kazakhstan Muslim Spiritual Administration (DUMKA) authority over the registration of Muslim groups. Although officials maintained that they expected the DUMKA, which is headed by the Mufti, to use this authority judiciously, the Mufti stated in a February 26, 2001, speech that only the "traditional religions," which existed in the republic from "time immemorial," should be left and the others should be banned. He claimed that the fear of Western reactions constrained such an approach. The Government withdrew the draft amendments on June 27, 2001.

Foreign missionary activity is authorized under law, but only when missionaries are accredited by the State. In practice many missionaries operate without accreditation. The Constitution requires foreign religious associations to carry out their activities, including the appointment of the heads of religious associations, "in coordination with appropriate state institutions." Foreign missionaries legally are entitled to register religious organizations; however, they generally find that they must list a majority of local citizens among the 10 founders of the religious organization. Other foreign missionaries, unwelcome to some Muslim and Orthodox citizens, have complained of occasional harassment by low-level government officials. In particular, evangelical Protestants working in schools, hospitals, and other social service institutions have alleged government hostility toward their efforts to proselytize. (These individuals often do not register as missionaries, as required by Kazakhstani law.)

A 1999 law on education prohibits educational institutions that have not been registered by the Ministry of Education. The law on education has no provision for licensing of religious schools. Religious rights activists reported that local law enforcement officials inspected religious schools and asked for licenses, but took no further actions against unregistered religious schools in most cases. In December 2000, the Almaty protestant seminary was closed by the district prosecutor's office for operating without a license. The seminary presented a letter from the Ministry of Education stating that there was no requirement for the licensing of religious schools; however, this information did not change the decision of the district prosecutor's office. First Deputy Minister of Education Yerlan Aryn sent a letter to all regional education departments on December 19, 2000, rescinding an earlier ban on visits to schools by religious figures, humanitarian and other aid from religious organizations, and the rental of facilities to religious groups.

In accordance with a Ministry of Justice request, the Jehovah's Witnesses Church of Kazakhstan amended its charter to eliminate education as a religious activity.

In September 2000, an Ministry official announced that the Foreign Ministry would "recall" all Kazakhstani students studying in religious institutions outside the country, a step considered by some observers aimed primarily at preventing young Muslims from being radicalized by militant Islamic education abroad. The official said that the measure was intended to protect the country against religious extremism. It was unclear how the Government would implement the policy; however, in Fall 2000, the Government announced that several students studying in Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey would return voluntarily.

There were credible allegations that the Government played a significant role in the appointment in June 2OOO of the new Mufti, the head of the national Muslim organization. The Mufti denied these allegations. In general the Government does not interfere with the appointment of religious leaders or the activities of foreign religious associations, some of which have succeeded in gaining thousands of adherents since independence.

Many media outlets, including some of the most widely distributed, have presented as objective news allegations that nontraditional religious groups present a threat to national security and social cohesion. Articles on Jehovah's

Witnesses and Baha'i faiths were particularly confrontational in the last months of the period covered by this report.

Law enforcement authorities conducted inspections of religious groups throughout the country in order, they asserted, to prevent the development of religious extremism and to ensure that religious groups pay taxes. These inspections also provided the authorities with information about the registration status of the religious groups being inspected, which in some cases led to suspensions pending the registration of the groups concerned.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

In keeping with the provision in the new Administrative Code that forbids activities by unregistered religious organizations, on March 14, 2001, the city court in Kyzl-Orda fined two leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses in Kyzl-Orda, Gulzhakhan Zharikova and Bakhyt Altayev, about $53 (7,750 tenge) each. The Court suspended the religious activities of local members of Jehovah's Witnesses until the group registered at the local level. A Kyzl-Orda Oblast court upheld the suspension and fines on April 9, 2001. Zharikova and Altayev were not present at the appellate hearing; they claimed that they did not receive notification that the original date for the hearing had been changed. The leader of an unregistered Baptist church in Kyzl-Orda was fined $53 (7,750 tenge) on April 10, 2001, and ordered to suspend operations until his church was registered.

According to Jehovah's Witnesses, law enforcement action against their Kyzl-Orda community began on October 1, 2000, when a group of officials from the Committee for National Security (KNB, the national intelligence agency), the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Oblast prosecutor's office raided a Bible study meeting in Zharikova's apartment. The officials reportedly had no warrant. A television crew filmed the raid, which subsequently was shown in a report critical of Jehovah's Witnesses. The officials reportedly confiscated more than 200 religious publications and videotapes and brought several church members to a police station for questioning. The Oblast prosecutor had issued an order on October 31, 2000, requiring the group to register.

According to an unconfirmed press report, Kulsary prosecutor Hagibula Kasymov threatened to jail leaders of the Iman Kazakhstani Baptist Church, Kurmangazy Abdumuratov, and Askhat Alimkhanov, if their church continued to meet without registering.

On April 9, 2001, three foreign teachers of English were charged under Administrative Code sections that regulate the hiring of foreign workers and proscribe violations by foreigners of their stated purpose in country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs alleged that the teachers, "under the guise of educational activity," had been distributing religious materials, assisting religious groups, and "illegally participating in religious rites". The three tried to depart the country voluntarily on April l0, 2001, but were prevented from departing by airport border police because of the pending charges against them. They said that they were not notified of formal charges against them before they tried to depart. On April 16, 2001, a court in Aktau found them guilty of conducting "missionary" activities in violation of their visa status and fined them $230 (33,000 tenge) and ordered them expelled from the country. The teachers were expelled on April 24, 2001.

On August 11, 2000, local authorities in Kustenay broke up a stadium convention of Jehovah's Witnesses, according to the Church. On August 14, a court fined convention organizers for holding an unsanctioned event. Their request for a permit to hold the convention had been denied. The Church alleged that authorities halted a similar gathering in Aktobe on October 22, 2000, after which two church leaders were detained for several hours. Church representatives claimed that Aktobe authorities had declined for 2 years to give them permission for a large gathering.

On occasion the authorities took action against groups engaged in proselytizing. In July 2000, in Akshoki, near the Chinese border, members of a Baptist church reported that local KNB officers, police, and clergy incited a crowd to threaten a group preaching Christianity and to burn Christian literature. One member was severely beaten by a group of eight men who demanded that he convert to Islam. Government officials declined to comment on this incident. On December 15, 2000, two Krishna Consciousness devotees were detained in Aktobe for selling Krishna books on the street. Police confiscated 20 books, but later released the women without charges. However, one Krishna leader reported that officials in most oblasts leave their followers alone. Also in December 2000, two members of Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested and detained for 1 day for proselytizing in Talgar. The police confiscated their documents, which they returned to them after 3 days. No charges were filed.

During the period covered by this report, the authorities took no action against police who allegedly beat 70 members of an Islamic group from Taraz who were detained temporarily in 1999.

Other than the brief detentions of members of Jehovah's Witnesses and Krishna Consciousness adherents in Aktobe and of members of Jehovah's Witnesses in Talgar, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Relations among the various religious communities are generally amicable. Since independence the number of mosques and churches has increased greatly.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The Ambassador and other officers of the U.S. Embassy, as well as senior State Department officials, lobbied intensively against the draft amendments to the National Religion Law. In approximately 10 separate meetings beginning in November 2000, the Ambassador expressed U.S. Government reservations about the amendments to the Minister of Culture, Information, and Public Accord (who chaired the Government's Interagency Committee on Religion), the Foreign Minister, President Nazarbayev's national security and legal advisers, and groups of Parliamentarians. The Embassy coordinated closely with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Almaty in arranging for an expert evaluation of the amendments. The evaluation documented the ways in which the draft amendments fell short of the country's international obligations on religious freedom. The Embassy's Charge d'Affaires and human rights officer joined two OSCE delegations that presented the evaluation to officials. The human rights officer also met frequently with human rights activists and representatives of many churches concerned with the draft amendments. Embassy Officials also shared information with the United Kingdom-based Keston Institute, which publicized the debate over the draft amendments in its internationally distributed publications, and attended a meeting at which religious groups expressed their concerns about the draft amendments to Parliamentarians.

The Embassy actively assisted the American citizens in Aktau who were ultimately expelled from the country for allegedly illegal religious activities. Embassy officers raised concerns about the charges and airport border police actions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, repeatedly sought clarification of the charges from local authorities in Aktau, and witnessed the court proceedings against the Americans. The Ambassador subsequently discussed the case with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President's National Security Adviser.

In May 2001, the Embassy sponsored the 10-day visit of a U.S. academic expert on Islam to conduct a series of programs on the role of Islam in a secular society. The scholar met with academic and religious leaders and lectured at universities in Almaty and southern Kazakhstan.



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.