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Diplomacy in Action


International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various religious communities worship largely without government interference. Although local officials attempt on occasion to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups, such attempts are usually corrected upon the intervention of higher-level officials or courts.

The overall status of religious freedom improved during the period covered by this report. President Nursultan Nazarbayev continued an initiative to promote dialogue among religions; a second international conference drawing regional dignitaries and religious figures was held in September 2003. However, the President and other senior officials also spoke out on the need to contain religious extremism, and officials at all levels continued to regard religious extremism with concern. Instances of harassment of religious organizations by local officialsdecreased during the period covered by this report. Reports of local law enforcement officials visiting religious organizations for inspections also decreased during the reporting period.

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

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.The Ambassador and other U.S. officials have supported the country's efforts to increase links and understanding among religious groups. During the reporting period, the Embassy sponsored a number of exchange programs for Muslim and other religious leaders to meet with a broad and diverse range of their counterparts in the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 1,052,540 square miles, and according to the Government's Agency for Statistics, as of February, the population was 14,961,900.

The society is ethnically diverse, and many religions are represented. Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi School. Ethnic Uzbeks, Uyghurs, and Tatars, comprising less than 10 percent of the population, also largely are Sunni Hanafi. Other Islamic groups, which account for less than 1 percent of the population, include Shafit Sunni (traditionally practiced by Chechens), Shiite, Sufi, and Akhmadi. A sizeable population of ethnic Russians, and smaller populations of Ukrainians and Belorussians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox; together they constitute approximately one-third of the country's population.

Due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past, many residents describe themselves as nonbelievers. Several surveys and researchers have reported low levels of the strength of religious conviction, though the results of their research vary. One researcher in 2003 estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of the population consider themselves to be believers, and that only 20 percent attend religious services. In July 2003 polling, the Kazakhstani Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists found that more than 50 percent of the population describe themselves as believers, although they also found that fewer than 20 percent regularly attend religious services. The country's highest concentration of observant Muslims, largely ethnic Uzbeks, traditionally lives in southern regions bordering Uzbekistan.

According to government statistics, evangelical Christian and Baptist congregations outnumber Russian Orthodox congregations, although it is unlikely that the number of adherents is also higher. Other Protestant associations with a sizable number of congregations include Lutherans (traditionally practiced by Kazakhstani Germans who still account for approximately 2 percent of the population, despite sizable emigration), Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and Pentecostals.

A small Jewish community, estimated at well below 1 percent of the population, has synagogues in several larger cities, including Almaty, Astana, and Pavlodar. There is a Roman Catholic archdiocese, adherents of which account for 2 percent of the population.

According to government statistics, there were 339 foreign missionaries in the country as of April. Missionariesare most active in the southern regions of the country and often come from Turkey, Pakistan, and other predominantly Muslim countries. There are also non-Muslim missionaries from the United States, South Korea, and Western Europe.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference; however, local officials attempted on occasion to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state and grants the right to everyone to decline indicating a religious affiliation.

The National Religion Law, in contrast to laws governing other public associations, does not require religious organizations to register with the Government. It states that all persons are free to practice their religion "alone or together with others." Since the clause makes no reference to registration, many legal experts and government officials interpret it to ensure the right of members of unregistered groups to practice their religion; however, the law does specify that those religious organizations that wish to receive legal status must register. Registration requires a group to have at least 10 members and submit an application to the Ministry of Justice. Religious organizations must have legal status to buy or rent real property, hire employees, or engage in other legal transactions.

Article 375 of the Administrative Code allows authorities to suspend the activities or fine the leaders of unregistered religious organizations. Although legal experts have disagreed, as have government officials, about whether Article 375 takes precedence over the National Religion Law on the obligation of religious groups to register, prosecutors rarely brought charges for nonregistration. In the past, prosecutors did bring such charges frequently, and lower courts cited Article 375 in sanctioning religious organizations for nonregistration. Most of these guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal. Only one known case under this charge was brought during the period covered by this report, and the court of first instance acquitted the accused.

In practice local officials, particularly in remote locations, often insist that religious organizations register at the local level; however, neither law nor regulation grants such officials the authority to register a religious group. Only the Ministry of Justice, which has branches at the national and oblast levels, may legally register a group. Although the law specifies a maximum of 30 days for authorities to complete the registration process, many religious groups have reported delays of several months or longer.

The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center reported that oblast authorities registered its branch in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast on January 12. The group had been trying unsuccessfully to register there since 1997.

The Jehovah's Witnesses' 2001 application to register in Atyrau Oblast was formally turned down in April 2003. They filed their latest application for registration in January, which was also turned down in March for alleged discrepancies between the Kazakh and Russian language versions of their charter. The group is already formally registered nationally and in each of the country's 13 other oblasts.

The Government made no attempt during the period covered by this report to settle the discrepancy between the National Religion Law and the Administrative Code. Previously, it had offered a new religion law or draft amendments as a means to reconcile the inconsistency. The last time the Government took such action was in 2001 when it submitted to Parliament amendments that included registration requirements for religious groups. In 2002, Parliament passed them, despite several objections raised by international experts and religious organizations, but the Constitutional Council rejected them after determining that certain provisions were unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Council specifically ruled that the provision requiring the Muslim Spiritual Association, a national Muslim organization headed by the Chief Mufti, to approve the registration of any Muslim group violated the constitutional principle separating church and state. The Council also noted more broadly that the amendments might infringe on the constitutional right to spread religious beliefs freely. Other provisions of the amendments not specifically ruled unconstitutional included: requiring that religious organizations be registered; banning "extremist religious associations;" increasing the membership required for registration from 10 to 50 persons; authorizing local officials to suspend the activities of religious groups for criminal violations of 1 or more of their members or for conducting religious activity outside of the place where they are registered; and requiring that foreign religious organizations be affiliated with a nationally registered organization. President Nazarbayev chose not to challenge the Council's April 2002 ruling; such a challenge would have required the Council to uphold the ruling by a two-thirds vote. The Government has proposed no new religious legislation.

Neither law nor regulation prohibits foreign missionary activity. In July 2003, the Government adopted a new legal procedure whereby missionaries may register with local authorities. The Government had not regulated procedures for registering foreign missionaries since the previous guidelines were annulled in 2001.Since the adoption of the new regulation, no religious groups have reported difficulty in obtaining registration for missionaries.

The Government exempted registered religious organizations 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, synagogues, and Russian Orthodox churches.

The Government invited the national leaders of the two largest religious groups, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, to participate jointly in some state events; Catholic and Jewish leaders have been included in such events as well. Leaders of other faiths, including Baptists, Adventists, and other nontraditional religious groups, at times also have participated in some events. Events organized by the city administration in Almaty exclude no religions.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The President and other senior officials continue to regard with concern the presence of what they consider religious extremism. In April, the Government submitted a draft of new legislation designed to counteract all forms of extremism; most of the provisions in the proposed legislation are contained in current law and regulation. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports that law enforcement authorities conducted intrusive inspections of religious groups throughout the country. Prosecutors have the right to inspect organizations registered with state bodies once a year, but in keeping with the continued overall improvement in religious freedom, there were no reports during the reporting period that these inspections, when they occurred, were overly intrusive or were considered harassment by any religious groups inspected.

The Government typically claims that religious groups' charters do not meet the requirements of the law when refusing or significantly delaying registration. Often authorities cite discrepancies between Russian and Kazakh language versions of groups' charters or refer charters for expert examination. In addition, because the law does not allow religious groups to engage in educating children without approval from the Ministry of Education, applications for religions whose charters include such activities can be refused.

The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center alleged continuing incidents of harassment by a number of local governments. It claimed that city officials in Kostanay, Aktubinsk, Atyrau, Ust Kamenogorsk, Pavlodar, Semipalatinsk, and Taraz denied the group permits to rent stadiums and other large public or private sites for religious meetings. However, the Center also reported that such denials were inconsistent and that officials in these and other jurisdictions at times have granted such permits. No other religious groups have reported similar instances of permits being denied. The Hare Krishnas received a permit in September 2003 to hold an event for 500 followers in a central city square in Almaty.

In keeping with the improving climate of religious tolerance, there were no reports that local the Committee for National Security (KNB) or police officials disrupted meetings in private homes during the period covered by this report.

No court cases against unregistered local Jehovah's Witnesses congregations were reported. The Union of Evangelical Baptists reported one court case against a churchgoer during the reporting period for allegedly participating in the activities of an unregistered group. In late April, the Karaganda city court acquitted him of the charge. In previous years, courts sometimes issued administrative injunctions against unregistered religious groups, including warnings, fines of $50 or less, or suspensions of the group's activities. When adequate legal counsel was brought in on appeal, the decisions most often were overturned. The decline during the reporting period of such cases was due to courts establishing the precedent that religious groups are not required to register.

In May 2003, police in the Zharminskiy region of Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast opened a criminal case against Baptist pastor Sergey Nizhegorodtsev. He was charged with nonpayment of a fine levied on him in 2002 by the Zharminskiy District Court for failure to register his congregation. However, Zharminskiy prosecutors dropped the case on May 28, 2003 agreeing with Nizhegorodtsev's assertion that the 2002 court decision had been illegal.

In November 2001, Baptist pastor Pavel Leonov was convicted by the Ayaguz District (Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast) Court of failing to uphold a September 2000 court order requiring his church to register. He was assessed a fine of approximately $135 (20,575 tenge). By the end of the period covered by this report, Leonov had not paid the fine, and authorities had made no attempt to collect it. Leonov did not appeal his case to a higher court.

In October 2001, a court in Kyzl-Orda sentenced a Baptist church pastor, Valery Pak, to 5 days in prison for failing to comply with a 2000 court order that had suspended the church's activities until it was registered.

The Zharminskiy, Kyzl-Orda, and Ayaguz congregations belong to the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, which has a policy of not seeking or accepting registration in former Soviet countries. There were no reports during the reporting period that police or prosecutors sought to suspend the activities of Baptist churches associated with the Council.

Government officials frequently expressed concerns regarding the potential spread of religious extremism in the south of the country. The KNB has characterized the fight against "religious extremism" as a top priority of the internal intelligence service and announced in November 2003 that it would produce a list of banned religious organizations. However, the Foreign Minister announced in April that such a list was unnecessary.

Religious rights observers contend that a draft law "On Extremism," which the Government put forward in April, does not clearly define extremism, religious or otherwise. Observers also believe that security officials informally monitor some religious activity, particularly Muslim imams' sermons.

The law does not prohibit foreign missionary activity. The Constitution requires foreign religious associations to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of religious associations, "in coordination with appropriate state institutions." Foreign missionaries legally are entitled to register religious organizations; however, they generally are required to list a majority of local citizens among the 10 founders of the organization. Since the July 2003 promulgation of new procedures for the registration of foreign missionaries, no religious groups have reported their missionaries encountered difficulties with authorities. The lack of regulation governing missionaries between 2001 and 2003 led to some reports that authorities harassed missionaries or extracted bribes for their registration.

In 2002, officials in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast refused to grant a visa extension to Sayid Bukhari, a foreign missionary with the Akhmadi Muslim Community. Bukhari stayed in the country with uncertain status and was granted a 3-month visa in January. After local authorities again threatened not to renew his visa at the conclusion of that term, the Akhmadis reported that the local officials received orders from their superiors to relent and to grant Bukhari a longer-term visa.

Both the Government and the national Muslim organization deny that there is any official connection between them. However, the Government has proposed several times in recent years, in the form of amendments to the Religion Law, that the organization assume a quasi-official role by determining which Muslim groups be allowed to register with authorities and by approving the construction of new mosques. In 2002, the Constitutional Council ruled that these provisions of the proposed amendments were unconstitutional.

Unlike in previous years, no religious organization, other than the Hare Krishnas, reported that they had been the subject of a news account portraying them, or nontraditional religions in general, as a threat to security or society.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

Authorities maintain that Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned Islamic organization, is an extremist group.Although Hizb ut-Tahrir maintained that it was committed to nonviolence, the political party's strongly anti-Semitic and anti-Western literature called for secular governments, including in Kazakhstan, to be replaced with a world-wide Islamic government called the Caliphate. The Government does not consider Hizb ut-Tahrir to be a religious organization and characterizes the handing out of pamphlets by Hizb ut-Tahrir members as incitement for political and terrorist purposes. On several occasions during the period covered by this report, authorities detained their members for distributing literature. More frequently than in previous years, authorities filed charges against these individuals and courts convicted several of them, generally for "inciting social, national, tribal, race, or religious hatred." However, in other cases alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members simply continued to be held in custody for brief periods and then released. During the period covered by this report, there were no reported cases of government officials harassing observant Muslims under the guise of combating Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, other than those actively engaged in pamphleteering.

On April 16, a Shymkent city court sentenced Hizb ut-Tahrir member Rakhmatulla Ibadullayev to 4 years in prison for participating in the activities of an illegal organization and for inciting social, national, tribal, race, or religious hatred. Ibadullayev had been detained in August 2003, along with two associates, for allegedly operating a Hizb ut-Tahrir printing house, which the security service shut down. News reports indicated that Ibadullayev's two alleged accomplices had escaped.

According to an unconfirmed report by the Interfax-Kazakhstan News Agency, on November 22, 2003, three young persons were detained at the central mosque in Pavlodar for distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets. One of the suspects was sent to Almaty for a hospital sanity examination. The other suspects were sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment for "numerous deliberate acts to cause social, national, clan, racial, or religious hostility by a group of persons" and "active participation in public and religious unions that are not registered."

On July 7, 2003, a district court in Almaty convicted two alleged members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Asan Shagibayev and Baurzhan Kultayev, and sentenced them to 3 years in prison. They were arrested for distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets in June 2002 and charged with participating in the activities of an illegal organization and for inciting social, national, tribal, race, or religious hatred. In February, the court referred the case back to police for additional investigation. Both men denied the charges against them and maintained that the KNB manufactured the cases. Kultayev further alleged in a complaint filed with the Almaty prosecutor that KNB officials had beaten him. On August 19, 2003, the Almaty city court denied their appeal.

At least two other Hizb ut-Tahrir members or alleged members were convicted of similar crimes during the period covered by this report.

In 2001, according to local press reports, local KNB officials in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast beat to death 21-year-old Kanat Biyembitov after they detained him for allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. The Government concluded that two KNB officials bore some responsibility for the death and stated that it had released them from their duties; however, no criminal action had been taken by the end of the period covered by this report.

The "Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan" is reported to have removed from their respective mosques five imams who participated in a Community Connections program upon returning from the United States. Following a request by the U.S. Ambassador, the five imams were reinstated in their positions in 2003.

Followers of the Hare Krishna movement faced some continued harassment during the period covered by this report. On July 19, 2003, a follower from a neighboring country was ordered deported by a district court; however, the same court reversed the deportation order several days later. On November 2, 2003, police also raided a Krishna commune in a district of Almaty Oblast and reportedly confiscated two foreign members' passports. Krishna followers said that prosecutors returned the passports 2 days later. Officials of several government agencies had raided the same commune in April 2002, and the prosecutor filed suit to revoke the group's registration in Almaty Oblast in early 2003. Government officials in Astana reported that an oblast-level commission was formed in early 2004 to look into the multiple instances of harassment in the past several years. Krishna followers at the commune said there has been no government harassment since that time.

There were no reports of the prolonged detention of members of religious organizations for proselytizing. On occasion the authorities took action against groups engaged in proselytizing; however, such actions were limited to the confiscation of religious literature and brief detentions.

Other than the brief detentions of several Hizb ut-Tahrir members, there were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversions

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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Abuses by Terrorist Organizations

There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

During the period covered by this report, the country has emerged as the leader in the former Soviet Union for its encouragement of religious tolerance and its respect for the rights of religious minorities.

National and regional officials continued to be active in stopping restrictions on religious freedom and harassment of religious groups by local officials. The frequency of higher-level intervention has created a climate in which local officials less often harass nontraditional religious groups. During the period covered by this report, activism by national and regional officials also led to solutions to longstanding conflicts between nontraditional religious groups and local authorities. The registration of the Jehovah's Witnesses branch in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast is one example. Another example is the establishment of an oblast-level commission to improve the treatment of a Hare Krishna commune in Almaty Oblast. Prosecutors brought only one known court case during the reporting period for nonregistration of a religious group, and authorities otherwise did not sanction any such groups.

The President continued his "Peace and Harmony" initiative in September 2003, hosting the Congress of World Religions in Astana. Delegations of more than a dozen international religious delegations were invited and attended.

The Government made further efforts to promote religious tolerance in its ranks. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, for instance, invited the country's Chief Rabbiin April to give seminars to its police officers on sensitivity to religious minorities.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Since independence the number of mosques and churches has increased greatly. There exists general wariness within the population, particularly in rural areas, of nontraditional religions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights. U.S. officials are proactive in reminding government officials of these commitments and have also pressed the Government to resolve the legal uncertainty surrounding the registration of religious groups and the status of missionaries. The Embassy maintains contact with a broad range of religious communities and reports on instances of violations of their constitutional and human rights. U.S. Department of State officials met with government officials and members of faith-based groups in the country and the U.S.

In May members of the U.S. Senate and high-level Department officials met with the speaker of the Senate, Nurtay Abykayev, and discussed interfaith issues.

On January 22, a two-member team from the collaborative State-USAID Working Group on Religion and Society accompanied nine Islamic leaders on a bus tour of USAID project sites in the southern part of the country. The trip fostered broad understanding of U.S. Government development objectives in the country. At the end of the road tour, the leaders offered additional development ideas.

The Embassy conducted a number of exchange programs for religious leaders during the period covered by this report. In November 2003, the Embassy sponsored a 3-week visit to the United States of a group that included the leader of an evangelical Christian organization, the rector of a Muslim university, and a regional government official. The program of the visit included meetings with U.S. government officials, academics, nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders, and representatives of multiple U.S. religious organizations. The Embassy also sponsored the 2-week visit to the United States in June of a group of 10 Imams and other Muslim religious leaders from Kyzl-Orda Oblast. Their program included meetings with a variety of religious organizations, U.S. government officials, academics, and NGO leaders. They were also hosted by U.S. families and participated in religious services. The Embassy sponsored a similar group, with 20 participants from Zhambyl and Southern Kazakhstan Oblasts, in April 2003. Upon their return to the country, that group produced a multimedia presentation of their visit and presented it to numerous audiences.

During May 2003 and May 2002 visits to the country, the Embassy helped officials from the U.S. Holocaust Museum conclude agreements with the two government agencies holding archival records relating to Holocaust victims.The agencies, the National Archives, and the KNB have been forthcoming during the period covered by this report with all records at their disposal.

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