There were no reports of abuses of religious freedom; however, the government imposed restrictions that affected members of minority religious groups.
The authorities harassed and discriminated against minority religious groups through a wide range of means including, but not limited to: frequent inspections by tax and other authorities; denial or delays of permits for constructing houses of worship; the non-issuance of visas to missionaries; prolonged analysis of religious materials including those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses; actions against the Ahmadi community in Almaty for the use of residential premises for religious purposes; and persecution of Protestant pastors of unregistered religious groups.
In June, a district court upheld the sentences of nine members of a Sufi group found guilty in October 2011 of religious extremism, unlawful imprisonment, and causing damage to health by practicing “faith healing.” The group’s leader had received a 14-year prison sentence, one member had received a 12-year sentence, and seven others had received sentences ranging from two to nine years.
In May, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of New Life Protestant Church leader Yerzhan Ushanov. Taraz City Court Number 2 had previously convicted Uzhanov in September 2011 of practicing psychotherapy without registration after Aleksander Kireyev claimed he felt ill after a service. Fellow church members implied that Kireyev had embedded himself in the congregation to discredit the church.
In addition to the more stringent mandatory registration requirements, the broad scope of the law, and the wide authority given to the RAA, there were several cases involving harassment of religious groups and their members. There were several incidents in which RAA officials participated along with police in raids on religious communities.
The government enforced existing restrictions on unregistered groups and minority religious groups. Local officials attempted to limit, often through raids, the activities of some minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and Muslims not affiliated with the SAMK. The government applied laws governing unregistered religious groups unevenly during the year. Local and national law enforcement authorities prosecuted and fined so-called “nontraditional” religious groups for conducting illegal or unsanctioned educational, religious, or entrepreneurial activities.
During the year, government officials continued to express concern regarding the potential spread of “political and religious extremism.” The Committee for National Security continued to characterize the fight against so-called “religious extremism” as a top priority of the internal intelligence service and to expand its monitoring of civil society and religious groups.
The authorities’ alleged fear of “extremism” led to some reports of abuses. According to the Head of the Department for Combating Extremism, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) banned the activity of 60 unregistered religious groups during the year. Also, since 2010 the government has banned over 950 websites, citing “extremism.”
Several government-controlled media outlets and government-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to publish or broadcast stories critical of minority religious groups including evangelical Protestant Christian groups such as the New Life Church and Grace Church, and Scientologists, depicting them as dangerous “sects” harmful to society.
The government continued to use property laws against the Ahmadi Muslim community. The Almaty Territorial Land Inspection Committee filed a case against the Ahmadi community for violating the Land Code and the Administrative Code. According to the claim, the Ahmadis were using residential property for commercial and religious purposes. The community was fined 48,540 tenge ($300), but the property was not seized.
The Baptist Council of Churches reported several administrative court cases against individual Baptists throughout the country for participating in the activities of an unregistered group. The council had a policy neither to seek nor accept registration in former Soviet countries, and church members criticized the intrusive nature of the registration process, which required information about ethnicity, family status, religious education, employment, and political affiliation.
During the year, the Protestant groups New Life Church, Grace Church, and the Baptist Council, along with several congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, reported that the authorities had raided their groups, including registered groups.
Courts typically fined individuals found guilty of unregistered religious activity. The Baptist Council of Churches reported instances in which pastors were fined for unregistered religious activities and, on several occasions, local law enforcement representatives questioned group members in their homes. Council members usually refused to pay fines for non-registration.
In December an Almaty court issued a decision to ban the Azeri Fatimai Shia group after it was denied re-registration. The RAA reported that it denied registration because of improper documentation, but group members asserted that they were denied registration because they did not join the SAMK. The court put a lien on the group’s property, valued at 45 million tenge ($300,000). The group’s appeal was pending at year’s end, and the lien on the property was stayed until a final judgment on the appeal.
At the conclusion of the re-registration process in late-October, authorities announced a significant decrease in the total number of registered religious groups. According to official sources, 32 percent of all previously registered religious groups were not re-registered. The number of legally recognized groups fell from 4,551 to 3,088. According to official sources, many of the deregistered groups no longer existed or did not have the 50 adult “founding members” required for re-registration. Many of these smaller groups chose to join together, at least on paper, to clear the 50 member hurdle for registration.
When authorities refused or significantly delayed registration, they usually claimed that a group did not have the requisite number of “founding members,” or the group’s charter did not meet the requirements of the law and needed to undergo an expert theological review. NGOs and religious communities suggested that such requirements were often invoked as a pretext for denying or delaying registration of groups the government did not wish to recognize. Members of some minority religious groups reported that authorities had pressured them to remove their signatures from the re-registration documents.
During the year, authorities denied registration to at least three religious groups based on their theological views. The RAA “expert analysis” determined that the Church of Scientology was a group primarily engaged in commercial activity, and subsequently denied registration to its two congregations. On December 6, a court in Almaty ordered the closure of the Almaty Church of Scientology, and on December 7, an Almaty court ordered the closure of the Medeo Church of Scientology. Both cases were under appeal. Authorities also denied registration to the Unification Church of Almaty on the grounds that the RAA “expert analysis” determined that it did not meet the definition of a religion. On November 27, an Almaty court ordered the church closed at the request of the Ministry of Justice. The Unification Church appealed the ruling and a hearing was pending at year’s end. While most religious groups received registration by year’s end, authorities denied registration to a few individual protestant churches, as well as the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology. Authorities denied the Ahmadiyya Muslim group registration on the basis that their theology differed from mainstream Islam, and they therefore were not considered Muslims.
Under the current re-registration requirements, all mosques were seemingly required to join the SAMK in order to obtain legal registration. At year’s end, there remained a few independent Muslim groups still seeking religious registration, such as the Tatar-Bashkir Din-Mohammad Mosque in Petropavl, and a few continued without religious registration. The SAMK exercised significant influence over the activities of Muslim groups, including mosque construction, imam appointments, and the administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The SAMK was the primary coordinator of Hajj travel and authorized travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens.
The law’s vague definition of missionary activity allowed the authorities to interpret religious activity by visiting foreigners as missionary activity and expel those who were not registered as missionaries. The MOI reported that it identified 67 unregistered missionaries, including 13 foreigners, operating during the year. Of the foreign missionaries, five were deported, two were fined 184,000 tenge ($1,200) each, and six were given warnings.
On December 4, the Astana Administrative Court convicted Dmitry Bukin of unregistered missionary activity and fined him 161,900 tenge ($1,074), after Bukin organized a September 15-16 religious convention at a rented location in Astana. The Astana city prosecutor’s office determined that Bukin unlawfully engaged in “missionary activity” by arranging the convention, attended by approximately 200 people, many of whom were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and participating in the program as one of the speakers.