Summary Paragraph: The government continued punitive actions against members of “nontraditional” faiths, including Muslims who practiced a version of Islam different from the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, and Protestant groups. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison members of religious groups, criminalize speech “inciting religious discord,” raid believers’ private homes to stop unregistered religious activities, question congregation members about their choice of faith, punish individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and label “nontraditional” religious groups as “destructive sects” in the media. In June the president signed a strategy document outlining government religion policy for the 2017-20 period, affirming the country’s secular orientation, and stating the government would focus on the prevention of “destructive” religious teachings and tighten control over religious activity.
According to Forum 18, authorities brought administrative charges against 279 individuals, religious communities, charities, and companies during the year for attending worship meetings, offering or importing religious literature and pictures, sharing or teaching faith, posting religious material online, praying in mosques, bringing a child to a religious meeting, maintaining inadequate security measures at places of worship or failing to pay earlier fines. Of these, authorities sanctioned 259 individuals with punishments including fines, jail terms, bans on religious activity, deportations, and religious literature seizures. During the year, authorities convicted 23 individuals for practicing their religion: 20 Sunni Muslims, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one Baptist. Of these, courts sentenced 20 to prison terms and three to house arrest.
On January 18, authorities arrested two members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Teymur Akhmedov and Asaf Guliyev, in Astana and charged them with incitement of religious discord. The men met with a group of young men who presented themselves as university students and participated in discussions about their faith. The conversations were recorded and later used as evidence against the defendants. Guliyev reached a plea bargain, admitted his involvement, and testified against Akhmedov. On February 24, the court sentenced Guliyev to five years’ probation for his cooperation in the case. The 60-year-old Akhmedov, however, refused to admit to wrongdoing. On May 2, a court found him guilty of “incitement of religious discord and propaganda of one faith’s superiority over the others” and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. The court also banned him from any form of religious preaching. On June 20, the Astana city court rejected his appeal.
According to local and international observers such as the NGO Association for Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK) and Forum 18, the authorities intensified punitive actions against any Muslims who professed forms of Islam different from the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Forum 18 reported that courts convicted 20 Sunni Muslims of such offenses during the first nine months of the year and sentenced 19 to prison terms and one to probation.
Authorities of the Kyrgyz Republic detained Nariman Seitzhanov, a graduate of the Medina Islamic University in Saudi Arabia in December 2016 and deported him to Kazakhstan, where police opened a criminal investigation on charges of incitement of religious discord. According to investigators, Seitzhanov accompanied Kazakh pilgrims to Mecca in October 2016. His preaching and discussions about Islam were recorded and posted on social media, and authorities used the recordings as evidence against him. On June 9, a court in Kokshetau sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment.
According to the Karaganda Region Department of Internal Affairs, on October 30, authorities detained six members of the banned Tablighi Jamaat missionary movement in Karaganda for alleged recruitment of members. Authorities directed three of them to sign a written pledge agreeing to halt recruitment activities and instructed them not to leave the area. Authorities placed the remaining three in a pretrial detention facility.
On May 11, an Almaty district court found Muslim preacher Denis Korzhavin guilty of incitement of religious discord. Korzhavin, an ethnic Russian who converted to Islam, studied in Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to the country in 2011, authorities alleged he engaged in the active dissemination of Salafism. Despite a court ban in 2014 of certain religious books, he posted a Russian translation of the banned “The Three Fundamentals” on social media. Korzhavin reached a plea bargain and the court sentenced him to five years’ probation.
In April police arrested Shukhrat Kibirov in Almaty and charged him with incitement of religious discord. According to his attorney, several social media posts with Arabic language religious songs allegedly posted from Kibirov’s phone served as grounds for the criminal case. Government religious experts who analyzed the songs said they contained elements of incitement of religious discord. A number of media sources, including Radio Azattyk, Vlast, and Today.kz reported on Kibirov’s case. On November 27, a court in Almaty sentenced him to six years and eight months in prison for incitement of religious discord and terrorist propaganda.
On June 28, the president signed a strategy document outlining government religion policy for the 2017-20 period. The document affirmed the country’s secular orientation, and stated the government would focus on the prevention of “destructive” religious teachings and tighten government control over religious activity. At an August 28 press briefing, Minister of Religious Affairs and Civil Society Nurlan Yermekbayev stated that the new strategy would strengthen control over “religious propaganda” and expand government oversight of the activities of religious organizations. Government representatives stated the new strategy was driven by security concerns over “religious extremism.” The government stated implementation of the new strategy would involve amendments to existing legislation on religion. The proposed amendments would establish new controls on religious teaching, religious literature, religious speech, and worship. Civil society representatives and religious experts, however, stated they feared the government’s efforts to more closely police religious activity would further infringe on religious freedom, including through prohibition of religious symbols and attire and a further crackdown on religious literature.
The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law. Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches during the year. Community representatives reported 55 police incidents involving Baptists during the year, most of which resulted in administrative fines. In January police raided an Almaty pastor’s house and allegedly made threats to hold him criminally liable for holding religious services without proper documentation, since his religious community is not registered.
On January 23, police raided a local Baptist community leader’s house in Urdzha in the eastern part of the country, videotaped all participants who attended the service, detained several individuals (mainly elderly women), and took them to the police station with the alleged intent to intimidate them. Community members reported police subsequently fined and released the women.
Police charged two members of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians – Baptists Mikhail Milkin and Alexander Ventsel – with illegal dissemination of religious literature in a shopping center in the town of Stepnyak in the Akmola Region. On June 27, the court convicted them of illegal dissemination of religious literature outside of specifically designated places of worship and imposed administrative fines of 108,000 tenge ($330) on each of them.
In March a court in Uralsk imposed an administrative fine of 108,000 tenge ($330) on Serkali Kumargaliev of the unregistered Council of Baptist Churches for illegally distributing religious booklets in front of West Kazakhstan State University. The booklets also contained the address where followers of the religious group gathered for prayer services. Some of the students to whom Kumargaliev distributed the booklets allegedly reported him to authorities, who then took action.
In January authorities searched the office of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Astana and confiscated approximately 15 books. On October 3, the specialized interdistrict administrative court of Astana initiated a case against Dmitry Bukin, leader of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Astana, for possessing nonapproved literature. Following “expert analysis” by CRA officials of the seized literature, authorities also charged him with incitement of religious discord and superiority of one faith over another. On October 17, the judge dismissed the case.
On April 25, authorities in Yesil detained several members of the Evangelical Baptist Christian Church for singing songs and illegally distributing religious literature at the local cemetery. Police warned the individuals they were violating the law and allegedly made two of them – Victor Leven and Andrei Block – write statements explaining their actions. Authorities also seized copies of the religious books for “expert analysis.” On July 25, a court in Yesil imposed an administrative fine of 108,000 tenge ($330) on Block for the illegal distribution of religious literature.
On March 4, authorities fined four Muslims in Zhanaozen in the western part of the country for breaking the rules regarding religious services in mosques issued by the SAMK, considered mandatory for all worshipers. Galym Nurpeisov, the attorney for the four men, said that they were punished for saying the word “Amen” aloud, which is banned under the SAMK rules. The court convicted the four men of disrupting religious services and imposed administrative fines of 108,000 tenge ($330) on each.
Courts continued to fine individuals convicted of illegal missionary activity. According to AROK, local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions, especially by “nontraditional” groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical Christians. During the year, there were 608 missionaries officially registered in the country – 290 Catholic, 105 Russian Orthodox, 42 Mormon, 40 Muslim, 35 New Apostolic Church, 34 Pentecostal Church, 25 Presbyterian Church, 14 Baptist, 7 Seventh Day Adventist, 5 Jehovah's Witness, 4 Society of Krishna Consciousness, 3 Jewish, 2 Buddhist, and 2 Lutheran – including 491 foreigners and 117 citizens.
In February police detained two Jehovah’s Witnesses, Karlygash Zholomanova and Fariza Iskakova, in Satpayev for talking about their faith to another woman. The women were charged and subsequently found guilty of conducting religious activity without registration as missionaries. On February 27 and March 9, in two separate hearings, the local court imposed fines of 226,900 tenge ($680) on each.
A court fined a Jehovah’s Witness approximately 198,000 tenge ($600) for illegal missionary activity in the Mangistau Region. The woman was not officially registered as a missionary and was walking through the neighborhood, proselytizing door-to-door.
In June a court in Shakhtinsk fined the leader of the local Jehovah’s Witnesses community for failure to prevent the involvement of children in religious services without parental permission. The court imposed an administrative fine of approximately 108,000 tenge ($330).
Jehovah’s Witnesses held a large convention in Almaty June 23-25, which drew nearly 4,500 participants from a number of countries. Although the convention was able to proceed, there were some reports of police delaying some attendees en route to the convention on the first two days.
On October 3, the Astana specialized interdistrict administrative court began a hearing on Oleg Bondarenko, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor charged with failure to prevent the involvement of a minor in the group’s religious activities over a parent’s objection. According to Radio Azattyk, Aizhan Abzhanova submitted a complaint to the local authorities that her husband took their son Medet to the Seventh-day Adventist church without her permission – she said the father tried to convert the child to Christianity. The husband stated that he attended the church only twice and did so out of curiosity. Bondarenko explained to the court that he did not know the Abzhanovs and thus could not take any actions with regard to their family or child. He further stated that the church services were open to anyone, including those who attended simply out of curiosity once or twice. On October 18, the administrative court in Astana dismissed the case against Bondarenko.
The government launched at least 22 administrative cases against Muslims for praying in mosques in a manner not in accordance with the state-backed Muslim Board’s rules. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community remained unregistered, after authorities denied the group reregistration in 2016, when CRA experts concluded the community’s teaching was not Islamic and needed to remove the word “Muslim” from its registration materials. Community members reported that, due to lack of registration, they had to cease all official religious activity but pledged to continue efforts to obtain reregistration.
The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members may read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings, but did not allow the church to engage in religious activity.
Government-controlled media continued to depict “nontraditional” religions as disruptive to society. In April and May, several national TV broadcasts ran thematic programs on “destructive sects,” among them Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists. In an April 30 “Portrait of the Week” program hosted by Artur Platonov on private broadcaster KTK, a segment from then-acting CRA chairman Bakhytzhan Kulekeyev discussed an alleged “26 complaints against Jehovah’s Witnesses” received by the CRA from ordinary concerned citizens. In an April 30 “Analytics” news show on 1st Channel “Eurasia,” the program addressed multiple complaints the CRA allegedly received from citizens about Jehovah’s Witnesses. A May 12 talk show on “Eurasia” devoted 40 minutes to “destructive sects,” concentrating mainly on “destructive Islamic movements” and Scientology. Another May 12 talk show on “Khabar” included a similar 40-minute program concentrating on Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which Yulia Denisenko, the head of the government-affiliated Association of Centers for Religious Studies, made a number of accusations against Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to reports, the government continued to recognize as legitimate and legal only those mosques registered with the SAMK. The MRCSA and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs noted this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK.
According to the CRA, there were 3,692 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country during the year, compared to 3,636 in 2016. The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,591formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens. According to the SAMK, Saudi Arabian authorities allocated a quota of 2,500 spots for the Hajj, and 2,450 pilgrims made the Hajj. The MRCSA worked closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrasahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, Masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. Overall, sources reported that the MRCSA supported 11 schools for Sunni Hanafi imams, one school for Roman Catholic clergy, and one school for Russian Orthodox clergy.
The Ministry of Education continued enforcement of its ban on headscarves in schools. On September 9, the Atyrau regional department of education reported a significant increase in the number of schoolgirls wearing hijabs to school compared to the previous year. Media also reported a number of incidents in other regions and school districts in which school administrators and local authorities sent girls home because they refused to take off their headscarves. Several parents who supported their daughters wearing headscarves stated local authorities pressured them to remove the headscarves or risk large fines and possible termination of parental rights.
MRCSA Minister Yermekbayev stated the ministry trained and guided teams of religious experts and clergymen to work with individuals they said were vulnerable to radical religious teachings. According to Yermekbayev, the government facilitated the “conversion” of approximately 300 individuals back to more “traditional” forms of faith.
MRCSA officials continued to monitor the internet, collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content, applying expedited procedures for the evaluation of such materials by religious experts, and obtaining court authorizations for immediate closures of internet sites it deemed unacceptable. During the first seven months of the year, the MRCSA examined 3,000 websites and blocked 1,500 for containing what it concluded was illegal and harmful information. The MRCSA also worked with the Ministry of Information and Communication to identify which individuals posted the content in question.
The MRCSA and other authorities regularly inspected religious facilities to review compliance with security requirements as mandated by the counterterrorism law. Several religious groups said they considered this harassment. On January 24, the Almaty interdistrict specialized court ruled the Christian Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the requirements of the counterterrorism law on securing its premises and imposed an administrative fine of 453,800 tenge ($1,400). On June 5, local authorities executed a follow-up inspection and found the center still failed to comply with security requirements. On June 29, the court issued more severe penalties, imposing an administrative fine of 680,700 tenge ($2,100) and a three-month suspension of the center’s activities.
In September local authorities in Astana conducted a surprise inspection of the grounds of Grace Presbyterian Church, and found violations related to the antiterrorism law. On October 18, an Astana court imposed an administrative fine of 429,000 tenge ($1,300) on the church for failure to abide by the technical requirements of the antiterrorism law: lack of approval for its antiterrorist plan; lack of training for staff; and failure to maintain surveillance camera records as required by the law.
An AROK representative said the government continued to seek to control religious expression and proselytizing in what the organization said were efforts to counter Islamic radicalism.
In June the minister of internal affairs issued an order adding a position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism. According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the new staff would work with prisoners to prevent their radicalization.