Religious life in Kazakhstan features a glaring dichotomy these days. Officials in Astana tout the country as a bastion of toleration, yet they are making it harder for those practicing what are deemed non-traditional faiths to worship openly.
In late October, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Agency, announced the outcome of a year-long process set in motion by the adoption of a controversial religion law last fall. The legislation gave religious denominations and faith-based civic associations one year to re-register under stringent new criteria, or face closure.
The results were stark: President Nursultan Nazarbayev used to proudly proclaim that Kazakhstan welcomed over 40 officially-recognized faiths, but that number has been slashed by about 60 percent, from 46 to 17. Meanwhile, roughly one-third of all faith-based civic organizations face elimination, leaving 3,088 against the previous total of 4,551.
In an interview with the Kazakhstanskaya Pravda daily, Lama Sharif said the law aimed to increase Astana’s sway over religious matters. He also insisted that Kazakhstan -- where about 70 percent of the population identifies itself as Muslim, and another 25 percent as Orthodox Christian -- “is for the entire world an example of interfaith harmony.”
State media have published letters from religious leaders to Nazarbayev (who hosts regular congresses of clerics from around the world to promote interfaith dialogue and tolerance) hailing the reform and lauding Kazakhstan’s credentials as a haven of religious freedom.
Yet, leaders of religious minority groups endured a nail-biting few months as they waited to hear if their respective groups would survive the re-registration process. Speaking to EurasiaNet.org after a lively Sunday morning service at Almaty’s Sun Bok Ym Pentecostal Church, Pastor Vasiliy Shegay said his group had its registration application turned down initially, but gained approval on a second attempt. At the same time, its sister church faces closure. He said his reservations that the law would “infringe our rights” had not been borne out. “We Christians are treated well,” he said.
Astana divides religions into “traditional” (including Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Buddhism) and “non-traditional” -- which includes a broad spectrum of smaller denominations, some with strong missionary elements, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Hare Krishnas, Ahmadi Muslims and Sufis.
“Non-traditional” religious groups were under pressure well before the adoption of the religion law -- but raids on places of worship are now being stepped up. At a Protestant church in Astana in October, pastors were accused of driving a member insane, harboring extremist literature and giving worshippers a red drink containing “hallucinogenic ingredients inducing euphoria.” Worshippers deemed in breach of the law are usually fined.
Critics believe disproportionate police efforts are being directed against religious communities with no known extremist agenda, and worry that punitive measures will push some pious Muslims underground. “One of the problems is that when people have an interest in hiding their activities from the state because the state is being very intrusive, then it does become more difficult for the government to know what they’re up to,” Felix Corley of the Oslo-based Forum 18 religious freedoms watchdog told EurasiaNet.org.
The new law sets what critics see as a much higher bar for religious groups on membership requirements, calling for minimum membership of 5,000 nationally, 500 regionally, and 50 locally. The law also contains provisions covering the vetting of religious literature and tightens guidelines for the training of clergy. It contains no ban on wearing the hijab, although it is officially discouraged (Nazarbayev says it is not a Kazakh tradition). Controversially, it prohibits prayer in state buildings, including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities.
Some critics say the religion law can be used as a tool for Astana to exercise control over what should be private choices about faith. They also contend the law contravenes Kazakhstan’s international commitments to uphold freedom of conscience.
“Formally, under the law, there is freedom [of conscience], but in effect it is hard to exercise it in our realities,” said one young member of a Protestant church in Almaty (which did receive registration), speaking on condition of anonymity. The closure of religious groups is a “purge,” he suggested, intended “to abolish religions that are inconvenient to the state.”
Moving forward, the law gives officials a powerful tool to enforce a state-designed religious orthodoxy. “Waves of pressure are continuing on religious communities, and the government is trying to funnel religion into channels that it can control,” Corley said.
Astana is seeking “a completely controlled religious environment,” he added, “but history shows that it just doesn’t work like that.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.