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.
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Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.