International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various religious communities worship largely without government interference; however, the Government's concerns regarding regional security threats from alleged religious extremists led it to encourage local officials to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups.

There was no change in the overall status of religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Senior government officials below President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke out on the need to contain religious extremism, and officials at all levels continued to regard religious extremism with concern. In January 2002, the Parliament passed restrictive amendments to the National Religion Law; however, in April 2002, the Constitutional Council ruled that the amendments were unconstitutional. President Nazarbayev chose not to challenge the Council's ruling. Instances of harassment of religious organizations by local officials increased during the period covered by this report due largely to a February 2001 provision of the Administrative Code requiring religious groups to register. A series of court cases involving local Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptist congregations sanctioned groups for being unregistered. In late 2001, there were two reports of police beatings in late 2001 targeting members of nontraditional religious groups, one of which resulted in the death of the person. There were credible reports from throughout the country that local law enforcement officials regularly visited religious organizations for inspections.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were reports of instances of interfaith violence directed against members of Jehovah's Witnesses in Kyzl-Orda between October 2001 and January 2002.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. In December 2001, Presidents Nazarbayev and Bush issued a joint statement reaffirming "our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and promote religious freedom and other universal human rights.." The Ambassador and other U.S. officials lobbied intensively against provisions in draft amendments to the Religion Law that would have fallen short of that commitment and international standards for religious freedom. The Embassy sponsored the visit of a United States scholar of Islam to conduct a speaker program regarding the role of Islam in a secular society, as well as a 2-week visit to the U.S. by leading religious figures to participate in multi-faith events.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of 1,052,540 square miles, and according to unpublished January 2002 estimates of the Agency for Statistics, its population was approximately 14,819,000.

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. Slavs, mostly Russians but also Ukrainians and Belorussians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox and constitute approximately one-third of the population.

Due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past, many residents describe themselves as nonbelievers. Data from a 1998 government survey suggest that 80 percent of ethnic Kazakhs consider themselves nominally Muslim, while only 60 percent of ethnic Slavs accept the Orthodox Christian designation. The Kazakhstani Association of Sociologists and Political Analysts has estimated that approximately 20 to 25 percent of adults practice a religious faith.

According to government statistics from 2001, evangelical Christian and Baptist congregations outnumber Russian Orthodox. Several other Protestant associations also are represented by more than 50 congregations each, including Lutherans (traditionally practiced by Kazakhstani Germans who still account for approximately 2 percent of the population, despite sizable emigration), Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists.

A small Jewish community, estimated at well below 1 percent of the population, has synagogues in several larger cities. There is a Catholic archdiocese, adherents of which account for a similarly small proportion of the population.

Foreign missionaries are most active in the southern regions of the country and often come from Turkey, Pakistan, and other predominantly Muslim countries. According to government statistics, there were 262 foreign missionaries in the country at the end of 2001; others are present under tourist visas.

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, the Government's stated concerns regarding regional security threats from alleged religious extremists led it to encourage local officials to limit the practice of religion by some nontraditional groups. The Constitution defines the country as a secular state.

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." Because the clause makes no reference to registration, legal experts interpret it to ensure the right of members of unregistered groups to practice their religion. However, it does specify that those religious organizations that wish to receive legal status must register. Religious organizations must have legal status in order to buy or rent real property, hire employees, or engage in other legal transactions.

A new Administrative Code, which entered into force in February 2001, allows national and local authorities to suspend the activities or fine the leaders of unregistered religious organizations. Legal experts regard laws and codes to have equal force, but that the more recently enacted takes precedence. Lower courts consistently cited Article 375 of the new Code in sanctioning religious organizations for nonregistration, but which decisions often were overturned on appeal.

In practice local officials generally insist that religious organizations register at the local level, despite the fact that registration at the national or the oblast level legally is sufficient to obtain the rights that registration offers. 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.

Members of Jehovah's Witnesses reported that they have attempted unsuccessfully to register in Northern Kazakhstan Oblast for 4 years. Their October 2001 application to register in Atyrau Oblast remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report.

The Government maintains that a new National Religion Law would settle any inconsistency with the Administrative Code, and has proposed amendments to the Law several times since 1998, most recently with the introduction of proposed amendments in November 2001, which included registration requirements for religious groups. The Government chose to submit the amendments to the Parliament, which passed them in January 2002, despite several objections raised by international experts and religious organizations. The Government previously responded to similar objections by withdrawing amendments from parliamentary consideration. In April 2002, the Constitutional Council rejected the entire set of amendments after determining that certain provisions contained in them were unconstitutional.

The Constitutional Council specifically ruled that the provision requiring the Muslim Spiritual Association (a national Muslim organization), 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 that were not ruled specifically 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. Observers have noted that the provisions, which would have restricted religious freedom, were not ruled specifically unconstitutional and could form the basis of a new round of proposed amendments. President Nazarbayev chose not to challenge the Council's ruling; such a challenge would have required the Council to uphold its ruling by a two-thirds vote.

The Government also had proposed amendments to the Religion Law in April 2001; however, it withdrew them from parliamentary consideration in June 2001 after receiving significant international criticism regarding the detrimental effect that the amendments would have on religious freedom and on the Government's international commitments and the Constitution. International experts believe that the amendments introduced in November 2001 were less restrictive, including the amendments on the status of foreign missionaries. If the April 2001 had been passed, foreign missionaries would have been required to receive state accreditation, with criminal penalties for failure to be accredited; however, the November amendments allowed for a much simpler registration procedure for foreign missionaries, with no criminal penalties attached for non-registration.

Neither law nor regulation prohibits foreign missionary activity; however, there is no mechanism governing such activity. In 2001 in anticipation of passage of the amendments to the Religion Law, the Government annulled the previous regulation setting out procedures for the registration of foreign missionaries. Since then there have been widespread reports of inconsistency at the local level regarding the length of validity and cost of visas for foreign missionaries.

Religious organizations receive no tax privileges other than exemptions 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.

No religious holidays are state holidays.

The Government invited the national leaders of the two largest religious groups, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, to participate jointly in state events. Some members of other faiths, including Muslims not affiliated with the Muslim Spiritual Association (the national Muslim organization headed by the Mufti), criticized the Government's inclusion of the Mufti and archbishop in state events as official favoritism and a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. However, leaders of other faiths participated in some events, especially in Almaty.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Procurator General of the country and the Minister of Interior have called for prohibiting the activities of unregistered religious organizations. Law enforcement authorities conducted inspections of religious groups throughout the country, claiming to do so in order to prevent the development of religious extremism and to ensure that religious groups pay taxes. These inspections also provided the authorities with information about the registration status of the groups being inspected, which in some cases led to suspensions pending the registration of the groups concerned. The National Religion Law does not require religious groups to be registered.

The Government typically claims that religious groups' charters do not meet the requirements of the law when refusing or significantly delaying registration for some religious groups. 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 often are refused.

Representatives of many religious organizations and religious rights observers regard Parliament's passage of restrictive amendments to the National Religion Law in January 2002 as the pretext for local officials to engage in a coordinated campaign of harassment directed at smaller, local religious groups. The representatives claim that local officials began enforcing the new law upon its passage. In April 2002, several provisions were found unconstitutional and the amendments never entered into force.

The national Jehovah's Witnesses Religious Center alleged continuing incidents of harassment by a number of local governments. It claimed that city officials in Astana, Almaty, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kostanay, Karaganda, Aktubinsk, and Shymkent sometimes blocked the group from renting stadiums or other large public or private sites for religious meetings. The Jehovah's Witnesses are registered nationally, as well as in 12 of the country's 14 oblasts. Also during the period covered by this report, local KNB officials disrupted some meetings in private homes of unregistered groups of Jehovah's Witnesses, Protestants, Adventists, Baptists, and other nontraditional groups throughout the country.

During the period covered by this report, there were several court cases against unregistered local Jehovah's Witness congregations throughout the country, including in the cities of Taraz, Atyrau, and Petropavlovsk, and in several smaller villages. Courts typically ruled that unregistered groups were in violation of the Administrative Code and issued warnings, levied fines of $50 or less, or suspended the activities of the group. When adequate legal counsel was brought in on appeal, the decisions most often were overturned. In a July 2001 case in Taraz, the prosecutor's office withdrew its protest over the court's ruling in favor of the local Jehovah's Witnesses congregation.

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 an April 2000 court order, which had suspended the church's activities until it was registered.

In November 2001, a court in the town of Ayaguz (Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast) convicted Pavel Leonov, a Baptist pastor, for failing to uphold a September 2000 court order requiring his church to register. He was assessed a fine of approximately $135 (20,575 tenge). Leonov reported that he intended to appeal to the Supreme Court; however, he had not done so by the end of the period covered by this report. Leonov's case was the first known to local religious rights observers that employed a criminal, rather then administrative, charge.

Both of Kyzl-Orda and Ayaguz Baptist 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. Prosecutors also sought to suspend the activities of Baptist churches associated with the Council in Taraz, Serebriansk, and Kazalinsk.

The Government has offered several reasons to justify the need to amend the National Religion Law, including that the passage of a new Constitution in 1995 leaves many aspects of the 1992 Religion Law outside of the constitutional framework. Discrepancies also exist with the Administrative Code of February 2001, which requires religious organizations to register. In addition, the Government maintains that the Religion Law does not address the status of foreign missionaries.

Government officials frequently expressed concerns regarding the potential spread of religious extremism from Afghanistan and other states. The KNB has characterized the fight against "religious extremism" as a top priority of the internal intelligence service and believes that this is grounds to amend the law. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights stated that religious extremism should be addressed by the Criminal Code, and that no restrictive changes to the Religion Law are justified on security grounds. Local religious rights advocates also have made this point in appeals to the Government and maintain that technical discrepancies between the Law and the Constitution exist, but are minor, and are unrelated to the fundamental right of religious freedom.

Foreign missionary activity is not prohibited by law. 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. Other foreign missionaries, unwelcome to some Muslim and Orthodox citizens, have complained of occasional harassment by low-level government officials. In particular, evangelical Protestants working in schools, hospitals, and other social service institutions have alleged government hostility to their efforts to proselytize.

The 2001 annulment of the regulation regulating foreign missionary activity has led to widespread reports of inconsistency in the rules applied to foreign citizens engaged in religious work. Some local jurisdictions continue to register foreign citizens as religious workers; however, in many cases, foreign missionaries conduct their activities on tourist visas. The duration and cost of temporary visas varies by jurisdiction. Obtaining visas often has required foreign missionaries to produce lengthy documentation regarding their affiliated church. Travel agencies have reported difficulty in obtaining ordinary tourist visas for persons whom they say the Government suspects of entering the country to conduct missionary work.

In April 2001, in the city of Aktau, three American citizens were fined $230 (33,000 tenge) and expelled from the country for alleged religious activity in violation of their visa status. They were ordered to appear in court for violating Articles 394 and 396 of the Administrative Code, for violating the terms of their stay in the country and not complying with the purpose of their registration, as well as violating the rules governing the recruitment and use of foreign workers.

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 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 April 2002, the Constitutional Council ruled that these provisions of the proposed amendments were unconstitutional. There were reports that the Mufti sent throughout the country, Kazakh-speaking Imams to mosques that served Uyghur and Chechen speaking communities that had no connection to the Mufti's organization.

During the first part of the period covered by this report, media outlets, including some of those most widely distributed, presented as objective news allegations that nontraditional religious groups present a threat to national security and social cohesion. An article on the Baha'i faith and an account of comments attributed to the national Muslim organization were particularly confrontational; however, such news accounts did not appear in the latter part of the period covered by this report.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

According to local press reports, in October 2001, local KNB officials in Southern Kazakhstan Oblast beat a 21-year-old man to death after they detained him for allegedly belonging to the Hizb ut-Tahrir group. 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. Hizb ut-Tahrir advocates the practice of pure Islamic doctrine and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia, and the authorities maintain that Hizb ut-Tahrir is an extremist group. At least three times during the period covered by this report, the authorities detained Hizb ut-Tahrir members for distributing literature. In each instance, the individuals were held in custody for a brief period and then eventually released.

In an unconfirmed report, the Keston Institute alleged that on October 27, 2001, local police threatened and beat Asulbek Nurdanov, a member of the Kyzl-Orda Baptist Church. Following a second session of police questioning in early November 2001, Nurdanov allegedly was committed to a psychiatric hospital for 4 days at the request of his father.

The National Center of the Jehovah's Witnesses reported that on December 11, 2001, a police officer took two of its adherents in the city of Atyrau into custody after they had knocked on the door of his home in the performance of their religious activities. They remained in custody for 7 hours, during which time they reportedly were beaten. While they were in custody, police disrupted a religious activity in their apartment and confiscated religious materials and personal belongings. The National Center of the Jehovah's Witnesses filed a complaint with the city prosecutor 4 days later. The confiscated materials were returned immediately, but no investigation regarding the other allegations had been initiated by the end of the period covered by this report.

The Jehovah's Witnesses alleged that in several villages of the Shiyely District of Kyzl-Orda, local Muslim clergymen incited followers to pressure or assault local members of Jehovah's Witnesses between October 2001 and January 2002. The National Center of the Jehovah's Witnesses claimed that local law enforcement did nothing to address their many complaints. In March 2002, the State Council on Relations with Religious Communities answered an appeal by instructing members of Jehovah's Witnesses to seek the assistance of local law enforcement. They reported that relatives or other local citizens verbally abused or beat members of their congregation on at least six different occasions. In one of these cases, a follower was forced to renounce his faith and attend regular services at the local mosque.

On January 23, 2002, according to a report by the Keston News Service, Tursunbay Auelbekov, a Baptist in the southern town of Turkestan, was arrested while distributing religious literature in a public area. Prosecutors maintained that his activity was illegal because the Baptists in Turkestan are not registered; however, they decided not to press charges, citing Auelbekov's poor health. Auelbekov's church is affiliated with the Association of Evangelical-Christian Baptists, which is registered in the oblast.

According to an unconfirmed press report, Kulsary prosecutor Hagibula Kasymov threatened to jail Kurmangazy Abdumuratov and Askhat Alimkhanov, leaders of the Iman Kazakhstani Baptist Church, if their church continued to meet without registering. Religious freedom activists were not aware of the two subsequently being jailed. In May 2001, prosecutors had required them to stop meeting. The church claimed that the church did not have the minimum of 10 members registration requires under the law.

In April 2002, regional authorities raided an unregistered farm run by the Society for Krishna Consciousness in the village of Yeltay, in Almaty Oblast. Tax, immigration, fire, and health and hygiene officials all were involved in the inspection. Police confiscated the passports of 15 foreign members of the community, 5 of whom were sentenced to deportation at a May 2002 local court hearing, at which no charges were stated and the lawyers for the accused were not permitted to speak. In early June 2002, the Hare Krishnas appealed the deportations and the court also levied fines against three other members. Leaders of the Krishna Center, registered in Almaty City, alleged that the authorities arrived for the April inspection with television camera crews and then ordered the stations to report on the raid. In one television report, the Krishnas were described as extremists and criminals. On May 18, 2002, the Krishnas' application for registration in Almaty Oblast was approved, after an 8-month delay.

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 a Baptist pastor in Kyzl-Orda and a Baptist adherent in Turkestan, two members of Jehovah's Witnesses in Atyrau, and Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Kentau (Southern Kazakhstan Oblast) and Almaty, 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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

In September 2001, President Nazarbayev supported a trip by the Pope to the country, which included meetings with the Government, diplomats, leading clerics, and academia. The Pope celebrated an outdoor Mass which was aired on national television and radio channels, to a crowd of 50,000 persons. In a speech following the Mass, President Nazarbayev highlighted the religious diversity of the country and remarked that "we should not link terrorism with a nation or a religion."

In 2002 the Government donated land for the construction of a synagogue in the new capital, Astana. In May 2002, government representatives attended the groundbreaking ceremony. In September 2001, a synagogue opened in the city of Pavlodar, also on land the Government had donated.

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.

Members of Jehovah's Witnesses cited several examples of interfaith discord in the Shiyely District of Kyzl-Orda, where they allege local Muslim clergy incited their followers to attack local members of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. In December 2001, Presidents Bush and Nazarbayev released a joint statement during President Nazarbayev's visit to the United States, reiterating "our mutual commitments to advance the rule of law and promote religious freedom and other universal human rights.." The U.S. Ambassador and other Embassy officers are proactive in reminding government officials of these commitments. The Embassy's human rights officer maintains contact with a broad range of religious communities and reports on instances of violations of their constitutional and human rights.

The Ambassador, other Embassy officers, senior State Department officials, and the U.S. Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe were involved heavily in lobbying the Government against the latest round of draft amendments to the National Religion Law, proposed in November 2001 (See Section II). The Ambassador raised the issue with the Minister Foreign of Foreign Affairs; the Minister of Culture, Information, and Public Accord; and several other senior government officials, both during the parliamentary debate and after passage. As during the period covered by the previous report, the Embassy worked closely with the OSCE Center in Almaty to facilitate expert analysis of the proposed legislation.

The Ambassador pressed government officials to investigate the apparent death by torture, of a Muslim in the South in October 2001. The subsequent investigation resulted in the dismissal of two employees of the KNB in Turkestan, though no criminal proceedings had been initiated by the end of the period covered by this report.

In November 2001, the Embassy sponsored a 5-day visit of a U.S. academic expert on Islam to conduct a series of programs on the role of Islam in a secular society. The scholar met with religious, academic, and NGO leaders; lectured at universities in Almaty, Astana, and Taraz in the South; and conducted an interview for radio broadcast.

In December 2001, the Embassy sponsored the visit to the United States of the director of the State Council on Relations with Religious Organizations, the head of a local NGO working on issues of religious freedom, and an Imam representing the Spiritual Administration of Muslims. The program of the visit included meetings with U.S. government officials, academics, NGO leaders, and representatives of multiple U.S. religious organizations.

In May 2002, the Ambassador spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new synagogue in Astana.