Kazakh churches say draft law harks back to Soviet era

By Ecumenical News International
July 16, 2008

Christian churches in Kazakhstan have condemned a new draft law on religions, which they say will re-impose Soviet-style restrictions in the Central Asian republic in which Islam has the largest number of followers - writes Jonathan Luxmoore.

"All churches will be affected by this law, which will deny religious rights, and place everything under control," said Bishop Teofil Chowaniec, secretary of Kazakhstan's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference.

Chowaniec was speaking in an interview from Kazakhstan following final parliamentary approval on 11 June of the draft bill on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, which will need to be signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbayev by 1 December.

"The number of foreign missionaries will be limited, and work made especially difficult for churches with headquarters in other lands, who'll be unable to receive any aid," Chowaniec told Ecumenical News International. "All religious leaders I've been in touch with - Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans - are deeply concerned, as should be Christians throughout the world."

The Norwegian-based Forum 18 religious freedom group reported in early July that Kazakh authorities were continuing to apply pressure against minority religious communities across the country.

It reported on a court case in Semey, in Eastern Kazakhstan Region, where it said the Fire Brigade was seeking the closure of the Grace Protestant Church. The Fire Brigade said the congregation's new building did not meet fire safety requirements, although church members and their lawyer insist that all relevant building permits are in order.

The proposed law would require centralised religious organisations to have existed for 10 years and to function in at least five of Kazakhstan's 16 regions. Catholic dioceses are treated as separate religious organizations for the purpose of the law. This means that two of the country's four Catholic dioceses would be unable to register as "centralised religious organisations", which have the exclusive right to conduct religious education and publishing.

Bishop Chowaniec said the new curbs would violate Kazakhstan's 1999 agreement with the Vatican, which recognised Catholic rights, and they would destroy the country's reputation for religious freedom.

"Since its present religion law was passed in 1991, Kazakhstan has set an example, in contrast to other nations in Central Asia, of religious peace and harmony," said Bishop Chowaniec, who also heads his church's Holy Trinity diocese in Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city. "All religious communities are now praying that God won't permit this project to destroy this achievement, which has benefited all citizens, whether believing or not," said the bishop

The 200,000-strong Roman Catholic Church has 85 registered parishes in Kazakhstan, 70 per cent of whose 15.4 million inhabitants are Muslims, with a further 20 percent belonging to the Russian Orthodox church's five dioceses, and others to Protestant denominations.

Freedom of worship was restricted by legal measures in 2005 which enabled government officials to ban churches which "infringe the law of the republic".

Human rights groups have warned the new law will severely hamper churches by increasing penalties on unregistered communities. The draft law will require children to have written permission from both parents to attend services and oblige churches to log all donations of money.

Supporters from the president's dominant Ray of Light for the Fatherland party have said the new measures will defend the country's "historic values" and strengthen national security by controlling foreign religious groups.

Bishop Chowaniec said local Christians had endured arrest and jail to "keep the faith in times of communist domination" and he asserted that the Catholic Church had never engaged in "proselytism" or mass baptisms.

"There are communists in parliament who know nothing about religion and want to get rid of it. Others are rightly concerned to control Islamic fundamentalism, but shouldn't turn this into an attack on all religions," said Chowaniec.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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