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Kazakhstan’s new secularity

The upcoming congress of religious leaders  may offer the Kazakh government insights into better ways of fighting national security threats related to religion. If not, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation built in 2006 especially for inter-confessional conferences may itself become a threat to Astana’s new definition of secularity.

February 13, 2018 - Boiko Hristov - Stories and ideas

Image by Ken and Nyetta

In October 2018, Astana is to host the VI Congress of World Religions. It will run under the slogan of “religious leaders for a safe world”, which seeks to reflect President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s official rhetoric. However, Kazakhstan’s approach to religion is hardly making the world a safer place. While on the one hand, Astana declares its will to lead an interfaith dialogue, on the other, its preoccupation with security and fighting religious extremism often hits wrong targets.

The conference participants will surely discuss the latest changes in Kazakhstan’s religious legislation. Last year, the country’s government adopted a new strategy on religion for the years 2017–2020 and prepared amendments to a number of laws on religious activities and organisations.

The changes demonstrate that after the shocking Aktobe shootings on June 5th 2016, security measures began to dominate the government’s religious policy. Moreover, the focus on security has caused gradual curtailing of the rights of believers, which prompted foreign human rights organisations to express their concerns. The 2017 Annual Report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) stated that the domestic conditions for freedom of religion or belief and other civil liberties deteriorated in 2016. Because of that, in 2017 Kazakhstan was again placed by the USCIRF in Tier 2 which includes countries that “require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments”. Kazakhstan has been on the list since 2013.

According to the common opinion of Kazakhstan’s religious communities, the new law promotes a distorted image of secularity as the national ideology. Furthermore, the changes to the legislation introduced by the parliament contradict both: the 2017–2020 policy and the constitution.

These included a ban on discussing faith matters in the media as well as restrictions of missionary activity and religious education, which are at odds with the draft policy’s principles of promoting religious education and culture. Such measures will not protect the country’s society from inter-confessional conflicts but will likely strengthen mutual distrust between different faiths.

The bill bans children under the age of 16 from attending religious services if not accompanied by one of the parents and without a written consent of the other. The decision effectively bars children from excursions to religious sites and monuments. Vacations at camps organised by religious communities will also be outlawed. This clearly violates the Constitution’s Article 35 addressing children’s rights.

Religious organisations will have to comply with the new law. In practice, it will mean  that they will be forced to drive teenagers out of houses of prayers under threat of fines and three-month suspension of their activities. It will be equal to putting a big lock on the door. As a result, full-scale activities of religious organisations may become impossible, and so may the realisation of constitutional rights of the Kazakh people to freely express their religious views. Believers, making up about 80 per cent of society, will have to practise religion at home to evade accusations of conducting missionary activities.

The amendments to religious laws have paved the way for repressions while closing the opportunities for believers to practice their faiths. The changes have mostly affected representatives of religious minorities. In 2016, Protestant minister Yuri Pak was sentenced to two years in prison for disseminating a book about the life of St. Sergius of Radonezh and a hand-drawn icon of the Virgin Mary. Orthodox Christians, Kazakhstan’s second largest denomination, were fined for the same activities.

The repercussions demonstrate that the bill has not been properly thought over. Officials tasked with executing the law have not been properly trained and often suspend religious life instead of identifying extremist organisations the law seeks to target.

The upcoming congress of religious leaders  may offer the Kazakh government insights into better ways of fighting national security threats related to religion. If not, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation built in 2006 especially for inter-confessional conferences may itself become a threat to Astana’s new definition of secularity.

Boiko Hristov is a freelance journalist based in Sofia, Bulgaria. 

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