Kazakhstan Adds to Europe's Summer of Discontent on Religious Freedom

This has been the summer of discontent for religious liberty in Europe.

From Brussels to Budapest, Moscow to Vienna, Europe has been the source of considerable legislative undermining of the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief.

Just when we thought things couldn't get worse after the passage of the outrageously restrictive and manipulative religion law in Hungary, Kazakhstan goes and rushes through a law that makes the Hungarians look gentle in their approach to religious freedom.

As a former Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Kazakhstan should have significantly higher standards for commitments to fundamental rights. However, both the content and timing of the new draft religion law demonstrates that Kazakhstan gives little thought or concern to either fundamental rights or its international political commitments.

On Sept. 5, Kazakhstan's proposed new religion law entitled, "The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations," was sent to Parliament for review and passage.

Prime Minister Karim Masimov endorsed the new religion law in his letter to Parliament, asserting that changes in the law were needed "in view of the contemporary religious situation with the aims of firm regulation of the sphere of activity of religious associations and the establishment of legal responsibility for violating the norms of legislation in the sphere of religious relations, as well as for the organization of systematic work of state organs in the sphere of perfecting state-confessional relations."

A second proposed law imposing changes in the area of religion in nine other laws would also amend the controversial Administrative Code Article 375, widening the range of "violations of the Religion Law" it punishes.

Forum 18 News Service reported that this law, entitled "The Law on introducing Amendments and Additions to several legal acts questions of Religious Activity and Religious Associations," an administrative code law that it was able to review, was approved by Kazakhstan Prime Minister Masimov.

On Sept. 21, the Lower House of Parliament, the Majilis, approved both the Religion Law and the Administrative Code Law. Only minor changes were made to the law in the Majilis and there was no debate on fundamental issues.

The two laws were then given their initial presentation to the Social and Cultural Development Committee of the Senate, which passed in that chamber on Sept. 29.

The legislation moved forward with great speed in a rush to judgment, not allowing time for serious debate or review of the controversial and problematic provisions in the drafts.

Forum 18 News Service further reported that "privately many Majilis deputies were angry at provisions of the laws and the speed which the government is pushing the laws through Parliament, but no one voted against either law."

This author obtained a copy of the religion law draft for analysis. Review of the draft law by the Expert Committee on Legislation and Implementation of THE INSTITUTE on Religion and Public Policy led to the conclusion that passage of this legislation is a serious setback for religious freedom in Kazakhstan.

In this this author's opinion, the legislation contravenes Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations (UN) standards because it clearly discriminates against minority religious groups.

The religion law includes the following egregious provisions that violate human rights standards that Kazakhstan has agreed to follow. The law would:

• Require compulsory registration as a religious organization;

• "De-register" all religious organizations currently registered and force these organizations to "re-register";

• Require all religious organizations to submit to a "religious study examination" where religious Scriptures and other documents are reviewed and impermissibly evaluated by the State;

• Ban all religious activity by unregistered religious organizations;

• Prohibit an unregistered religious organization to obtain any other legal entity status;

• Impose compulsory government censorship of religious literature by requiring evaluation and approval of religious literature before it could be shipped into the country for non-personal use or placed in a library;

• Restrict distribution of religious literature to religious buildings, religious educational institutions and "specifically identified stationary facilities identified by local executive bodies";

• Require government approval to build or open new places of worship;

• Require registration of persons carrying out missionary activity -- no person may carry out missionary activity until so registered and no person will be registered unless they have been invited to perform missionary work by a registered religious organization;

• Require a minority religious community to meet onerous membership levels in order to register (minimum of 50 adult citizens) in complete contravention of United Nations and OSCE standards; and

• Impose restrictions and sanctions on religious leaders if children participate in activities of the religious organization when one parent or legal guardian objects.

The religion law and the administrative code law are completely inconsistent with fundamental human rights. The recurring theme of the draft amendments is that they are structured in ways that would completely ban religious organizations or severely restrict religious activities; censor importation and restrict dissemination of religious literature; restrict foreign missionary activity; restrict the construction of new places of worship; and impose sanctions on religious leaders and organizations, including the banning of religious organizations, in a manner impermissible under international standards.

These harsh provisions appear to be fueled by discriminatory motives. On Sept. 20, Forum 18 News Service reported that:

Officials of Kazakhstan's state Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), the state-backed Muslim Board, and local administrations held public meetings in August and September in West Kazakhstan, Karaganda [Qaraghandy] and Aktobe [Aqtöbe] regions, praising the advantages of so-called "traditional religions" and warning of the alleged dangers of so-called "non-traditional religions." The ruling Nur Otan political party has also held similar meetings in West Kazakhstan. ARA regional departments and local administrations across Kazakhstan have distributed written questionnaires or verbally demanded that members of religious minorities provide detailed information on their activity -- sometimes on a weekly basis.

Passage of this repressive legislation represents a serious setback for religious freedom in Kazakhstan. The religion law contravenes international norms and standards that Kazakhstan is bound to follow because it flagrantly discriminates against minority religious groups and contravenes the principles of equality and non-discrimination.

Kazakh officials have refused to say if President Nursultan Nazarbaev will send the two repressive new laws to the Constitutional Council for review. Nazarbaev sent similar restrictive laws to the Constitutional Council in 2002 and again in 2009, and on both occasions the Constitutional Council rejected them as violating Kazakhstan's Constitution.

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