Kazakhstan weighs new religion restrictions

WASHINGTON — Kazakhstan, which already places burdens on religious organizations, will substantially increase restrictions on expressions of faith if new legislation becomes law, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The Kazakh legislature passed the first of three readings of the religion bill in June.

The former member of the Soviet bloc already requires religious groups to register with the government. Under current law, unregistered groups have to pay fines and supposedly "non-traditional" religious bodies are prohibited from registering or have their registration applications significantly delayed, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported.

The new measure, according to USCIRF, would:

• increase the number of members a religious group must have to register from 10 to 50.

• prohibit smaller religious bodies from teaching or professing their faith, owning property or renting public buildings.

• prohibit gifts from anonymous or foreign donors.

"The religion bill threatens Kazakhstan's international obligations as a nation to safeguard religious freedom and non-discrimination," USCIRF Chair Felice Gaer said in a written release. "Kazakhstan appears to be following the lead of other former Soviet republics that are narrowing the space for religious freedom rather than bolstering protections for it."

Gaer called on the U.S. government to urge the Kazakh legislature to revise the bill substantially before it receives a second vote.

A section in the religion bill would mean a group must exist for 10 years and be present in at least five of Kazakhstan's 16 regions before registering as a "centralized religious organization," the only category able to publish religious literature and perform religious education, USCIRF reported. This requirement would prevent two of Kazakhstan's four Catholic dioceses from registering.

Those found guilty of breaking the measure could receive heavy fines and have their operations suspended, according to USCIRF.

Baptists are among those who already are suffering under Kazakhstan's restrictions on religion, according to Forum 18 News Service, which reports on religious freedom and is based in Oslo, Norway. Congregations in the Baptist Council of Churches refuse to register with the governments in former Soviet-bloc countries.

A court in the east Kazakhstan town of Zyryanovsk recently fined Baptist pastor Yegor Prokopenko the equivalent of $240. Prokopenko, pastor of the town's unregistered Baptist church and a Soviet-era dissident who was imprisoned by the communists several times, received a heavy fine of $870 two years ago, Forum 18 reported.

When asked about the town's most recent treatment of Prokopenko and the church, Zyryanovsk Prosecutor Tatyana Semynina told Forum 18 "they can believe as much as they want but should not organize religious meetings."

Last year, a court in the city of Semey in east Kazakhstan closed a Baptist church's building in order to keep the congregation from meeting, according to Forum 18.