USCIRF (26.12.2022) – https://bit.ly/3I40wcX – After a series of discussions carried out under the auspices of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Religious Freedom Working Group between 2019 and 2021, Kazakh officials stated that they would consider implementing some of the resulting recommendations to improve religious freedom conditions in the country. Despite these engagements and assurances, in December 2021, Kazakhstan passed amendments to the religion law that did not include substantive reforms and in some ways further restricted freedom of religion or belief.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has just published a report by Mollie Blum titled “Recent Changes to the 2011 Law On Religious Activities and Religious Associations” dealing with the following issues:
- Background on Legislation: Registration – Restrictions on Religious Literature and Missionary Activity – Criminal and Administrative Penalties
- New Amendments on the Religion Law: “Notification” System – Membership Thresholds – Expert Examination
See hereafter a concrete cosmetic amendment concerning freedom of assembly and worship.
“New amendments on the Religion Law
On December 29, 2021, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev approved a series of amendments to the religion law, which came into effect on January 9, 2022. Generally, those changes did little to reform the government’s restrictive approach to religious practice. Although some of the amendments were presented as improvements, in practice they have preserved many of the very functions they ostensibly sought to modify.
The bulk of recent changes to the religion law concerned Article 7 on “Religious Rites and Ceremonies” and introduced a notification system to replace an earlier requirement that religious associations obtain permission to hold an event outside of their registered place of worship. However, the “notification” process remains essentially an application for permission, as it requires religious groups to provide in-depth details about the circumstances of the event at least 10 working days in advance. Required details include information pertaining to the purpose of the event, the organizing religious association, the premises, dates and timelines, and the route of movement. After receiving the notification, the state can take up to five days to inform the organizer if the event does not comply with various requirements or regulations. The religious group is then permitted two days to submit any revisions, after which, the state can send a final refusal within just two days of the event. This process makes it difficult for religious associations to plan such events with any degree of confidence given the possibility of such short notice denials.
Although the law has nominally replaced the authorization-based system for these events, it has done so in name only. The amendments preserve the ability of the state to arbitrarily deny and prevent the holding of events outside of registered addresses, a system that can further contribute to the targeting of certain marginalized religious groups. It is unclear how law enforcement will interpret and enforce the “notification” system, but it could jeopardize the religious freedom of groups who rent their places of worship. If facilities are not registered with the state as religious buildings, this amendment has the potential to impact regular meetings held in rented spaces.
The experiences of Jehovah’s Witnesses under this new amendment paints a bleak picture for other groups that also rent their religious facilities. Jehovah’s Witnesses have cited four incidents where they have already been forced to shift their religious activities in consideration of the amendments.
On April 15, 2022, the enforcement of the religion law amendments impacted the annual commemoration of Jesus Christ’s death in three Jehovah’s Witnesses communities across Kostanay region. In Karabalyk, local police intimidated the facility administrator by citing the amendments and saying that she would face “serious trouble,” fines, and disruptions of the event if she continued to plan to hold the commemoration.
As a result, the community shifted its planned activity to a videoconference. As of May 2022, the Karabalyk community has been able to resume in-person meetings. On the same day in the city of Kostanay, a facility manager reneged on an agreement to rent his venue to Jehovah’s Witnesses for their commemoration event after the state required the manager get permission for the event from local authorities, once more citing the newly amended religion law. As a result, the Jehovah’s Witness community moved its event to a videoconference. In two other Kostanay houses of worship, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been able to hold in-person meetings as usual. In an additional case, police officers interrupted the same annual commemoration event in Kachar, Kostanay, taking six Jehovah’s Witnesses to the police station for questioning. Citing the new amendment, officers then demanded that the owner of the building stop renting the facilities to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In-person meetings resumed in November 2022.
On June 12, 2022, in Atbasar, Aqmola, police disrupted a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses before it was scheduled to begin. Police then brought a Jehovah’s Witness to the station and issued him a warning for violating the new religion law amendment.
Photo : Pyotr Shelepanov preaches at New Life Church, Talgar – Credit: New Life Church