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U.S. Department of State
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999

Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Washington, DC, September 9, 1999


Section I. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference. However, the Government sometimes harasses Islamic and Christian groups whose members it regards as religious extremists. The Constitution defines the country as a "secular" state. It also requires foreign religious associations to carry out their activities, including the appointment of the heads of religious associations, "in coordination with appropriate state institutions." However, in general the Government does not interfere with the appointment of religious leaders or the activities of foreign religious associations.

Religious organizations, including churches, must register with the Ministry of Justice in order to receive legal status. Without registration religious organizations cannot buy or rent real property, hire employees, obtain visas for foreign missionaries, or engage in any other legal transactions. Although religious organizations, unlike other nongovernmental entities, are entitled legally to carry out their work without government registration, in practice many local officials insist that they register. Registration requires an application submitted by at least 10 local citizens and is usually a quick and simple process. Some religious groups out of favor with the Government encounter difficulties registering in certain jurisdictions. These groups include Jehovah's Witnesses and some Korean Protestant groups, as well as Muslim and Russian Orthodox groups independent of the Mufti or Orthodox Archbishop. Foreign missionaries require state accreditation. There were no reports that the Government prohibited the activities of any religious group whose registration application it turned down.

Religious organizations receive no tax privileges other than exemptions from taxes on church collections and income from certain religious activities. The Government has donated buildings and provided other assistance for the construction of new mosques and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Society is ethnically diverse, and many religions are represented. However, due to the country's nomadic and Soviet past many residents reject religious labels or describe themselves as non-believers (see Section II). Ethnic Kazakhs, who constitute approximately one half of the national population, historically are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. In a 1998 government survey, 80 percent of ethnic Kazakhs described themselves as Muslims, although government and independent experts believe that a large number of these are nonobservant. Other traditionally Sunni Muslim groups, which constitute approximately 5 to l0 percent of the population, include Tatars, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Turks, and Chechens. Slavs, principally Russians and Ukrainians, are by tradition Eastern Orthodox and comprise about one-third of the population. The 1998 government survey found that 60 percent of ethnic Slavs identify themselves as Orthodox. An independent expert estimates that two-thirds of Slavic citizens would say that they belong to no religion or are indifferent to religion. Ethnic Germans, largely Lutheran, constituted approximately 5 percent of the population when the country became independent in 1991, but the majority of these are thought to have emigrated to Germany. A small Jewish community is estimated at well under 1 percent of the population.

Foreign missionary activity is authorized under law, but only when missionaries are accredited by the State. In practice many missionaries operate without accreditation. Although legally entitled to register religious organizations, foreign missionaries generally find that they must list local citizens as founders in order to register their organizations.

Some foreign missionaries, unwelcome to some Muslim and Orthodox citizens, have complained of occasional harassment by low-level government officials. In particular evangelical Protestants working in schools, hospitals, and other social service institutions have alleged government hostility toward their efforts to proselytize.

The Government often invites the national leaders of the two largest religions, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy, to participate jointly in state events. Such appearances by the Islamic Mufti and the Orthodox Archbishop, often in the presence of the President, are intended to promote religious and ethnic harmony. Some members of other faiths, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians not affiliated with the Mufti or Archbishop, criticize the Government's inclusion of the Mufti and Archbishop in state events as official favoritism and a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Many also believe that the distinction government officials sometimes make between "traditional" and "nontraditional" religions violates the fundamental standard of equality among religions.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

A potential deterioration in the right to religious freedom was averted at least temporarily when the Government withdrew restrictive draft amendments to the national law on religion in March 1999. The draft changes would have imposed burdensome new registration requirements on religious organizations and otherwise tightened government control of religion. The Government withdrew the draft legislation after minority religious groups and foreign observers, including the United States Government (see Section III), objected to it.

An explanatory preface to the draft amendments stated that the goal of the legislation was "to strengthen regulation and state control of nontraditional religious organizations" in order to "prevent interreligious conflict and coordinate relations between the state and religious organizations." The draft text did not designate particular religions as either "traditional" or "nontraditional." At a March 1999 public roundtable about the draft amendments, an official of the Ministry of Culture, Information, and Public Accord acknowledged that his ministry prepared the draft amendments at the request of the country's Muslim and Russian Orthodox leadership. Some members of other religious groups claimed that this statement provided evidence for their claims that the country's Islamic and Russian Orthodox leadership wants the Government to limit the development of competing faiths.

The draft amendments would have impeded the development of new religious organizations. One provision would have required religious groups that seek registration to submit certification from locally elected officials that they were already active for 10 years in the jurisdiction in which they sought registration. Other provisions would have required religious organizations that seek registration to submit information about their creeds and practices, including attitudes toward family and marriage, education, and members' health. Vaguely written provisions would have given local officials broad authority to refuse or cancel the registration of religious organizations deemed a threat to public order or state security.

Government officials frequently express concerns about the potential spread of religious extremism. They point especially to the risk of political Islam spreading north from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other states. In June 1998, the chief of the Committee for National Security (KNB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB) testified before Parliament that preventing the spread of Islamic and Christian "religious extremism" was a top priority of the internal intelligence service. His successor reiterated this priority in a June 1999 press interview.

A campaign by the KNB and the national prosecutor's office to identify religious extremists led to the arrest and May 1999 conviction of one alleged Muslim extremist in Atyrau. According to press reports, Askar Sekerbayev received a 6-month suspended sentence and a fine for "founding or participating in the activities of an illegal public organization." Sekerbayev reportedly belonged to the Muslim "Zhamagat" organization, which, the government alleged, advocated violence.

In March 1999, officials from the national prosecutor's office, in at least one case accompanied by the KNB, raided the offices of six legally registered communities of Jehovah's Witnesses in Almaty and Zhambyl oblasts (provinces). In at least one case, the officials reportedly demanded copies of church correspondence, minutes of religious meetings, and other documentation. In all the cases, prosecutors summoned church leaders and required them to provide information about the organization's aims, religious practices, views on medical treatment and military service, and other questions. The Government took no further actions against the organization or its membership after the raids were publicized.

In September 1998, the authorities detained and issued deportation orders against six unaccredited Muslim missionaries from Pakistan who planned to attend a religious conference in the Zhambyl region. In July 1998, the KNB and General Prosecutor of the republic launched a criminal investigation in connection with the activities of Muslim missionaries from Egypt, Sudan, and Jordan in the region. Investigators alleged that the activities of the foreign missionaries violated criminal code and national security law provisions against threatening the national constitutional system. A Muslim missionary from Uzbekistan reportedly was deported in 1998 for preaching "radical Islamic fundamentalism" in Kyzyl Orda.

On May 19, 1999, the Public Prosecutor's Office in Almalinskiy District of Almaty petitioned a city court to ban the Charismatic Evangelic Church of Christ. The petition was based on the alleged irregularities in the group's registration, its foreign pastor's legal status, and alleged violations of the law on family and marriage by the pastor. The City Court dismissed the case on June 17, but the Prosecutor's Office has the right to appeal.

In April 1998, Almaty police prevented members of the Union of Semirechiye Cossacks, dressed in traditional military uniforms, from entering the Holy Ascension Cathedral on Orthodox Easter. Law enforcement authorities considered the wearing of such uniforms a violation of the provision in the law on public associations against the creation of "military organizations with military uniforms and special signs." District and appeals courts in Almaty rejected subsequent efforts by the Almaty city prosecutor's office to suspend activities by the Union of Semirechiye Cossacks. Government concern about Cossack activities is prompted at least as much by ethnic and political as religious factors.

Apart from the brief detentions of the six unaccredited Muslim missionaries and one alleged Muslim extremist, there were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners. Sources within the religious and human rights community report that the Government unofficially stopped imprisoning conscientious objectors to military conscription, including Jehovah's Witnesses, in 1997 or 1998.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Relations among the various religious communities are generally amicable. In a January 1999 speech to the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke out against anti-Islamic, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and all other forms of religious and ethnic bigotry. Since independence the number of mosques has increased from about 60 to more than 5,000. The opening of a new synagogue in Almaty in 1997 reflected the country's generally recognized openness toward its Jewish community. However, there are reports that some leaders of the mainstream Muslim and Christian Orthodox communities are pressing the authorities to limit the activities of so-called "nontraditional" faiths.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

In a series of private meetings in early 1999 with senior officials, the Ambassador raised U.S. concerns about the restrictive draft amendments to the religion law (Section I). Following withdrawal of the draft legislation, a senior member of the Government acknowledged privately that U.S. arguments against the legislation had helped convince the Government that the draft was flawed seriously. An embassy officer met several times with religious and human rights figures opposed to the draft amendments. The officer participated in a March 1999 conference about the law organized by the Almaty Helsinki Commission. Government officials privately acknowledged that strong criticism of the law at the conference was another influential factor in the law's withdrawal.

Following reports of government harassment of six groups of legally registered Jehovah's Witnesses (see Section I), the Ambassador raised U.S. concerns in meetings with senior officials. An embassy officer met with representatives of the church to discuss the harassment.

The Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom visited Astana and Almaty in May 1999. In discussions of the, by-then shelved, religion law amendments, he urged the President and other senior leaders to avoid infringing on religious liberties as they sought to address their concerns about religious extremism and political subversion. He also met with the Mufti, Russian Orthodox and Jewish clergymen, and representatives of other religious faiths.

[End of Document]

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Revised last: 11-09-1999