End mandatory religious groups' registration, UN expert urges Kazakhstan

(Photo: REUTERS / Shamil Zhumatov)People watch as a woman takes a dip during Epiphany celebration at the Bolshaya Almatinka river bank in Almaty, Kazakhstan, January 19, 2014. Orthodox Christians celebrate the religious holiday of Epiphany according to the Julian calendar on January 19.

Kazakhstan's government should end the mandatory registration of religious communities which has led to situations of legal insecurity affecting especially small groups, says the U.N.'s special expert on freedom of religion and belief.

"Religious pluralism is a hallmark of Kazakhstan's society traceable far back in history and perhaps even pre-history," United Nations Special Rapporteur Heiner Bielefeldt said in Astana on Friday.

"Today two big confessions - Sunni Islam (of the Hanafi school) and Russian Orthodox Christianity - shape the religions landscape together with a number of smaller communities," said Bielefeldt in his statement.

The smaller communities included Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh Day's Adventist, New Apostolic Church, Pentacostals, Church of Grace, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Shias, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Baha'is, Buddhists, Scientologists, Hare Krishna adherents and others.

Sunni Muslims make up about 65 percent of 18 million people in Kazakhstan, which was until 1991 part of the Soviet Union.

Bielefeldt was speaking at the end of the first visit to the country by an independent expert mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council to monitor freedom of religion or belief worldwide.

"Some of the people I talked to during my visit invoked specifically nomadic traditions of hospitality and open-mindedness when explaining the accommodation of different religious communities in Kazakhstan today," said Bielefeldt.

"Conversion from one religion to another or to atheism is possible without any State interference. While missionary activities are monitored by the State, changing one's own religion does not incur any State imposed sanctions.

"However, given wide overlaps between religion and ethnicity, a change of one's inherited religion may also be perceived as a rupture away from one's own ethnic and family background, thus possibly leading to social ostracism," stated Bielefeldt.

The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University notes that, "Although its constitution proclaims the country a secular state and guarantees all citizens freedom of religion, Kazakhstan maintains legal and government restrictions on religious organizations and practice.

"All religious groups must register with both the central government and any local government presiding over areas where members intend to organize."


The Berkley Center says the "robust Russian Orthodox" minority" make up about 25 percent of Kazakhstan's citizens.

The 2011 Law on Religious Associations requires all religious communities in Kazakhstan to obtain registration status in order to exercise collective religious functions.

"Those communities, which fail to meet the threshold set by the law or prefer not to be registered, live in legal insecurity which adversely affects their freedom of religion or belief," Bielefeldt warned.

"Freedom of religion or belief inherently belongs to all human beings and does not require State's approval."

Still, Bielefeldt acknowledged the active role played by the Kazakhstani authorities in promoting peaceful interreligious coexistence in the country. He noted that the secular constitution receives general approval by the country's population, and public demands to introduce a religious State remain very rare.

"In this context, I sometimes came across restrictive interpretation according to which secularism becomes a tool for confining manifestations of freedom of religion or belief to pre-defined territorial spaces," Bielefeldt stated.

"An open discussion of the meaning and implications of secularism might also help to overcome restrictive attitudes within the administration and within law-enforcement agencies," he recommended.

During his 12-day visit, the human rights expert met with a wide range of government officials and agencies, as well as representatives of religious or belief communities and civil society organizations in Astana, Almaty and Karaganda.

Following his visit, the Special Rapporteur will present a report containing his conclusions and recommendations to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

Leaders of Kazakhstan's largest religious groups: Muslim, Russian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholic and Jewish communities, report high degrees of acceptance and autonomy says the Berkley Center.

"Protestant Christian groups are an exception, and the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians and Baptists, which claims about 1,000 members, refuses to register to protest the law" the center says on its website.

Religious education is banned in public schools, and religiously motivated home schooling is illegal.

"Children may enroll in after-school religious education offered by registered religious organizations, which must clear their programs with the Ministry of Education" says the Berkley Center.

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