for The Washington Times (USA) on Feb. 14, 2009
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev must now decide to agree or disagree with the Constitutional Council's declaration of the restrictive religious law as "unconstitutional".
Kazakhstan, a key U.S. economic partner in Central Asia, has dramatically reversed legislation curtailing religious freedoms after the measure and the jailings and expulsions of two religious activists caused an international outcry.
With little explanation, the country's constitutional council announced Wednesday that amendments to a religion law were "inconsistent" with Kazakhstan's constitution.
A spokesman for the Kazakh Embassy said Thursday that the amendments did not dovetail with international human rights law and were sent back to committee.
On Feb. 4, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assessed the law as not complying with human rights standards. The amendments bolstered the main religions in the country - Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church - whose leaders have been asking the government to crack down on religious minorities.
Human rights groups around the globe had complained about the amendments, which ratcheted up penalties for unregistered religious groups such as Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and increased from 10 to 50 the minimum number of members a religious organization must have in order for it to register.
Any community smaller than that could not teach, profess their religion, own property or rent public space for religious activities. Contributions from foreigners and anonymous donors were prohibited.
"We are pleased that Kazakhstan has finally listened to the international outcry about the draconian religious registration law," said Bennett Graham, international programs officer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It is encouraging to see the balance of powers play out in this budding democracy.
"However, it is unfortunate that the Kazakh government continues to imprison and persecute members of minority religions, including members of the Hare Krishna community, Baptists and members of the Unification Church."
In January, the oil-rich country west of China deported an American-born Hindu swami and jailed a member of the Unification Church.
Bhakti Bringha Govinda Swami of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the head of ISKCON operations in Kazakhstan since 1997, ran into problems on a return trip from Moscow. When he tried to re-enter Kazakhstan on Jan. 27, he was detained for 12 hours, then denied entry despite having a valid visa according to ISKCON's Web site.
Elizaveta Drenicheva, 30, a Russian and a member of the Unification Church, was sentenced Jan. 9 to two years in prison after Kazakh authorities infiltrated her meetings in Almaty, the cultural capital.
Zhanbolat Ussenov, press attache for the Kazakh Embassy, said the swami had been "carrying out missionary work without due notification" of the government before he left the country and thus could not be readmitted. As for Miss Drenicheva, she had committed "a crime against peace," he said.
"She taught that people should be divided into sinful and righteous groups - perfect and imperfect. This is a discrimination on a religious basis. Religious experts and political scientists studied her lectures. Our court found she demeaned people based on their social and religious status," he said.
Spokesmen for the two faiths and religious specialists said the two did nothing wrong.
"Simply teaching others about the doctrines of one´s faith as a missionary is no crime," said Joseph K. Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a Washington think tank.
When asked whether a government should be injecting itself into theological questions, Mr. Ussenov said, "We have a volatile environment and we have to take precautionary measures. This was a measure to protect peace and domestic stability in our country."
Doug Burton, a spokesman for the Unification Church in Washington, said the church has been registered in Kazakhstan since 1992 and that Miss Drenicheva is in a freezing jail cell with seven other women, subsisting on food delivered by friends.
"This is not typical procedure; usually such people are allowed to be free while the case is appealed," he added. "The government for the past two years has been steadily regulating, fining, harassing and jailing people of minority religious faiths. They're going to control religion as they are going to control all sectors of civil society."
The Washington Times was founded in 1982 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church. It is operated by a media conglomerate called News World Corp. that is led by one of his sons and operates several outlets, including the United Press International wire service and a television company that produces shows for the ESPN sports network.
The government of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev denies acting in a heavy-handed way, instead presenting itself as a beacon of religious tolerance. Mr. Nazarbaev invited dozens of religious and political leaders to Kazakhstan for World Congresses of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in 2003 and 2006. A third world congress is slated for July 1-2 in Astana, the political capital. The site is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, a futuristic five-story glass pyramid.
Additionally, Kazakhstan in 2010 will chair the OSCE, which is supposed to safeguard human rights.
Kazakhstan's back and forth on religious freedoms is awkward for the United States, which is eager to maintain a toehold in Central Asia for strategic and economic reasons. The U.S. wants to retain access to a base in next-door Kyrgyzstan used for transit of troops to Afghanistan. U.S. companies, primarily in the oil and gas sector, were responsible for a quarter of foreign direct investment in Kazakhstan in the first half of 2007, according to the State Department. U.S. firms have invested about $14.3 billion there since 1993.
The largest of the former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan considers itself far more advanced than neighboring "stans," such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which have levied worse restrictions on religion. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has labeled those two countries "egregious" violators of religious liberties.
The situation isn't much better in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. During 2008 in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, 147 mosques, numerous Protestant churches and the country´s sole synagogue were closed and sometimes demolished.
In November, Kyrgyzstan's parliament passed a law banning proselytism and distribution of religious literature. Involving children in religious organizations also would be against the law.
The Kazakhs say they sit on a potential religious tinderbox, with a population split evenly between Muslims (47 percent) and Russian Orthodox (44 percent), with the rest Protestants and other religions. Because of evangelical missionaries, the number of Protestant groups has vastly multiplied, Mr. Ussenov said.
In December, the Kazakh government released a lengthy statement saying it "has been widely demonized as a wicked oppressor deliberately discriminating against religious groups and suppressing religious freedoms in the country." In fact, the statement said, the country is struggling to deal with "insensitivities" by religious groups, such as the establishment of Muslim madrassas in the south, young men avoiding the military draft because of their religion and a case of a boy dying because his parents refused a blood transfusion for religious reasons.