Kazakhstan has long been a model of religious tolerance in a region of the world known for harsh, restrictive policies. Recent developments signal that the era of freedom is coming to an end. The October 25, 2012 deadline has passed for religious organizations to re-register in compliance with the new law on religious activity signed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev on October 13th of last year.
In an effort to “bring order” to religious activity, the 1992 “Law on Freedom of Religious Confession and Religious Associations” regarding religious affairs was replaced last year by the new “Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations.” The removal of “freedom”‘ from the title was hardly incidental.
Only days after the deadline passed, the intended consequences of this move have become visible. One-third of all religious groups in Kazakhstan have been shut down. While members of religious groups such as Judaism, Buddhism, and Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity were allowed to re-register, 204 of the 666 Protestant churches throughout the country will be closed. These numbers do not include the already large number of congregations that have either refused to apply for registration out of principle, or that have been unsuccessful in obtaining registration despite their intention to do so.
All activities of religious groups that have not obtained registration from the authorities are now strictly prohibited. Worship services or prayer meetings of unregistered groups can and will be raided; participants and leaders will be subject to interrogation, detention and/or fines.
The following summary of requirements to re-register demonstrates the significant impact on the church.
- All religious communities must re-register. This highly bureaucratic procedure may result in only a fraction of all current communities receiving approval.
- Unregistered religious activity is completely banned.
- Compulsory censorship on religious materials is imposed. While the law states that everyone may acquire or own religious literature, importation and distribution of literature is restricted to registered communities. In-country production requires the full official name of the religious organization that produced it.
- New places of worship need approval from both local and central government officials.
- All founders of religious communities must be Kazakh citizens.
- Professional educational programs to prepare priests can only be done by regionally or nationally registered organizations. The implication for Protestants is that only the Russian Orthodox Church will be allow to conduct Christian religious training.
- Religious organizations should take steps to prevent underage youth from taking part in activities if one of the child’s parents or legal guardians objects. Religious activities related to children’s holidays, sports, creative or other leisure organizations, or camps are prohibited.
- Foreign citizens working as missionaries must have an invitation from a registered community in Kazakhstan; they also need to have a personal registration as a missionary. The permissions they thus acquire must be renewed annually.
- Social activities (such as work in hospitals, prisons or old people’s homes) can only be done by registered communities.
These restrictions effectively force the evangelical church in Kazakhstan underground. It is expected that the number of raids, detentions, interrogations, threats, and physical violence against Protestant believers will increase as they continue to courageously live for Christ.
Father, we lift up Your church in Kazakhstan as they enter an era of harsh restrictions. Bestow up the leaders wisdom and discernment as they determine the next steps. Give the people boldness to remain faithful to Your Word, no matter what. And give them opportunities to share the good news of Your gospel message to those around them. We pray that You will overrule in the government’s efforts to thwart Your work there, either by softening the hearts of the leaders or by causing Your church to grow and flourish underground. In the name of Jesus our sustainer, Amen.