*Communion in Central Asia
Four months after his arrest for allegedly “harming the health” of a member of his congregation, a Kazakh pastor has been told he is to be detained for an additional month.
Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev, pastor of Grace Protestant Church in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, was arrested May 17, and charged with the psychological manipulation of Lyazzat Almenova through the use of a “red-colored hallucinogenic drink.” He is to be held until at least Oct. 17, two days before his 67th birthday, pending the results of a psychiatric examination.
After attending a church meeting, Lyazzat Almenova (34), was taken to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with a high risk of paranoid schizophrenia. It is believed that Lyazzat Almenova had a history of mental and psychological problems for a long period of time, prior to attending Grace Church. Though Almenova told Forum 18 News that her pastor was “totally innocent,” the state arrested Kashkumbayev after Almenova’s mother claimed her daughter’s attendance at the church had damaged her mental health.
Other members of the congregation maintain that the drink was a harmless red tea used as a non-alcoholic alternative for the church’s Holy Communion to represent the traditional red wine, symbolic of the blood shed by Christ.
The investigation against the pastor began two years ago in July 2011 when Almenova’s mother first submitted her complaint. A raid was carried out at the church in October 2012. Both before and after the raid, a number of articles were written about the pastor, attacking the church for using hallucinogens.
The pastor was moved to a psychiatric ward in Almaty on July 19 and ordered to remain there until Sept. 17 to undergo a psychiatric examination. He was released early from the ward on Sept. 8 only to be moved back to prison.
The day before he was moved into the ward, Kashkumbayev wrote a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, stating that he planned a hunger strike as a protest against treatments he claimed would render him a “vegetable.”
“Though I am 67, and I cannot boast of ideal health since I had a serious heart attack in 2011, with chronic otitis of both ears, varicose veins in my legs, chronic bronchitis, chronic gastritis, I am psychologically healthy,” wrote Kashkumbayev. “[But] it will not take much for the authorities to make me a vegetable… I am begging you to protect me.”
His lawyer warned him that he could suffer further ill health as a result of his hunger strike, but the pastor replied that he was even willing to go without water in an attempt to win his freedom through awakening the support of the international community.
After three days of fasting, however, he was transferred to the psychiatric ward, where he apparently ended his fast. Neither Kashkumbayev’s family nor his lawyer was allowed access to him during his time in the psychiatric ward, nor were they given any knowledge about his health.
His son Askar told World Watch Monitor that in the last 10 days he has been able to visit his father; however, the family is still awaiting permission for the pastor’s wife to be allowed to see her husband. Kashkumbayev’s sons have been forced to pay $60-70 for the privilege of giving parcels of food and clothes to their father.
Askar said he did not know why his father had been arrested, but that it could be as a warning to other Kazakhs not to change religions. Last month, Askar told Forum 18 that the authorities were trying to humiliate his father and damage the image of the church.
“My father did not plan on making people sick and did not harm anyone. Our only hope is the support we can get from the wider public and international community. The local news media publish materials against my father. It looks like the authorities are intent on punishing my father,” he said.
The Ukrainian Union of Evangelical Churches wrote a letter to the Ambassador of Kazakhstan in Ukraine, saying, “Our Union is deeply concerned with the situation. We provide doctrinal practice similar to the faith of pastor Kashkumbayev, and our faith practices are guaranteed by the Constitution of Ukraine.”
Like many Christians in Kazakhstan, Pastor Bakhytzhan is from a Muslim background. One of his church members recently explained the situation facing Kazakh believers, “In Kazakhstan, if you are Kazakh, it means that you are a Muslim. And if you’re Kazakh and a Christian, then something is wrong with you.”
Father, we lift before Your merciful presence this Kazakh pastor, suffering unjustly in prison. We pray for his health and comfort, and for justice to be accomplished, that all charges would be dropped. We pray for his family and his congregation that they might take heart, trusting in You and not giving in to fear. We pray especially for Kazakh Christians, former Muslims, who suffer the fear of persecution. May they see Your hand at work in their midst in great power and authority that Your church might grow not only in number, but also in faith and zeal. In the name of Jesus who reigns over all the earth, Amen.