Kazakhstan Church Raids are a ‘Backward Step’
Recent raids on Christians’ homes and churches in Kazakhstan seem to signal a “backward step,” following the positive strides made by the Kazakhstan President in recent years, according to a religious freedom expert in the country. Kevin White, research fellow and country director at the Almaty-based Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, says long-standing President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s positive remarks about Protestant Christianity mean nothing if the country continues to pressure Christians. The latest developments are, he said, “a shameful repudiation of Kazakhstan’s progress, a very discouraging setback.”
On March 25, raids took place at five buildings belonging to Almaty’s New Life Pentecostal Church and the homes of six church leaders as believers gathered on Good Friday. Then, on Easter Monday, a raid was carried out on the church office, during which all workers were forced to leave the building, and police seized financial documents, 54 computers, and local currency amounting to around $280, according to Human Rights Organization Forum 18. Form 18 reported that the raids were been approved in January, so it was unclear why authorities had waited until Easter to carry them out. A criminal investigation of the church, which is accused of fraud, had begun almost a year earlier, but the church had not been informed and now denies any wrongdoing. The pastor, Maxim Maximov, has since been forced to flee the country with his wife Larisa.
An anonymous charity worker at Almaty said the pressure on Christians in Kazakhstan is increasing slowly and subtly. “It doesn’t feel like it’s ongoing,” he said. “It’s always here and there that something happens, but not all over and not all the time. I don’t know, maybe it’s to create fear. But it doesn’t seem like there’s always a big raid on every church. It’s been getting tighter since 2005, when they brought in the first law to tighten religious freedom. That was the beginning; the next law came in 2007and then in 2011 came the more significant law with a lot of restrictions and new registration required for all religious groups. It’s getting tighter and tighter, but slowly.” As for the New Life church, “everything goes on as it did before,” according to the aid worker. “The church is not closed; people are going on like nothing happened,” he said. “Of course it was a traumatic experience and some people are more afraid, but they are getting used to it, especially at this church, which already had a lot of problems because it’s really famous and they have a great impact. I think because they are so popular, they are probably a bigger target.”
After the raids at New Life church, around 25 Protestant pastors met to discuss how they might protect themselves, their congregations, and the Church in Kazakhstan in general. One of the pastors cautioned that “We have to be ready because the police could raid any of our churches at any time!” Kazakhstan is No. 42 on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
Father, we pray for Christians in Kazakhstan as they face new setbacks to religious freedom there. Protect them from new laws that add restrictions and from unfounded accusations. Thank You that church activity continues for now, but heal them from the trauma and fear that have resulted from the raids. Holy Spirit, teach them from Your Word what it means to live as pilgrims and sojourners on this earth. Give them a clear vision of the glory set before them and the task at hand of spreading the gospel of Christ to their nation, a nation in great need. In the name of Jesus, the light of truth and grace in this world of spiritual darkness. Amen.