News Articles

Baptists among Kazakhstan groups weathering government pressures

LONDON (BP)–Two young men who lead a small Baptist church in Kulsary, Kazakhstan, have protested against an illegal order by the district prosecutor banning the church, Keston News Service reported May 16.

Prosecutor Khagibula Kasymov ordered the Iman (Love) Church to stop all meetings, claiming that it could not function until it had state registration, despite the fact that Kazakh law does not ban activity by religious communities without registration — a frequent claim by officials across the former Soviet republic. When church leaders appealed to the regional prosecutor, he merely upheld the ban. Kulsary is located in the country’s Atyrau region on the Caspian Sea.

In a May 2 order, Kasymov declared the church illegal according to articles 8 and 9 of Kazakhstan’s religion law. The prosecutor claimed that according to the law any new religious community must be registered and a minimum of 10 members are needed to register. He gave the church leaders, Kurmangazy Abdumuratov and Askhat Alimkhanov, 24 hours to sign a statement that they would halt their “illegal” religious activity. They were told that if they refused they would be heavily fined, and jailed if they kept meeting. The two complied, although they subsequently complained they had not been given enough time to think over the implications.

The two church leaders submitted an appeal on May 6 to Atyrau regional prosecutor Mukhtar Zhorgenbaev, but the response they received May 15 merely upheld the original ban. They now intend to appeal to the country’s prosecutor general in the capital Astana.

The Iman Church is the second unregistered Christian house church to be closed down in Kulsary since the beginning of the year. The New Life Pentecostal church, led by pastor Taraz Somalyak, was likewise deemed illegal, banned from meeting and at least one member fined, after neighbors reportedly complained that it was causing noise and disturbing their peace. Keston has been unable to contact Somalyak.

An April 16 report from the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians/Baptists — which rejects registration on principle in all of the former Soviet republics where it operates — complained against the growing trend to pressure its congregations to register or close. It cited a warning issued by Judge A. Aenov and prosecutor R. Jumagulova on April 2 to pastor U. Rudenko in the city of Taldykorgan, 165 miles northeast of the former capital Almaty, that he was violating the administrative code by leading an unregistered religious group.

The report also cited pressure on a Baptist church in Kyzylorda in central-southern Kazakhstan. On April 10, Judge S. Jappasbaev of Kyzylorda city court levied a fine of 7,750 tenge ($53 U.S.) on Valeri Pak for violating Article 375 part 1 of the administrative code. The court “suspended” the church’s activity “until the elimination of the violation” — until it obtains registration — giving the church six months to obtain it.

Speaking May 16 to Keston News Service concerning the situation involving the Baptist church in Kulsary, prosecutor Kasymov denied claims the church had been banned. “We merely halted their activity until they get registration. They’re not banned,” the government official said. However, he declined to explain the difference.

Asked why their activity had been halted, Kasymov said it was because they had founded an association. “They can meet, but as soon as they found an association they must be registered,” he said. Asked which law prevents an unregistered religious association from functioning, Kasymov declined to answer, saying he would respond to questions in writing, and then put the phone down.

Abat Kenjagaliev, the official in charge of religious affairs at the Atyrau regional akimat (administration), said he was not familiar with the case. “I have never heard of the church there — there is only one Baptist church in Atyrau region and that’s in Atyrau itself,” he told Keston by telephone May 16. “All the region’s religious leaders came for a meeting in Atyrau on May 14 and no-one mentioned the case,” Kenjagaliev said. However, he denied that religious groups that do not have state registration can be banned. “They can meet, though only for individual services.” He said he would find out the details of the prosecutor’s ban.

Keston was unable to reach prosecutor Zhorgenbaev on May 16, as he was away on a work trip, and his deputy, Isemjan Dosanov, said he was not informed about the case, but promised to look into it.

Alimkhanov told Keston by telephone from Atyrau on May 16 that the Kulsary church has halted all its meetings in line with the ban. “We are abiding by the law and won’t meet until this is resolved,” the church leader said.

Between five and 13 people attended the church’s three meetings each week, but they only had six adults with all the documents needed to register. Abdumuratov and Alimkhanov explained that even with up to 30 members it is difficult to obtain the required 10 to sign the church statute because part of the registration process requires all who sign the application to be investigated by the country’s political police, the KNB, in which their employer is notified. They claim many people fear that signing the statute will cost them their job.

Church leaders have contacted lawyers in the former capital Almaty and the Almaty Helsinki Committee, who agreed that the prosecutor’s order violated Kazakhstan’s laws and constitution. They intend to appeal the decision, but need a local lawyer in Atyrau region to represent them. So far, they have not been able to find one prepared to take their case. Local lawyers fear taking on such a case could harm their career if they continue to work in the region.

The Baptist church in Kyzylorda had already experienced police harassment this year. On Feb. 19, a Kazakh-language service was raided by the police, who demanded that participants show their identity documents and write statements about the gathering. They confiscated all the Kazakh-language literature and a hymnbook and Bible in Russian, and took five of those present, including the leader of the service, Erlan Sarsenbaev, to the police station. According to the Baptists, police threatened them there, declaring: “During the Soviet times, believers like you were shot. Now you are feeling at peace, but we will show you.”

When Sarsenbaev refused to write a statement, police officers began to hit him on his neck and abdomen and head with a plastic bottle filled with water, the Baptists recounted. After telling the authorities that Sarsenbaev had recently recovered from meningitis, they stopped hitting his head. Forging his signature, police officers wrote the statement on his behalf.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have told Keston that their communities have faced similar pressure to register — or, in the case of communities that have registration, court action to revoke it.

The Kyzylorda regional court ruled on March 14 that Jehovah’s Witnesses activities in the city of Kyzylorda should be suspended, complaining the local branch had functioned without local registration with the justice administration for the past two years (despite registration on a national level since January 1997).

The ruling came despite a letter of Dec. 7 last year from the Kyzylorda regional prosecutor’s office confirming that under current law registration is not obligatory and that the constitution guarantees freedom to confess any faith alone or together with others. The prosecutor’s office changed its mind and brought the action on Feb. 27 to close the local Jehovah’s Witnesses branch. The court banned the group, ordered it to register and fined two of its leaders, Guljakhan Jarikova and Bakhyt Altaev.
Corley is a writer for Keston News Service. Copyright (c) 2001 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.

    About the Author

  • Felix Corley