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Concern over new religious law in Kazakhstan affects Baptists

OSLO, Norway (BP)–As increased fines and pressure on unregistered Baptists continue in Kazakhstan, some religious observers are wary of a new law designed to “combat extremist activity” in the former Soviet country.

Kazakhstan law allows fines and other penalties toward religious organizations for “refusal to register” with the proper authorities. But some say it’s unclear whether the wording implies religious groups must register with the government.

“The very term ‘refusal to register’ is not entirely clear,” Roman Podoprigora, a legal studies expert specializing in religion, told Forum 18, an Internet news service focusing on persecuted Christians and other religious groups in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states.

“It is virtually impossible to show that believers really do refuse to register,” he said. “I personally believe that registration of a religious association is not compulsory.”

Even so, the frequency of government officials pressuring religious groups — especially Baptists — has increased. For instance, Asan Abylkhanov, the leader of a church in Karatau, was found guilty of “refusal to register” and was fined an amount equal to seven times the minimum monthly wage in his region.

In April, police raided a Baptist Sunday service in northern Kazakhstan and began filming all those present with a camcorder.

“They failed to respond to a request not to disrupt the service and to stop filming,” local Baptists told Forum 18. “They started pushing believers away when they tried to stop them from filming. … Then they brought witnesses into the room and drew up a document stating that a meeting had been held unlawfully.”

Baptists belonging to the International Council of Evangelical Christians/Baptists regard registration as unacceptable for ideological reasons, believing that it inevitably leads to state interference and restrictions on their rights, according to Forum 18.

A new draft law in Kazakhstan goes beyond “refusal to register” and addresses the issue of extremism. The law, currently being processed in the lower chamber of Kazakhstan’s parliament, is open to being used against religious communities the authorities dislike since no clear definition of extremism is given. Also, the word “religious” appears 10 times in the draft law.

Article 1 of the law defines extremism as “the organization and/or the carrying out of actions by a person, group of people or organization in the name of organizations that are formally recognized as extremist,” according to a July 27 Forum 18 report.

And according to Article 6, the state may conduct studies of the activity of religious groups and of “foreign citizens who engage in preaching and/or preaching any form of religious doctrine by means of religious educational activity.” The state may then recommend banning the activity of such organizations that are deemed in violation of the extremism law.

Furthermore, Article 6 says any religious organization that is considered extremist in another country will be considered extremist in Kazakhstan. This concerns Podoprigora and other religious observers because Christians are designated as extremists and banned from proselytizing in many Arab countries and in North Korea.

“Theoretically, the Kazakh prosecuting authorities may decide to close down religious communities on the basis of information received from the agencies of oppressive regimes,” Podoprigora told Forum 18.

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