OSLO, Norway (BP) — Authorities in Kazakhstan have fabricated a Baptist man’s conviction for offenses against the nation’s religion law, according to a Norway-based religious rights organization.
Forum 18 reported May 22 that a case against Vasily Stakhnev, a Baptist, has been fabricated involving religious literature distribution.
Unregistered religious activity is illegal in Kazakhstan, as is religious literature that has not passed state censorship. Members of the Baptist Council of Churches are easy targets for state oppression, as they stand on principle in refusing government registration.
Police raided the flats of Stakhnev and two other Baptists in Serebryansk in eastern Kazakhstan in late February, confiscating Christian booklets from all three flats.
Stakhnev told Forum 18 that neighbors acknowledged police pressure to sign statements that he had “stuck religious literature in the door handles or under the doors of their flats.”
One neighbor said that even though he told police he sometimes found religious literature at his door, he never said Stakhnev did it, and he was not even sure what he signed for the police. Stakhnev told Forum 18 he did not distribute Christian literature but kept it at his home.
Local police chief Serikhan Tozhigitov in Serebryansk told Forum 18 that the police “did not force anyone to sign anything.” But he added that “the law demands that they [the Baptists] be registered. They cannot distribute religious literature unless they register.” He also told Forum 18 that police will continue to raid the private homes of Baptists “if we find that they continue distributing literature”.
On April 27, Judge Anuarkhan Kalenov found Stakhnev guilty of violating a law that prohibits “carrying out of missionary activity by citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan, foreigners and persons without citizenship without registration (re-registration), as well as the use by missionaries of religious literature, informational materials of religious content or objects of religious significance without a positive assessment of a religious studies expert analysis,” Forum 18 reported.
Kalenov levied the maximum fine of 161,800 Tenge ($1,095 US), which Forum 18 described as a huge fine given Stakhnev’s low income. The verdict took no account of claims that “witnesses” signed statements under police pressure. Stakhnev will appeal the ruling.
Members of the Baptist Council of Churches tell Forum 18 that police have raided private homes where they meet for worship and that “normally without warrants, police film and question those present during the raids, and take statements against church pastors and ordinary members.”
Baptists told Forum 18 that on March 2, Police and Prosecutor’s Office officials in Rudny in northern Kazakhstan raided the home of another Baptist, Timur Aliyev, which is also used as a place of worship.
Twelve officials “arrived in five different cars, broke into the home and began to take photographs of not only the meeting hall but also all the living rooms,” Baptists reported to Forum 18. “They even looked in the refrigerator.”
Officials also recruited their own witnesses to sign police records, Forum 18 reported.
Muratkhan Zhumabayev, director of the regional Department of the Agency of Religious Affairs, told Forum 18 that officials will not take any measures against the Baptists they raided. “We are not against any religion,” he said. “But the Religion Law requires all religious communities to register officially.”
Kazakhstan adopted a law in October 2011 stripping previously registered “small religious groups,” including Baptists, of their registration and requiring them to re-register with at least 50 members. Pastors of Baptist groups that do not register have faced hefty fines, and in one case a judge outlawed a congregation.
When confronted by Forum 18 with the fact that the religion law’s restrictions contradict the Kazakh constitution’s statement that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of conscience,” Zhumabayev asked Forum 18 to submit its questions in writing and refused further discussion.
Compiled by John Evans, a freelance writer based in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).