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Kazakhstan lawmakers weighing religious freedom restrictions

ALTAMY, Kazakhstan (BP)–Ten years ago, when Southern Baptist representatives began reaching out to the traditionally Muslim people of Kazakhstan, no one knew how long the hearts of the people or the doors of the country would remain open to their witness. Less than 10 Kazakhs claimed faith in Jesus, yet workers found hundreds and thousands ready to listen and learn.

Today, while hearts remain open, some Kazakhstan lawmakers appear ready to shut as many doors as possible to limit the spread of evangelical Christianity. According to Keston News Service, the latest draft amendments to Kazakhstan’s 1992 law on religion if adopted and fully implemented “will place the country among those former Soviet republics with the harshest climate for religious freedom.”

As many as three different drafts of restrictive laws are being proposed, one by Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice. “In this law that promises freedom of religion, what they are actually doing is promising freedom from religion,” a Southern Baptist worker explained.

The two biggest restrictions are: 1) an anti-proselytizing provision making it illegal for any religious group to seek to convert anyone else and 2) a requirement that all religious meetings take place in facilities owned by the religious organization. In other words, no renting of facilities or meeting in a person’s home would be allowed. This could stop churches from multiplying rapidly, since they would have to raise funds for buildings in order to reach status as official organizations.

Why the new restrictions? Some speculate Kazakhstan is guarding against Islamic fundamentalism, seeing it as a destabilizing force in a country that has enjoyed a peaceful eight years of freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ninel Fokina of Almaty Helsinki Committee told Keston News Service the second reason relates to Muslim and Russian Orthodox fears they are losing their flock and income to competing Protestants in this country of 14.9 million people located east of the Caspian Sea in Central Asia.

Southern Baptist representatives working in Kazakhstan, which is about one-third the size of the United States and shares borders with both Russia and China, say they are not entirely surprised at this turn of events. “With all of the things we have seen [God] do in our midst over the past few years, it should not surprise us that we are seeing forces rise up to oppose this significant work of God.” However, they aren’t ready to pack their bags and pull out.

“We don’t need to be sitting around wringing our hands wondering if we’re going to still be around next year; we need to be acting and living like we will be here until death or until Jesus Christ returns, which could happen at any time!” one representative wrote to colleagues.

“If you are sharing the gospel with those to whom the message is brand new, then share even more, for the time may be short. Such words are true no matter what laws are passed in this land,” he said.
Alexander is a Southern Baptist worker focusing on the Kazakh people group. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: ETERNITY AT STAKE, MILLIONS YET TO REACH and HELP TO KAZAKHS.