WASHINGTON (BP)–New draft laws tightening government control over faith groups are a threat to religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The Kyrgyz parliament has passed a new draft requiring a religious organization to have at least 200 members before it can legally operate, a dramatic increase from 10 members previously required. The measure is awaiting the signature of Kyrgyzstan’s president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, to take effect.
“If the president signs the law as passed by the parliament, religious freedom will be eroded in Kyrgyzstan, which used to enjoy the reputation of being most democratic of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics,” USCIRF chair Felice D. Gaer said in a written statement.
Kazakhstan has issued a similar draft law, which if passed would increase the minimum number of members of religious groups from 10 to 50 people and would reduce the number of religious communities allowed to operate in Kazakhstan.
The draft law also would prohibit unregistered religious communities from professing or teaching their religion, owning property or renting public property for religious activities, according to a USCIRF written document.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 56-state regional security organization, will meet in Kazakhstan this week to discuss the latest available draft at the very time the country’s parliament is voting on a final draft that has not been released for public examination.
“No matter what the outcome of the legislative process, the commission will watch closely as the law is implemented and as we prepare to make further recommendations on human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief,” Gaer said in a written statement.
In October, Gaer met with Kazakh representatives in Warsaw, Poland, to discuss the draft law. While the Kazakhs listened to the commission’s concerns, they reportedly did not provide the USCIRF access to the draft law or OSCE’s critiques.
USCIRF also is concerned about religious liberty in Kazakhstan’s neighboring countries: Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have laws that require religious communities to register through the government in order to operate legally. The U.S. State Department has named Uzbekistan one of its “countries of particular concern” and USCIRF has recommended Turkmenistan be added to that list.
The Turkmen government has agreed to reform its religion law, but USCIRF said the promises “ring hollow.” Tajikistan is currently in the process of developing its own law on religion.
“The U.S. should encourage the Central Asian governments to cooperate more fully with the OSCE to find ways to maximize rather than to legally hobble vital protections on religious freedom,” Gaer said. Kazakhstan is set to assume the OSCE chairmanship in 2010.
USCIRF is a bipartisan panel that advises the White House and Congress on the status of religious freedom globally. The White House selects three members of the commission, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Elizabeth Wood is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.