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‘Protestant Forum’ in Kazakhstan yields religious freedom progress

ALMATY, Kazakhstan (BP)–Christian workers in Almaty, Kazakhstan, say a Protestant Forum there March 27-28 may help stave off proposed restrictive laws governing religious freedom.

The forum, titled “The History, Current Situation and Future of the Protestant Movement in Central Asia,” gave national believers an opportunity to present clearly the distinctives of the emerging Protestant movement in Kazakhstan and its potential impact on Central Asian society.

According to organizers, the forum was the most unified cross-denominational effort in the history of the Kazakhstan Protestant movement. Believers from approximately 10 different churches and seminaries, spanning a broad range of Protestant traditions, participated.

“The main achievement of the forum is that the Protestant movement has made a good start toward becoming a religious movement that can constructively dialogue with the Kazakhstan government about its relationship with the state and its future role in society,” organizers wrote in a post-forum report.

The main disappointments of the forum were the non-attendance of the forum’s host, Kyrgyz writer Chengiz Aitmatov, and the relatively low level of participation by government officials. Also, the media coverage of the forum was negative and distorted.

However, meetings held since the forum have encouraged Protestants that many inside and outside Kazakhstan’s government are highly opposed to new proposed legislation that includes tight restrictions on churches and which makes proselytizing illegal.

Included in the opposition are several Muslim groups that do not want the national Kazakh Islamic leadership to impose its authority on them.

The day after the forum, one participant made comments on Kazakhstan’s Raxat TV saying people are concerned about the many cults and sects that are presently active in Kazakhstan, but at the same time “the new law is not good enough and it goes against the constitution.” He said a new law is needed to restrict the activity of all these “non-traditional” religious movements and to support “traditional” religions: Islam, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity.

While the message of the forum was one of religious freedom for all, the inclusion of Protestantism on a par with Islam and Orthodoxy is a significant breakthrough in public dialogue, Christian workers pointed out.

According to one Protestant leader in the country who recently met with government officials, one factor affecting government thinking on the proposed law may be a petition containing 35,000-plus signatures sent in by the Protestant churches in Kazakhstan. Possibly as a result of the petition, the latest version of the draft law appeared April 11 in the Kazakhstan Pravda. Previously, the draft had been kept secret, and even many in government had been unaware of the sweeping restrictions it advocated.

After seeing the published draft, workers in Kazakhstan said the latest version of the law has been considerably altered from its original form.

“The law [as published in the newspaper] is no longer a major threat…. All of the previous articles that placed restrictions on meeting places, religious education and proselytism apparently have been lifted,” workers reported.

Believers in Kazakhstan are asking people worldwide to continue praying that Kazakhstani government officials will support religious liberty.

“Many thanks to all of you who prayed for [the Protestant Forum]. People all across the globe lifted this event to the throne of God and he has answered. May God bless you as you continue to pray for the nations in the land of Kazakhstan to worship Christ as Lord,” the post-forum report stated.

A Southern Baptist representative in Kazakhstan added: “The events over the past month have truly been a movement of God in what can happen when the body of Christ in this country unites and responds to external threats. I believe God honors this. We have been able to present the beliefs of Protestants, and thus the truth of Scripture, to people on the highest levels of the government. That alone makes all this effort worth it.”