Kazakhstan's credentials as a haven for religious freedom and tolerance are in the spotlight again, this time following a raid on a Protestant church where authorities reportedly found communion drinks spiked with an unidentified hallucinogen earlier this month. The bizarre find comes just a few weeks before religious groups in the country are to undergo mandatory re-registration.
Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that police raided Astana’s Grace Church on October 3. Back in July 2011, a local woman accused the church of harming the health of her daughter, congregation member Lazzat Almenova, and filed a complaint with the police. It’s unclear why authorities waited until now to make the swoop.
According to an October 10 report by Tengrinews, the raiding officers had found traces of hallucinogenic substances in a “red drink” served during services at the Grace Church. The psychoactive ingredients are said to induce a state of euphoria and relaxation.
The cops collected samples of the drink for analysis and took blood from 11 members of the congregation to test for any illicit substances. One parishioner said the volunteer donors included a mystery couple who had only been attending services for a month – seeming to suggest they’d been planted there to discredit the church.
“Extremist” literature also turned up during the search, with copies of a book called “Worthy Answers,” written by two Kazakh Protestant converts, Galymzhan Tanatgan and Zhomart Temir, confiscated along with computers, DVDs and some gold.
The police then used what Forum 18 called an “identical” warrant on October 12 to search the New Life Protestant church in the northwestern city of Oral, which is situated some 1,400 kilometers from Astana. That church has no apparent connection to the Grace Church.
The raids come ahead of an October 25 deadline – dictated by a 2011 law on religion – for all religious communities in Kazakhstan to re-register. The government's Agency of Religious Affairs is overseeing the process. Chairman Kairat Lama Sharif told a meeting of Kazakhstan's Senate on September 27 that about a third of the country's 4,551 religious institutions will be closed in the process.
Both of the targeted churches fear that the raids will be used as a pretext to shut them down, Forum 18 reports.
Kazakhstan likes to portray itself as a place at the center of international inter-faith dialog, hosting a biannual Congress of World and Traditional Religions. But recent events in Astana and Oral suggest that some religions are more welcome than others.