Kazakhstan is closing down places of worship as a controversial law on religion takes effect.
The state is enforcing closures of religious communities through the courts, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports: Sometimes “liquidation decisions are arbitrary and flawed, often taken amid questionable legal procedures.”
The shutdowns come after a deadline passed this October for all religious groups to reregister, established by a law governing religious affairs adopted in 2011. Forum 18 said religious communities had complained that the reregistration process was “complex,” “burdensome,” “arbitrary,” “unnecessary,” and “expensive.”
The watchdog has recorded the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities.” One group, south Kazakhstan’s Light of the World Pentecostal Church, was abolished for giving “false information” in its application because one of its founders died while it was applying to reregister. Representatives of one independent mosque told Forum 18 it had been closed for “failing to give extensive information about its beliefs” during a court hearing of which it was unaware. Members of a Protestant church wishing to remain anonymous put the closure of their group down to its membership being “predominantly made up of ethnic Kazakhs.” (Most ethnic Kazakhs are Muslims.) Officials at the government Religious Affairs Agency declined to comment to Forum 18.
When the reregistration deadline passed in October, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the Religious Affairs Agency, said the number of recognized religious communities had been slashed from 4,551 to 3,088, and the number of faiths recognized by the state reduced by about 60 percent, from 46 to 17.
The religion law, described by Lama Sharif as aimed at increasing government sway over religious matters, sets minimum membership requirements for religious groups and contains strict provisions covering the vetting of religious literature and the training of clergy. It contains no ban on wearing the hijab, although it is officially discouraged, but it does controversially prohibit prayer in state buildings.
Critics say the law contravenes Kazakhstan’s international commitments to uphold freedom of conscience, but Lama Sharif insisted that Kazakhstan -- where about 70 percent of the population identifies itself as Muslim and another 25 percent as Orthodox Christian -- “is for the entire world an example of interfaith harmony.”