Muslim communities practicing outside the strict boundaries permitted in Kazakhstan are coming under increased pressure, an international watchdog says, as zealous officials present bizarre interpretations of a controversial new religion law.
One mosque in northern Kazakhstan said it had been told to conduct sermons only in the Kazakh language, Oslo-based Forum 18 reports, although the law contains no such provision.
The mosque facing the stringent linguistic demands is the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl (known as Petropavlovsk in Russian), which has just lost one appeal against a liquidation ruling. The Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir congregation is among many religious communities facing closure under a re-registration process that ended last October.
A 2011 religion law required all religious communities in Kazakhstan to re-register under stringent criteria within a year or face closure. The results were stark: approximately one-third of religious organizations did not receive re-registration, leaving 3,088 operating against the previous total of 4,551.
Petropavl’s 19th-century Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque, whose congregation includes members of the city’s Tatar minority, is among those appealing. It now faces an unusual demand from officials monitoring its sermons, currently held in three languages: Kazakh, Russian and Tatar. (Prayers are held in Arabic.)
“The authorities insist we have sermons only in Kazakh,” Forum 18 quoted an anonymous community member as saying. “But we hold sermons in the language of the people who attend the mosque so that they can understand what is said.”
The religion law contains no provision regulating what language communities can use.
Religious and community leaders in Russia’s Tatarstan have taken up the cause, which was also raised by human rights campaigner Vadim Kuramshin before he was arrested in Petropavl last October and jailed for 12 years on extortion charges in a controversial trial.
Forum 18 has documented the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities” since October, amid sometimes “questionable legal procedures.”
President Nursultan Nazarbayev used to proudly proclaim that Kazakhstan welcomed over 40 officially recognized faiths, but that number was slashed by about 60 percent during the re-registration process, from 46 to 17.
Critics say the religious law contravenes Kazakhstan’s international commitments to uphold freedom of conscience. However, Kayrat Lama Sharif, chairman of the government’s Religious Affairs Agency, insists 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.”