A Bible bonfire is unlikely to boost Kazakhstan’s religious freedom credentials. After all, the country likes to tout itself as a bastion of religious tolerance. Yet as Astana enters new territory in its zealous attempts to control religion, it looks like officials are about to strike the match.
A court in northern Kazakhstan has ordered Christian literature including Bibles to be destroyed, Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog Forum 18 reports. One official has said the Holy Scriptures are likely to be burned.
The order to destroy religious books may be a first for Kazakhstan, Forum 18 said. A legal order last April to destroy religious works, including a Bible, was annulled.
The latest order concerns 121 Bibles and other religious books and leaflets belonging to Vyacheslav Cherkasov, a Baptist from the town of Shchuchinsk. He was slapped with a fine of around $575 after being arrested for distributing religious literature for free.
In his defense, Cherkasov cited his constitutional rights, but the court ruled that only two bookshops in Shchuchinsk are licensed to distribute religious literature. Last year local authorities throughout Kazakhstan issued decrees authorizing only named, licensed bookshops to sell religious literature, Forum 18 said.
Cherkasov is appealing, but if he fails the Bibles are likely to be “burnt,” Justice Ministry official Kulzhiyan Nurbayeva told Forum 18.
“[T]his is terrible, terrible,” the watchdog quoted prominent human rights campaigner Yevgeniy Zhovtis as saying.
“We know that religious literature has frequently been confiscated since the new Religion Law came into force in 2011,” Zhovtis said. “But I've never heard that religious literature is being destroyed, unless it is extremist.”
The religion law adopted in October 2011 took full effect a year later, when a deadline for religious groups to re-register under stringent new requirements expired. Approximately one-third of 4,551 religious organizations did not receive re-registration, leaving 3,088 operating. In the process, the number of faiths that Kazakhstan recognizes was slashed from 46 to 17. While a majority of Kazakhs identify as Muslims, there are large Christian populations. But 70 years of communist rule have left Kazakhstan extremely secular.
Since October, Forum 18 has documented the closures of “many Muslim and Christian religious communities,” amid sometimes “questionable legal procedures.” Officials zealously implementing the new law have taken some bizarre decisions, recently ordering one mosque in northern Kazakhstan to conduct sermons only in the Kazakh language, for example, although the law contains no such provision.