Authorities in northern Kazakhstan are disbanding a community of Muslims, believed to be the last independent Muslim congregation in the country.
Officials from a court-appointed Liquidation Commission arrived at the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque in the city of Petropavl on February 4, Oslo-based religious freedoms watchdog Forum 18 reports.
The mosque “is to be handed over to another [unspecified] religious organization,” Forum 18 quoted Marat Zhamaliyev, the deputy head of North Kazakhstan Region’s Finance Department, as saying.
The closure comes after the community that worships at the mosque failed to gain the official registration required under a controversial law on religion passed in 2011, which critics have called over-restrictive. The legislation controversially prohibits prayer in state buildings (including government offices, educational establishments, and military facilities), sets strict registration requirements for religious groups, and allows authorities to vet religious literature.
Forum 18 believes the 162-year-old mosque “may possibly be the last remaining publicly accessible mosque independent of the state-backed Muslim Board,” which is responsible for licensing mosques and regulating their activity.
The watchdog says that a community still exists at the mosque, regularly holds prayers there, “and intends to continue to exist.”
“We're not liquidating the mosque, we're liquidating the community,” Zhamaliyev said in response.
“No one is banning people from praying,” he added. “People can go to pray in the new community.”
Since the law was enacted, places of worship operating without registration have been regularly raided by police. In 2013 alone, Forum 18 documented cases of over 150 people fined under the law for worshipping outside state-sanctioned religious institutions.
The watchdog says that Muslims in Kazakhstan – where about 70 percent of the population identifies itself as Muslim and another 25 percent as Orthodox Christian – “are subjected to even tighter state controls than members of other religious communities.” The Muslim Board recognizes only Hanafi Sunni Muslim communities, and no independent mosques or Shia or Ahmadi Muslim communities have been granted registration to worship legally.
Unlike other faith groups, Muslim communities also face language restrictions stipulating that they must worship in the Kazakh language (the mosque in question has been holding sermons in Russian and Tartar). Moreover, they cannot have an ethnic affiliation in their name – which the Din-Muhammad Tatar-Bashkir Mosque does.
Officials deny any infringements of the right to worship freely, and hold Kazakhstan up as a bastion of religious tolerance.