Imagine the authorities issuing bans against your church simply because the congregation you belong to sang a song. It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. But simply meeting to sing in the wrong place or at the wrong time can get you into serious trouble with those who hold power in Kazakhstan. Recently, courts have banned two churches from meeting simply because they met and sung without gaining the proper permission.
A court in Almaty – the largest city in the country – fined the Protestant Source of Life Church and banned it from 13 April to 12 July because it had been meeting in a venue away from its registered address, even though the church had informed the authorities. An official from the Religious Affairs Department said they will ‘fine them again’ if the church continues to meet.
Meanwhile in Oskemen, eastern Kazakhstan, the New Life Protestant Church was banned from meeting for three months because its members sang religious songs at a summer camp. The ban has not yet come into force as the church is appealing to East Kazakhstan’s Regional Court.
According to Forum 18, the authorities claimed that the church failed to obtain written permission to conduct a service at the camp. The judge ruled that ‘singing religious songs constituted a religious service and that the church was therefore responsible for holding a service in a location not approved by the authorities’.
Other branches of the New Life Church have already attracted the attention of the authorities: the Almaty branch of the church was subject to a series of raids in 2016, during which police seized financial documents, computers and local currency.
The court invoked Article 490 of Kazakhstan’s Administrative Code which punishes violations of the country’s Religion Law. Under the law, first time offences automatically attract a three-month ban. Further ‘offences’ can result in greater fines and even permanent bans. Worryingly, according to Forum 18, amendments are being introduced in parliament which, if passed, will allow courts to impose the higher fines and permanent ban even for first offences.
Kazakhstan bans all exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission. This means that religious communities that do not want, or are unable, to gain state registration are in effect banned and risk punishment if they continue to meet for worship. Many churches that exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief face frequent raids, fines, confiscations and travel bans.
Such court-ordered bans violate Kazakhstan’s international human rights commitments. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—to which Kazakhstan is a party—guarantees the right to freedom of religion or belief.
On 4 September, Forum 18 asked Aliya Abeldinova, deputy chair of the Religious Affairs Committee (part of the Religion and Civil Society Ministry in the capital Astana), how such bans on entire communities comply with Kazakhstan’s international human rights commitments. They also asked why the new proposed amendments would allow such bans to be imposed permanently even for a first ‘offence’. She refused to answer any questions on this and put the phone down.
Kazakhstan is ranked at number 43 on the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List. Persecution is mainly caused by a repressive government seeking to control all areas of life.
Religious freedom is already restricted by new legislation, and the government is using the threat of militant Islam to restrict more areas of freedom and increase its control over society. Converts to Christianity from a Muslim background bear the brunt of persecution from state, family, friends and community. Churches that are active in evangelism suffer from raids, threats, arrests and fines – especially if a church has not been registered.
Source: Forum 18
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