KAZAKHSTAN: Muslim Board Islamic monopoly, Catholic exemption
By Felix Corley, Forum 18 News Service , and
Mushfig Bayram, Forum 18 News Service
Kazakhstan’s Muslim and Catholic communities have been given different treatment to other communities in state decisions on whether they are allowed to exist, Forum 18 News Service has found. All Muslim communities must be part of the state-backed Muslim Board. No independent mosques or Shia Muslim communities have been given state permission to exist. Neither have any Ahmadi Muslim communities, all of whom having been forcibly closed by the state. The Ahmadis have only applied for re-registration for one of their communities, in Almaty. The Muslim Board’s spokesperson told Forum 18 that all Islamic communities “must be Hanafi Sunni Muslim”. “We don’t have other sorts of Muslims here”, he added. Asked about Shia mosques or mosques of other schools of Sunni Islam, he replied: “There aren’t any.” Explaining different treatment for Catholics under an Agreement with the Holy See, a Justice Ministry official stated that international agreements override the Religion Law. But he did not explain why this reasoning does not also apply to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose provisions would abolish most of the Religion Law including its provisions on compulsory state registration to exercise human rights.
In contrast to all other religious communities, Kazakhstan’s Muslim and Catholic communities have been given different treatment while the Religion Law’s compulsory re-registration process is proceeding, Forum 18 News Service has found. All Muslim communities must be part of the state-backed Muslim Board, with no exceptions. No non-state-backed or non-Hanafi Sunni Muslim communities have succeeded in gaining re-registration. Catholic communities were exempted from the re-registration process because of an Agreement between the Holy See and Kazakhstan.
The differential treatment of Muslims and Catholics compared to all other religious communities comes despite a commitment in Article 3, Part 2 of the 2011 Religion Law that all religious communities are equal before the law. Government interference in the Muslim community is also in defiance of Religion Law Article 3, Part 1, which declares that “The state is separate from religion and religious associations” (see F18News 23 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1617).
National and regional organisations
The state-backed Muslim Board was the first community to gain re-registration as a national organisation, being given its certificate on 19 June. The Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Region was the second, receiving its certificate on 17 October. Kanat Myktybaev, of the Justice Ministry’s Registration Service and Provision of Legal Assistance Committee (which is responsible for registration) in the capital Astana, told Forum 18 on 19 November that these are the only two re-registered national organisations.
Myktybaev said that the Jehovah’s Witness national organisation had been refused continuation of such status after an “expert opinion” from the ARA. He declined to provide Forum 18 with a copy of the “expert opinion”.
Under Religion Law Article 12, Part 4, national religious organisations need at least 5,000 adult citizens from all regions of the country, the capital and all major towns (with at least 300 members in each of those territories). It also needs branches all over the country. Under Article 12, Part 3, regional religious organisations need 500 adult citizens who belong to at least two different registered local religious organisations (each with at least 250 adult citizens) located in two different regions or main towns (see F18News 23 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1617).
Despite gaining national status, the Muslim Board suffered a fall in the number of its communities from 2,811 at the beginning of 2011 to 2,228 branches on 25 October 2012, according to ARA figures. ARA figures also claim large falls for many other faith communities (see F18News 21 November 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1768).
Myktybaev of the Justice Ministry added that three organisations – all of them Russian Orthodox dioceses – had received re-registration as regional organisations. He said Syn Bokym Protestant Church was the only other organisation to apply for regional status, and that the government’s Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA) is reviewing this.
Only regional and national registered religious organisations are allowed to, under Religion Law Article 13, Part 3, train clergy in institutions established – with state approval – by religious organisations. Under Article 13, Part 3, they are allowed to establish “professional educational programmes to prepare priests”. It remains unclear whether religious education not involving training of “priests” will be allowed. The definition of “priests” also – as with so much else in the Law – lacks clarity, allowing room for arbitrary official decisions (see F18News 23 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1617).
The Religion Law gave all religious communities one year to apply to be re-registered, with a deadline for lodging applications of 25 October 2012. Registration and re-registration is under the control of the Justice Ministry, but there must also be a positive “expert analysis” of the community from the government’s Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), headed by Kairat Lama Sharif. Article 374-1 of the Code of Administrative Offences bans leading, participating in or financing an unregistered, halted or banned religious community or social organisation, and a Religion Law addition to Article 376 gives the ARA the right to prepare cases under Article 374-1 for prosecution (see F18News 23 September 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1617).
Many religious communities have variously described the re-registration process to Forum 18 as “complex”, “burdensome”, “arbitrary”, “unnecessary” and “expensive”. They have also noted that it breaks Kazakhstan’s international human rights obligations. Few were prepared to give their names when making criticisms, for fear of state reprisals (see F18News 21 November 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1768).
Only one Muslim organisation allowed
The Justice Ministry – backed by the ARA – will not allow re-registration applications by non-Muslim Board Muslim communities. This yet again violates Kazakhstan’s international human rights commitments to implement the right to freedom of religion or belief of all. But the decision is in line with extremely senior state officials’ decisions to control the Board and through the Board control all publicly allowed expressions of Islam (see F18News 29 November 2011 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1640).
In early April the Muslim Board approved a new Statute, endorsed at a 14 April meeting at which ARA Chair Lama Sharif spoke, which specified that the Muslim Board would register as one legal entity, with all mosques in the country being deemed to be its branches. The Muslim Board is the only religious community given such a state-backed monopoly.
One independent Muslim community, which asked not to be identified, told Forum 18 on 21 November that it is still awaiting a decision on its re-registration application. “Officials say we must be part of the Muslim Board, but we uphold our right to be independent. We are law-abiding, and the Religion Law specifies that religious communities are ‘voluntary groupings of citizens’. That’s exactly what we are.”
State officials and the Board have also long been trying to close mosques which have traditionally catered to worshippers of one ethnic background (see F18News 4 November 2010 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1506).
All Ahmadi Muslim mosques throughout Kazakhstan have been closed (see F18News 24 April 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1692). ARA Press Spokesperson Svetlana Penkova told Forum 18 on 5 November that she “cannot guarantee that the Ahmadi Community will be re-registered. But I can guarantee that whatever decision the ARA will make will be based strictly on the Law” (see F18News 5 November 2012 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1763).
The Ahmadis have applied for re-registration for just one of their communities in the country, in Almaty. Speaking at the Second Forum of Religious Scholars of Kazakhstan on 15 November, ARA Chair Lama Sharif of ARA stated that the Ahmadis were among the communities for which his agency had given negative “expert opinions”. On 19 November the community received a response from the regional Justice Department that “the statute did not qualify under the expert opinion”. The community is now seeking legal advice, they told Forum 18 on 21 November.
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