Religious Freedom and Political Freedom in Kazakhstan

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The Republic of Kazakhstan’s constitution “defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion,'' however, only officially registered religious groups are ensured protection under the constitution. While Kazakhstan ostensibly considers itself a multiethnic country, a vast majority of the population fall between Hanafi School of Sunni Islam or Russian Orthodox Christianity. This leaves the 3-5% of the population that doesn’t adhere to those two beliefs at risk and vulnerable to governmental discrimination and injustice. There are steep penalties for those who take any form of action pertaining to unregistered religious groups - these actions can be anything from disseminating ideas to “incitement of religious discord… on social media.” There are few opportunities for these minority groups to protest the disadvantages they face as nearly all facets of the Kazakhstan government are corrupt. If the state of religious freedom within Kazakhstan is to move in a positive direction then are are multiple things that need to change. The people of Kazakhstan need to be given more freedom in all aspects of their lives, the language of the constitution needs to be amended so that there are no caveats giving the government the ability to pick and choose what religious groups it will support, and the Ministry of Social Development - the agency that oversees religious activity- needs to be given less authoritative power.

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Kazakhstan is a very young country comparatively speaking, only technically becoming the country it is today in December 1991 after it’s separation from the Soviet Union. At its founding, former Soviet official Nursultan Nazarbayev was put into power as the president and until March of this year remained Kazakhstan's only president. Although the country has held elections, Nazabayev had been secure in his position as he would run unopposed and would typically win over 90% of the vote. In 2007 Kazakhstan’s Parliament also approved an amendment that allowed him, but not future candidates, to seek re election indefinitely. In other words, the sham elections and the rubber stamp approval by Parliament has only served to impede any checks on his corruption and abuses. Although Nazarbayev recently resigned as president of the country, he signed a decree with Parliament approval, that not only made him chairman of the security council for life but “gave the Security Council significant constitutional powers,” essentially making him the de facto leader. Over the course of his presidency Nazarbayev had been accused of multiple acts of corruption, including committing human rights abuses, not providing free and fair elections, killing and torturing political protesters, and severely limiting the ability for competitive political parties to form. As a previous member of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan predictably shares many of the same values and political framework as Russia. This can be seen with the authoritarian policies that have been passed over the years like the previously mentioned implementation of the amendment that applied only to Nazarbayev, allowing him to serve an unlimited amount of terms as president. With such an authoritarian environment already in place it’s unsurprising that policies restricting civil liberties and expression have followed.

To further expand, there is much within the legal framework of Kazakhstan that could be improved. The FreedomHouse gives Kazakhstan just a 5/40 in political rights and civil liberties. This means elections are unfair, the electoral framework is implemented preferentially, it’s nearly impossible for opposition parties to be created or gain support, the government does not operate with transparency or with effective safeguards against corruption, minorities of all kind lack full political rights and electoral opportunities, and all people are void of free political choices. In addition, The Committee for Social Accord (CSA) which works under the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) is in charge of regulating the practice and policy of religion in the country and works closely with law enforcement to enforce its policies and convict violators of the law. In many cases minor violations of religious law lead to major charges and penalties. For example: “a Karaganda court convicted three men accused of being members of the Sunni missionary organization Tabligi Jamaat for disseminating ideas and recruiting members… the court sentenced them to three years imprisonment… a court sentenced a high school student to four years’ imprisonment for incitement of religious discord in connection with the creation of a group on social media and the dissemination of religious material it labeled as extremist… an Almaty court sentenced a Muslim to seven years imprisonment after he posted an interpretation of Quranic verses online.” It’s worth nothing though that according to Forum 18, an NGO based in Norway, there were 119 less administrative prosecutions in 2018 in comparison to 2017 for violators of religious law. While this appears encouraging, this same NGO also released a survey that noted “increasing numbers of prisoners of conscience jailed for exercising freedom of religion and belief; unfair trials and torture of prisoners; and making exercise of freedom of religion and belief dependent on state permission.” It is clear that the legislative and judicial aspects of religious law are corrupt and don’t fairly protect those of religious minorities as the constitution claims. Without political freedom citizens can never hope for religious freedom, thus it’s clear that the entire system surrounding religious law needs to be updated if civil liberties of Kazakhstanis are to be expanded.

As previously mentioned, the large majority of the population (around 90%) has affiliations between just 2 religious organizations. According to the national census “approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school… The CSA estimates 26 percent of the population is Christian, the great majority of whom are Russian Orthodox…” Other religious organizations including Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews, Buddhists, Scientologists, and others makeup the remaining population. Given nearly 3% of the population claims no religious affiliation, this leaves anywhere from 300 thousand (~2%) to 1 million (~5%) citizens, depending on which statistics are considered, with little to no protection under the law when it comes to their faith. While this may not seem like a significant number to some, Kazakhstan is a country of just under 19 million people - proportional to the United States this figure would be nearly 17 million people. Given this model, one concludes that there are hundreds of thousands of citizens in Kazakhstan who are unfairly represented and frequently face discrimination on account of their faith, face countless hurdles on the way to getting their religion officially recognized, and face imprisonment or torture if they choose to express their faith or spread its gospel. From a more local level, the Association of Religion Data Archives rated Kazakhstan as a 2 on a 0-3 scale, with 0 being the best and 3 the worst, regarding societal discriminations towards minority religions. In all other categories Kazakhstan received the worst scores possible, so discrimination from society is not quite as bad as discrimination by the government. Related, according to the U.S. Department of States report on Kazakhstan “The KIBHR and other civil society organizations reported that they received many letters containing citizens’ complaints about “nontraditional” faiths and their harmful impact on society... NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups,”

One of the largest issues in relation to religious freedom in Kazakhstan is that while religious organizations are protected under the law, that includes only registered organizations. There are 3 levels of which an organization can be registered and that is “national,” “regional,” and lastly “local.” The process for an organization to become registered is very particular, for instance on the local level “religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register.” Even if an organization adheres to these specific parameters the ruling also includes specific wording almost as if it’s there only to give the government the opportunity to deny registration on the basis of arbitrary things including but not limited to “inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CSA.” Religious minorities are further held by this set of laws because without recognition of at least the regional level, religious groups are not allowed to open educational institutions for training clergy, which has led to the creation of educational institutions for this purpose in only 3 organizations, those being the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam, Russian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. These regulations put non-traditional and minority religions in quite difficult circumstances, as they face potential prison time if they attempt to proselytize others or spread religious materials, yet require a certain amount of members to become registered organizations. This is arguably one of the main reasons for why Kazakhstan is lacking so much in religious diversity.

From a historical standpoint, one of the best ways to promote change in the government is to create protests. As of recently, groups have been able to organize, promote, or completely facilitate protests online via social media and other outlets. The issue that arises though in Kazakhstan is that media independence and freedom is almost non-existent. The Freedom House gives Kazakhstan a 0/4 in the section “Are there free and independent media” and 0/4 in “Is there freedom of assembly,” noting that any public gatherings require a permit which are often denied if pertaining to governmental protests, and “Media independence is severely limited in Kazakhstan. While the constitution provides for freedom of the press, most of the media sector is controlled by the state or government-friendly owners, and the government has repeatedly harassed or shut down independent outlets” As previously mentioned, these problems are not unique, and quite like the issues citizens face in Russia. Taking all of this into consideration, there is very little that the public can do to garner support for more freedom in not just religion, but all aspects of their lives, and therefore they must rely on outsiders, such as the United States for support.

United States officials have already met multiple times with Nazarbayev and MSD and CSA officials regarding the need for reform in religious law. U.S. officials raised concerns about a few topics including “the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the current religion law and criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom… the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups.” and “vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms, enabling authorities… to apply them in an arbitrary manner.” The United States also advocated and encouraged the government to consider respecting freedom of religion, and enabling all citizens to worship freely, citing the importance religious freedom plays in countering violent extremism. Despite the United States effort, Kazakhstan still claims it “has earned international recognition for its promotion of religious freedom and belief as well as its efforts to tackle intolerance and discrimination both on domestic and international levels.” and not much traction has been made for a more religiously free Kazakhstan. This is in line with a somewhat curious trend that’s been happening around the world for the past decade which is that religious restrictions are increasing according to the Pew Forum. More specifically this is a trend that is most commonly happening across Central Asia. One should note though, that most of the laws that implemented religious restrictions in Kazakhstan have been in place since the early 90’s, which gives Kazakhstan the chance to be a role model for other countries in the vicinity on the path to more religious freedom and diversity. While this would be admirable, it does not seem like Kazakhstan will be moving forward in that direction as “In September 2018, amendments to the law that would impose stricter controls on religious freedom were passed by the Senate… If they are approved, the amended law would further restrict attendance at religious services, prohibit religious teaching without state permission, and impose greater censorship on religious literature.” Regardless, there is at least the possibility that this amendment does not pass and that Kazakhstan begins to move in the opposite direction, but there is lots of work to be done.

Kazakhstan, like every other country in the world, is not perfect, but there are levels to imperfection and Kazakhstan severely needs some internal reworking if it ever hopes to become a respectable country known for its religious diversity, protection, and acceptance. While it may claim it has all of those things now, that statistics say otherwise. The Freedom House gives Kazakhstan an aggregate score of 22/100 regarding its freedom, which to give some context is a lower freedom rating than Algeria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Progress needs to start internally, with actual free and fair elections as is written in the constitution. From there, the citizens need to be given the chance to think for themselves instead of being censored and forced to align with the politics surrounding the small group of elites who rule the country. Once Kazakhstan actually becomes a democratic and secular state as it so claims, only then can the citizens hope to one day be able to freely practice, express, and share their faith. Until that happens Senator, then it is your job to sympathize with and fight for those without a voice, and see what can be done to help fight the injustices minorities face every day in Kazakhstan.



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