At Large

Kazakhstan Turns Ugly

The U.S. and Europe need to decide whether to reward this religious persecutor.

By 12.12.08

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Central Asia has escaped Soviet domination, but the newly independent states have replicated communist repression. Nations like Kazakhstan never really moved forward. Now it is retreating on religious as well as political liberty. The U.S. and Europe have to decide whether to allow the Kazakh government to take over leadership of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The Majilis, or Kazakhstan's lower house, has passed legislation punishing unregistered religious organizations, targeting churches (particularly Catholic and Orthodox) which cross territorial boundaries, effectively barring proselytizing, censoring religious materials, and requiring that children produce written permission from their parents to attend religious events. The Majilis acted shortly after OSCE representatives visited Astana to discuss the bill. Spokesman Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher plaintively explained: "We expressed our hope that our comments on the draft would be fully taken into account. We obviously hope that this still will be the case."

Good luck.

Kazakhstan is not the only "stan" moving towards greater repression. Kyrgyzstan's parliament has approved new legislation restricting religious liberty. Tajikistan's legislature is considering a similar measure limiting freedom of worship and conscience. Neither Turkmenistan nor Uzbekistan protect this most fundamental liberty which Americans take for granted. The attack on religious liberty "is a regional trend," says Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, an Oslo-based group which monitors religious repression.

But what makes Kazakhstan stand out is the fact that the government is set to take over as OSCE chairman in 2010. The vision is jarring: since the Cold War the OSCE's mission has emphasized promoting freedom in the newly liberated nations. As the Institute on Religion and Public Policy recently pointed out in a letter to the OSCE's governing Ministerial Council: "Moving ahead with the Kazakh Chairmanship in 2010 without any changes to this dangerous law undermines the human rights basket of the OSCE and the political commitments that make the OSCE a guarantor of fundamental rights."

More than the OSCE's reputation is at risk. Giving Astana a pass by allowing it to take up such a high-profile position would encourage other would-be persecutors. International embarrassment remains a powerful tool to deploy against violators of human rights. The West must consistently demonstrate through its words and actions that religious liberty is no less important than political freedom.

Kazakhstan is a largely Muslim state, though ethnic Russians and smaller groups of Ukrainians and Belarusians trend Orthodox. Like those of most authoritarian states, the Kazakh constitution formally provides for freedom to worship. But Astana fears non-establishment groups outside of its control.

Churches must register with the central authorities as well as local governments. Registration can be denied or suspended. Lacking government approval, churches cannot even hold services, let alone conduct financial activities or engage in media promotion. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom notes that "some Protestant groups and other groups viewed by officials as non-traditional have experienced long delays" in winning official registration. Astana is particularly sensitive about foreign proselytizing. Reports the State Department: "All literature and other materials to be used to support missionary work must be provided with the registration application; use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal."

Registered groups generally operate without restriction. Anyone else, however, is a government target. The authorities routinely break up home churches -- today's analog of the First Century church -- and deport any foreigner with the temerity to engage in religious activity without declaring himself to be a missionary. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has denounced missionaries, calling for legislation "to stop destructive phenomena such as religious radicalism and extremism."

OFFICIAL KAZAKH ATTITUDES toward religious liberty turned more hostile last year. The Justice Ministry declared that "transferring to other religious faiths represents treason to one's country and faith." Attacks on unregistered groups increased. Jehovah's Witnesses and Hare Krishnas suffered significant harassment even after registering. Then came President Nazarbaev's outburst. After that the official media broadcast and published stories critical of non-traditional groups. Notes the State Department: "Several religious freedom advocates maintained that the negative media stories were sponsored by the government as part of its program to educate the public about the purported dangers of religious extremism in the country and to lay the groundwork for amendments to the religion law." Forum 18 speaks of "a climate of officially-incited intolerance of religious minorities."

Now the latest bill is moving forward. The requirements are nominally objective, but almost certainly would sharply restrict the free exercise of religious faith. The legislation, reports State, would "establish more restrictive procedures for registering religious organizations; require all existing religious organizations to reregister; prohibit smaller groups from preaching or teaching outside of the group, producing religious literature, or maintaining worship facilities open to the public; and require local government authorization for the construction of a religious facility." Penalties for violating religious restrictions would be enhanced. Forum 18 observes that "the authorities seem particularly keen to deprive minority religious communities of places of worship and other buildings."

It is hard to imagine parliamentary approval of the new legislation without President Nazarbaev's support, but he still could veto the measure. As Joe Grieboski, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy points out, the proposal "is completely inconsistent with fundamental human rights as it contravenes the principles of equality and non-discrimination."

Even if the legislation becomes law, Kazakhstan won't be the worst religious persecutor: countries like North Korea and Saudi Arabia are in a category of their own. Nevertheless, the measure represents a major step backwards.

And religious liberty should not be seen as merely an afterthought for a liberal society. Observes Grieboski: "[A]s history has shown us, religious freedom has direct bearing on every aspect of society. Freedom of religion or belief is arguably the most fundamental human right." A government unwilling to respect freedom of conscience is unlikely to respect human life and dignity. Indeed, protection of religious liberty represents the proverbial canary in the mine, signaling a government's (and sometimes a people's) willingness to protect political and economic freedom.

Safeguarding religious liberty may never be the highest priority of Washington. But in the case of Kazakhstan America and Europe can easily strike a blow for freedom of conscience. The OSCE, to which the U.S. belongs, should announce that Astana will not chair the organization unless the Nazarbaev government rejects the new restrictions and reverses the larger hostile environment behind them. If the Western allies instead reward Astana, notes Grieboski, they risk compromising "the integrity and authority of the OSCE and its dedication to religious freedom and corresponding human rights."

(Mr. Bandow is the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.)

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).