FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN KAZAKHSTAN

The upcoming visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Kazakhstan at the official invitation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, September 22-25, 2001, is once again drawing the world's attention to Kazakhstan, its policies and everyday life.
Kazakhstan is a modern secular state that promotes ethnic and religious diversity and tolerance.
Freedom of religion is one of first priorities addressed in Kazakhstan's Constitution.  In practice, this has contributed to interethnic and inter-religious harmony among the established faiths in Kazakhstan, from ethnic Kazakhs, who are predominantly Sunni Muslim, to Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, various Protestant denominations and Kazakhstan's long-standing Jewish community, as well as other faiths.  Kazakhstan has had neither religious nor ethnic conflicts within its territory since independence, an exception in the region.
Kazakhstan's tradition of religious tolerance and diversity is part of an historical continuum; the country has been a residual safe harbor for many established religious communities.  Kazakhstan is a secular state and is concerned about the rising tide of religious extremism/terrorism in the region.
In ten years, the number of religious groups has grown 350 percent with nearly 2,300 today--half of which are non-Muslim.  3000 religious communities representing 46 faiths peacefully coexista remarkable fact for this region.
Kazakhstan openly welcomed the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Republic in September 2001 and the Vatican's appointment of a Roman Catholic bishop in Southern Kazakhstan.
President Nazarbayev has been vocal and public in embracing religious plurality in interfaith settings, mindful of Kazakhstan's large Muslim, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish and other communities. 
Responding to concern in the West and in the United States in particular, regarding the proposed amendments to the Law 'On Religious Freedom and Activity of Religious Organizations', in June 2001 the Government officially recalled the proposed legislation from the Parliament.
Over 250 missionaries presently work in Kazakhstan.  Missionary work, while foreign to Kazakhstan's and Turkic cultures generally, is freely permitted by law. In April 2001 the Government abolished the previously existed 'Rules of accreditation of foreign citizens and persons with no citizenship engaged in missionary activity'. The only requirement to the missionaries is to respect the laws of the country and to conduct their activity in a transparent and reasonable manner respectful to our citizenry.
Below you will find additional and more extensive information about Kazakhstan and its religions.

RELIGIOUS      ROMAN CATHOLICS       VATICAN: THE HOLY SEE
ASSOCIATIONSIN KAZAKHSTAN

CATHOLIC PRESS CENTER OF VISIT OF JOHN PAUL II  IN KAZAKHSTAN

2000 ANNUAL REPORT ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM:
KAZAKHSTAN
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000

KAZAKHSTAN COUNTRY REPORT
By National Conference of Soviet Jewry, 2000-2001

STATEMENT OF RABBI YESHAYA COHEN,
CHIEF RABBI OF KAZAKHSTAN, TO U.S. CONGRESS, JULY 18, 2001

KAZAKHSTAN'S JEWS CELEBRATE, AUGUST 10, 2001

New synagogue opens in Pavlodar city

ARTICLES ABOUT RELIGION IN KAZAKHSTAN AND CENTRAL ASIA



Roman Catholicism in Kazakhstan

Historical background
Catholicism was first reported to appear in the territory of modern day Kazakhstan in XIII century. Those were the reports of some catholic missionaries traveling to see the great khans at the instructions of Roman authorities (Mission of Rubruk, etc.) In Vatican there are documents saying that in XIII century Bishop von Burgen from the Franciscan Order traveled and died on the road not far from modern day Almaty along the Great Silk Route.
The first catholic communities appeared in Kazakhstan at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. This is explained by mass exiles to Siberia of the Polish punished for the uprising in 1863 in the Russian Empire and their further relocation to Kazakhstan. Migration of the German Catholics from the European parts of the Russian Empire provided an additional boost to the growth of Catholic communities. The congregations were well attended. For example, before the revolution of 1917 in Petropavlovsk there was a catholic congregation with more than 3 thousand believers.
After the revolution in 1917 all the congregations were banned and eradicated, the clergy and the most active believers were repressed. Many of the Catholics from other parts of Soviet Union, like other believers, were forced into camps in Kazakhstan, where they found their death. In fact during a holy liturgy in Lviv, Ukraine, in 2001, Pope John Paul II beatified two of the martyrs from that time in Kazakhstan, Bishop Nikita Butka and priest Aleksi Zaretski.
Forced movement of peoples during the Soviet times to Kazakhstan, that was used by the communists as a 'dumping grounds' for everybody they deemed 'unreliable', led to a considerable increase of Catholics, mostly because of the influx of the Germans and about 100 000 Poles relocated to Kazakhstan from Ukraine, as well as deported Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belarussians.
For a considerable time services were held clandestinely. In 1950s the catholic communities undertook attempts to legalize the religious activity, but that met with the strong resistance of the Communist authorities. For example, the Catholic community of Karaganda, a large city in central Kazakhstan, headed by Bishop Alexandre Khira, had been struggling for 20 years to have freedom of religious life, and managed to succeed in registering only in 1977.

Present day life of Catholics
Since the break up of the Soviet Union, the Catholics in Kazakhstan have enjoyed much more freedom of religious life just as any other religious group. Today they are an organic part of a widely diverse population that includes 126 ethnic groups and 46 existing religious groups peacefully coexisting and supporting each other.
In 1989 Pope John Paul II gave an audience for the minister of the Catholic Church of Saint Joseph in Karaganda Father Albinas Dumblyauskas.
In 1991 the Vatican established the Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan and Central Asia in Karaganda, the site of death of many Catholics, with jurisdiction for four other countries in the region. Ian Paul Lenge, the minister from the town of Krasnoyarsk in the Kokshetau region in the North of Kazakhstan, was appointed bishop and apostolic administrator.
On October 17, 1992, an agreement was signed between Kazakhstan and the Vatican establishing diplomatic relations. On April 9, 1994, Archbishop Marian Oles was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Kazakhstan.
As a result of a number of meetings between Pope John Paul II and President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Agreement on mutual cooperation between the Government of Kazakhstan and the Holy See, was signed on September 24, 1998 and ratified on July 30, 1999. In this historic agreement, the only such document sign by the Vatican and a country in the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan confirmed its recognition of one of the oldest Christian confessions in the country and its willingness to respect its freedom for executing its rights.
Since August 1999 the Apostolic Administration of Kazakhstan has been reformed into Karaganda Diocese, with Karaganda Bishop Ian Paul Lenge as its head, and three new Apostolic Administration: Astana Administration headed by Bishop-Administrator Tomas Peta, Almaty Administration headed by Bishop Henrich Pheophil Hovanz, and Atyrau Administration headed by Administrator Ianus Kaleta.
The exact number of Catholics in Kazakhstan is not known, but it is estimated there are about 300 000. In Kazakhstan there are 66 Roman Catholic congregations, as well as 2 Greek Catholics congregations, with the priests being native Poles, Italians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Koreans and others. The prayers are said in Russian, Ukrainian, German, English and Polish languages.
There are around 40 Catholic churches and 200 chapels and prayer houses in Kazakhstan, where more than 60 priests and 70 nuns are preaching.
Local Catholic clergy together with numerous missionaries from Poland, Czech republic, Slovak republic, the United States, Italy and South Korea are engaged in preaching. In Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, there are two monasteries of the Franciscan Order, the men's  of the Order of Saint Francis, - and women's  of the School Sisters of Saint Francis.
New churches have been built over the last ten years since Kazakhstan's independence. They are in Almaty, Karaganda, Kokshetau and Astana, new capital of Kazakhstan.
The opening of the Holy Trinity Church in Almaty in 1998 was a major religious event. In 1997 new seminaries were opened in Karaganda and North Kazakhstan.
The Roman Catholic Church is also extensively engaged in charity, including through the world-wide Catholic organization Caritas. It cares for the sick, the lonely, the disabled and the elderly. In Almaty there is a canteen for the poor, a free pharmacy and first-aid service where people are being treated by acupuncture by a highly qualified Korean doctor. This is the only medical establishment under the auspices of any religion to be registered in Kazakhstan so far.
In Karaganda the believers publish a monthly newspaper, Credo, with a circulation of 5000. An important event in the life of the Catholic community in Kazakhstan was the opening in 1998 of the monument commemorating all those repressed in the past. It is a 70-feet cross on a hill in Kokshetau region with the following words on top:
Glory to God
Peace to People
Kingdom of God to Martyrs
Thank you to People of Kazakhstan

The importance of the Roman Catholic community in Kazakhstan will be highlighted with the upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II to Kazakhstan in September 2001.
This will be the first Papal visit to this country. Kazakhstan will become the 127th country visited by the Holy Father during his pontificate and his 95th foreign trip.
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2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom:
Kazakhstan
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000

EXCERPTS:

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the various denominations worship largely without government interference; however, government officials sometimes harass Islamic and Christian groups whose members are regarded as religious extremists.

The country is multiethnic, with a long tradition of tolerance and secularism. Relations among the various religious communities are generally amicable.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom with the Government in the context of its dialog about regional security threats and as part of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

For full report please visit http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/irf_kazakhst.html

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Kazakhstan Country Report
By National Conference of Soviet Jewry, 2000-2001

Excerpts:

Kazakhstan's experience as part of the Soviet Union dramatically shaped its current demographic and political state. Mass deportations under Stalin resulted in a large majority of ethnic Russians, and a major erosion of Kazakh national identity. Kazakhstan's economy suffered greatly from the breakup of the Soviet Union, and it now pins its hope upon the development of oil and natural gas reserves.

The Jewish community of Kazakhstan is composed of Bukharan Jews as well as European immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries. The community is well organized, and cooperates with U.S. and Israeli organizations. Relations with the government are good and transparent, and there have been no recent reports of anti-Semitism. Kazakhstan maintains cordial relations with Israel.

Jewish Communal Life & Anti-Semitism

Many Kazakh Jews are descended from Russian army conscripts sent to Kazakhstan from the Pale of Settlement in the 17th century, while others remain from the historic Bukharan community. Approximately 8,500 Jews relocated to Kazakhstan from Soviet Europe during World War II to escape the German occupation. Most Jews in Kazakhstan are Ashkenazi, with a small number of Bukharan Jews who have been in the area for almost 2,000 years. The majority (about 11,000) of the community lives in Almaty, though smaller communities also exist in Karaganda, Chimkent, Astana, Semipalatinsk, Kokchetav, Dzhambul, Uralsk, Aktyubinsk, and several villages.

The Kazakh Jewish community enjoys a stable environment, and Jewish religious and cultural life is well organized. In December 1999, the All-Kazakhstan Jewish Congress was created to unify the Jewish communities of Kazakhstan. Chabad Lubavitch also operates a national organization, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Kazakhstan.

In Almaty, the community supports a cultural center, an amateur Jewish theater, and an orchestra. The Dror fund assists Jewish children interested in music, and the Golden Age center cares for the elderly. Synagogues hold services in Almaty, Chimkent, Astana, and Pavlodar. Chabad Lubavitch was constructing a new Jewish center, the House of Menachem, and runs a variety of community programs including distribution of food packages, a summer camp for children, and care for the elderly.

Jewish education has expanded steadily since independence, with 14 Jewish day schools throughout Kazkahstan, serving over 700 students. In early 2000, the Jews of Uralsk established a Jewish Culture Society and have received offers of material and financial aid from the local government, while the community at Aktyubinsk operates a Hebrew school for its children. The Israeli Embassy also sponsors a series of cultural activities in the community.

Anti-Semitism is not prevalent in Kazakhstan. A few anti-Semitic and anti-Russian newspapers are published, though the government has occasionally shut them down. No anti-Semitic incidents have been reported for the last two years.

Jewish leaders in Kazakhstan characterize their relationship with the government as positive. President Nazarbayev personally presented historical records on the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson's father  who was exiled to Kazakhstan during the Soviet period  to Lubavitch leaders in a December 1999 visit to New York (Rabbi Schneerson was the last Lubavitcher Rebbe). Many government officials, as well as the U.S. Ambassador, attended the founding session of the All-Kazakhstan Jewish Congress in December 1999.

U.S. Policy

The United States opened diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan in 1991, and has commercial as well as strategic interests in Kazakhstan. The U.S. Government has promoted Kazakh independence from its more powerful neighbors (Russia and China) and to orient it toward the West. Kazakhstan's oil and gas reserves have attracted a high level of foreign  including American  investment.

U.S. assistance to Kazakhstan has been growing, from $44.2 million in 1999 to $47.9 million in 2000. The security of former Soviet nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons facilities within Kazakhstan has been improved, and NBC stockpiles reduced, through U.S. aid programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction. During 1992-99, the U.S. Government devoted $541.8 million in total assistance to Kazakhstan  the most to any nation in Central Asia.

For full report please visit http://www.ncsj.org/Kazakhstan.shtml

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REMARKS BY RABBI YESHAYA COHEN,
CHIEF RABBI OF KAZAKHSTAN, TO THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON HUMAN RIGHTS AND INTERNATIONAL OPERATIONS OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, JULY 18, 2001


1. First of all, I would like to thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to speak at the Congressional hearings over the issue of democratic development in Kazakhstan.
Convening such hearings on a regular basis is an important contribution of the Members of the US Congress to strengthening democratic processes in the newly independent states.
I have always followed the hearings with great interest and I am happy to participate at them personally.

2. History of my people shows that the attitude towards Jews and all followers of Judaic religion in all countries and in all times has always been sort of a litmus paper which helped to determine the level of liberalization of those states where Moses descendants were taken by the incalculable ways of destiny.
I think there is no need to remind the distinguished members of the Congress and all participants of these hearings how my confreres had been persecuted under totalitarian regimes. Kazakhstan, being under the Soviet totalitarian regime for seven decades, was not an exception.
Many representatives of my nation found themselves on that land because of malicious intent of the Stalin regime that exiled thousands of Jewish families from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Baltic countries into far-off Kazakh steppes.
Levi Yitzchak Schneerson's destiny is a vivid example of militant anti-Semitism. In 30s of the 20th century he was Chief Rabbi in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk. In 1939 he was arrested under far-fetched accusations, was exiled and until his death in 1944 lived in Kazakhstan. His grave is in Almaty.
I would like to note that in December 1999 during the official visit of President N. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to the USA he responded to the request of the Rabbi's descendants and forwarded to the leaders of the Chabad Jewish Community in the USA some documents on his arrest and circumstances of his death, found in the archives of the former KGB and NKVD.
This very act of goodwill is a best testimony of how the leadership of Kazakhstan responds to the needs and expectations of a small religious Jewish community as ours in Kazakhstan.
During the World War II Kazakhstan provided shelter for dozens of thousands of Jews, who were saving themselves from the Holocaust. They found people to be cordial, who helped Jews to settle, shared their houses and scanty war-time food. For thousands of Jews Kazakhstan became their Motherland and many of them bonded their lives with that country.
I believe members of the Congress would be interesting to hear that in Kazakhstan, neither during its being part of Russian or Soviet empires, nor during the years of independence, had any evidences of such disgraceful act as pogroms. The attempt to apply the anti-Semitism by one of the yellow newspapers, which had been coming out few years ago, was nipped in the bud. Under the court decision the above newspaper was closed and its editor was justly punished.
I would rather say that the long-suffering Jewish people have formed a habit to tell the difference between the fair and false value of the regime in any country where Jews live as their fate willed.
Thus, my assessments and testimonies based on personal experience and unbiased observations would contribute to making a whole picture in Kazakhstan over the topics under discussion.

3. I fully agree with all statements voiced here that issues of democratic development first of all, are the issues of observing inalienable human freedoms and rights, freedom of conscience and religion, national and religious self-expression inclusive.
So, one of the brightest indicators of democratic development in such a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country as Kazakhstan, is to what extent its citizens are free over the issue of language development and communities' culture, unrestricted exercise of religious cults.
At present Kazakhstan is home for the representatives of more than 120 ethnic groups. The religious structure is even more heterogeneous. Totally, the number of registered religious associations and communities makes more than 2000.
Together apart from large Muslim and Christian communities, there are more than 900 religious associations representing other confessions. They are as follows: Judaists, Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants, followers of Jehovah, Krishna, Bakhai, representatives of other trends. More than 40 confessions and small religious groups are represented in the country.
In different cities of Kazakhstan 11 Judaic communities are active.  Each of them has a synagogue, and those are regularly attended by thousands of Kazakhstan's Jews.
The Association of Jewish Communities of Kazakhstan is actively involved in the work on developing cultural heritage and language. Sunday schools where children are taught the language of their ancestors function in the country. We organize various events dedicated to national and religious Jewish holidays. Heads of the Jewish community are part of the Assembly of Peoples' of Kazakhstan, Consultative body under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, which agrees upon and tackles the issues of interethnic relations in Kazakhstan.
Please note that a number of religious associations in the country increased 3 times only during the last decade. The country revives religious traditions, constructs new cult buildings, such as mosques, praying houses and synagogues. At the same time the country has not seen any more or less significant conflicts on inter-religion basis.    
All of this is the indisputable evidence of the balanced policies by the leadership of the country, aimed at the creation of the favorable conditions for all religious associations, ensuring ideological diversity, spiritual renewal of all ethnic groups, as well as preservation and strengthening of civil peace and inter-ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan.

4. Some of the today's statements contained criticizing of the Government of Kazakhstan that supposedly intended to change the existing legislation regulating religious associations.
First of all, I would like to share with the participants of these hearings my assessments of current legal base on that issue.
Law 'On freedom of religion and religious associations', adopted in 1992, was one of the first legislative acts of an independent Kazakhstan. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the country's Constitution, approved by the nation-wide referendum in 1995 and apparently approved by the majority of the believers.
Had the legislation of freedom of religion really been strict and forbidding, as some try to portray it, it would be impossible for over 2000 religious associations to establish themselves and to operate in the country in a really free manner.
Mind you, this is not only my opinion on this subject. Many leaders of religious associations of Kazakhstan and a number of foreign experts note that our laws in this sphere are more liberal than analogous legislation of other countries.
At the same time, the legislation adopted 9 years ago could not at that time take into account all issues concerning the activity of religious communities. Therefore, I believe the Government has a justifiable and legal right to introduce necessary amendments into it.
One should also take into consideration the fact that the experience of many countries of the world, including Kazakhstan's neighbors in Central Asia, shows that various groups, often acting under the guise of religious organizations, are in fact engaged in propagating the ideas of religious intolerance. They are calling for violence and carrying out terrorist attacks. Some groups try to use the believers' feelings in pursuing their destructive goals, thus posing a threat to spiritual and physical health of the citizens. Nine years ago such a threat was not customary for our region.
In general, there are many reasons for the society and the Government of Kazakhstan to be rightfully concerned about possible illegal actions of the groups acting under the guise of religious associations. That fact was acknowledged by the Experts Council on Freedom and Religion of Bureau of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in their March 2001 report with assessments of a bill of amendments to Kazakhstan's legislation on religious freedom.
I would like to stress that such a concern exists not only in the newly independent states. Developed democratic countries, too, are adopting new laws aimed at restricting the activity of the groups that cynically use religious themes in pursuing their illegal objectives.
In June 2000 French National Assembly adopted a law on the fight against totalitarian sects providing for a tough penalty (up to 5 years of imprisonment) for posing a threat to the spiritual and physical health of citizens from this kind of groups.
As far as I am aware, there is a law in the United States that institutes responsibility for psychological violence, as well as almost 2,000 legal norms that regulate state's relations with the religious organizations. The regulations of recognition of religious organizations, issuing and annulment of certificates of authority for them are quite strictly conditioned in your country. And all this, I am sure, is not viewed as an infringement on human rights and restriction of the freedom of the citizens.
In general I believe that Kazakhstan's legislation on freedom of religion should be improved with the view of introducing more clear definitions that would protect the society and the citizens from unlawful activities of various extremists forces under the guise of religious slogans.
This is one of the conditions of preserving inter-ethnic accord and civil peace in our country as a basis for consistent progress of Kazakhstan toward democracy.

5. I can not disagree more with some assertions that the Government of Kazakhstan is trying to resolve the issue of introducing the amendments into the legislation without considering the opinions of the very religious associations.
The Council on relations with religious organizations of the Government is the channel of interaction for the Government and the confessions.
At the initiative of the members of this Council a number of round table discussions were held this year on the improvement of legislation on religious associations. The representatives of various religious associations, political parties and non-governmental organizations, members of the Parliament, Government officials, as well as representatives of a number of international organizations took part in the discussions.
I would like to emphasize particularly the fact that discussions on this issue have been going on now for more than a year, which also proves the Government's commitment not to rush this bill through but to try to get the agreement of all the interested parties, and primarily the religious associations themselves.
I believe that in the end such an agreement will be reached by all the participants of the discussion on the issues of legislative regulation of religious freedom in Kazakhstan.

6. In conclusion I would like to stress that today in this hall opposing judgments and arguments have been and will probably be made on the situation in Kazakhstan on all discussed issues. They reflect the opinion of various public forces and political parties of the country, which, in itself, is a result of some sorts of the 10-year progress the country has been doing toward democracy.
I would like to say that I am confident that distinguished members of Congress will take into account all the expressed opinions and will give an objective assessment of observance of human rights and freedoms, and democratic development in Kazakhstan.

Thank you for your attention.
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KAZAKHSTAN'S JEWS CELEBRATE

On August 10, 2001, National Conference of Soviet Jewry reported that the Jewish community of Kazakhstan celebrated the fifth anniversary of the stone-laying for a future synagogue, and the remembrance day (yahrzeit) of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Schneerson, the father of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
"They came to a synagogue in the largest Kazakh city and they brought their children with them, even the smallest ones," said Juda Kubalkin, Chief Rabbi of the capital Astana. "The Jews of Kazakhstan are not afraid anymore that they will lose jobs for observing Sabbath or will be jailed for reading the Torah."  The celebration was attended by the Jewish community, as well as diplomats and government officials.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, a prominent rabbi who lived and died in Kazakhstan, was an outspoken critic and target of the Soviet regime.  His grave, left unmarked during the Soviet era, is today a major pilgrimage site for Jews from around the world. 
"The Jewish community became one of the most active in Kazakhstan", said Daniel Russell, the Charge d'Affaires of the U.S. Embassy.  Yeshaya Cohen, Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan, noted, "Could we even imagine in the past that we would be able to celebrate our holidays and to come to the synagogue freely? But this time has come."
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The Economist, August 25th, 2001

Religion in Central Asia

Faith in politics
ALMATY
Suspicion about missionaries
It is something of an annual ritual. At the beginning of summer, hundreds of western missionaries, mostly young American Baptists, flock to Kazakhstan to teach English at local universities for a few weeks, without pay. Many universities, hard up and unable to meet the huge demand for English tuition, gladly accept, looking at it as a beneficial arrangement for both sides.
While it certainly is convenient, it is also controversial. Since the collapse of communism, many people in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics have experienced a spiritual vacuum that missionaries have been eager to fill. Although missionaries are  still  tolerated,  local authorities suspect that the line between teaching and proselytising is not always observed. In Kazakhstan about half the population is estimated to be Muslim, and Islam is a Jealous faith. Some of its worries may be justified. A few years ago, when the wave of missionaries was at its highest, Baptists offered "Bible aerobics" at an Al-maty university. Whatever this was, it wasn't teaching English.
Over the past two years, official attitudes towards religion have become less relaxed. Partly this is because of worries about security. Neighbouring Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan were attacked by Islamic fundamentalists in the summers of 1999 and 2000, leading to concerns that Kazakhstan too might eventually become a target. An expected attack this summer, when the snowy mountain passes become accessible, has so far not happened, possibly because Islamic militants are busy in northern Afghanistan, where this week heavy fighting was reported between Taliban forces and the opposition alliance. But leaders in the region remain on guard for possible attacks by extremists and have strengthened their security forces.
Kazakhstan's parliament is planning to pass amendments to the country's religion law. Vladimir Ivanov, one of the authors of the present law, says that when it came into force in 1992 "we could not foresee the problems we have today with extreme groupings". One thing it will seek to do is to clarify the status of missionaries.
The changes will not, it is said, affect religious freedom m Kazakhstan. Elsewhere in Central Asia, however, there are concerns about this particular human right. Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body, recommended that Turkmenistan be put on the list of "countries of particular concern" for limiting religious freedom to followers of Sunni Islam and the Russian Orthodox church. The Turkmen government has harassed congregations of Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals. It has shut down or demolished Christian churches, and Jailed, beaten and tortured believers.
According to Human Rights Watch, Uzbekistan too should be added to the list of countries of particular concern for religious freedom. The organisation has documented more than 800 cases of religious persecution there since 1999. Most of the victims have been Muslims jailed for long terms for praying in mosques not under the control of the government, or belonging to Islamic groups not registered with the government.
Although Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia has indeed grown, partly be cause of authoritananism in Uzbekistan and widespread poverty generally, the fear of extremism appears to be much larger than the actual size of the threat. Some Central Asian leaders foster such fears to their advantage.
Pope John Paul is due to visit Kazakhstan for several days starting on September 22nd, his first trip to Central Asia. The country's Roman Catholics are relatively few in number. The majority of Christians follow the teachings of the Russian Orthodox church. But the Roman Catholics, mainly Ukrainian in origin, will no doubt give their leader a good welcome. As the much-travelled pope puts Central Asia, even briefly, on world television, the region's leaders can only look on in envy.
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