Shelved worship law clouds Kazakhstan Church-State relationship

Anli Serfontein

Astana (ENI). Almost 20 years after the Soviet Union crumbled, opening the way for freedom of worship in the area where it once held sway, some religious communities in Kazakhstan fear they may be at a crossroads.

Some even fear that one day they could live in an Islamic state as the proportion of the population who are Muslims increases.

At the end of 2008, the Kazakh parliament passed a restrictive Law on Religion and Belief. It limited religious and political freedoms of religious-based groups in the country and triggered a public outcry by religious leaders in different parts of the world.

One of those who raised his concerns at the time was the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Geneva-based Lutheran World Federation, which represents some 68.5 million Protestant Christians.

During a visit to Astana in July, Noko told Ecumenical News International, "I objected very strongly at the time. I wrote a letter to the president, reminding him of the words that he had spoken to me before and to say this does not help us to go forward at all. In fact, it [the law] damages his image and the image of the country, especially the positive image of the country that they attained so far."

Following protests against the proposed new religious law that many viewed as repressive, the Kazakhstan Constitutional Council, the upper legislative chamber in the country, announced in February that the restrictive law was unconstitutional.

At the July Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders in Astana, speakers at the meeting, held once every three years, praised President Nursultan Nazarbayev for abandoning that law. Noko was a key speaker at the congress.

Glossy brochures distributed to delegates at the congress portrayed the country as a "land of inter-ethnic and inter-religious peace and harmony". Yet, that does not allay the fears of many ordinary people in the central Asian country.

"Kazakhstan is a Muslim country and increasingly so. In earlier times we did not see women with head scarves at all - the Muslims. But their numbers are increasing. It [Islam] is spreading more and more, and I often have a feeling that we are becoming foreigners here too," said Alla Shirokhowa, an ethnic German, who taught German at the Lutheran seminary in Astana before it closed down.

"We are afraid in recent times. That law that they wanted to change really scared us," Shirokhowa told Ecumenical News International after Sunday morning worship at the numerically-small Lutheran church in the Kazakhstan capital, where today sermons take place in Russian.

She says she is concerned as to what will happen when President Nazarbayev is no longer in office to hold the balance between the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Shirokhowa's fears are partially based on the fact that Kazakhstan's neighbours, all former Soviet Republics that since becoming independent have inserted Islam into their State constitutions. Kazakhstan's 1995 constitution stipulates that it is a secular state.

The ninth biggest country in the world, Kazakhstan is trying to keep its political and religious independence in Central Asia, especially as it is set to take over as chair-in-office of the OSCE (The Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) in 2010.

The advent of religious freedom in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious Central Asian country has seen Muslims increase from 47 percent in 1991 to close to 57 percent in 2007. Protestants have dropped to less than 2 percent of the population due to the emigration of groups such as ethnic Germans. However, Christianity - mostly Orthodox - still accounts for 40 percent of the 15 million population, of whom about 30 percent are ethnic Russians.

Religious communities in Kazakhstan have a history of being persecuted in the 20th century after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1941 forcibly deported half a million ethnic Germans, most of them Lutherans, from the former independent Volga Republic to Siberia and to Kazakhstan.

Visiting Kazakhstan in 2001, Pope John Paul II recalled the times of persecution, especially under Stalin. "The long years of communist dictatorship, when so many Christian believers were deported to the gulags in this region, brought immense suffering and sadness," the pontiff stated. "How many priests, religious and laity paid for their faithfulness to Christ with unimaginable suffering, and even with the sacrifice of their lives."

After Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, ethnic Germans, some of whom had followed Catherine the Great, a Prussian princess to Russia some 200 years before, were allowed to return to Germany. Their return took place under a deal brokered between Germany's then chancellor Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president. Russia is said to have supported the re-unification of East and West Germany as part of the pact.

In the 1990s about 100 000 ethnic Germans were leaving Kazakhstan each year. It had a devastating effect on the Lutheran Church and its close-knit communities, depleting whole congregations. Today there are fewer than 50 congregations left, compared to more than 228 about 15 years earlier. They are spread over the vast country, with little resources.

"All my people are in Germany," Gennadij Khonin, a pastor in Almaty replied when asked how big his congregation was.

"We are citizens in one country and together we have to live in peace. We should have the right of every person to believe or not believe. We are a small church", the bishop of Kazakhstan and the head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kazakhstan, Yuri Novgorodov, told an official from the justice ministry's religious affairs committee in July. He had attended a meeting in Astana with other Lutheran pastors in Kazakhstan and Noko.

The bishop was a strong critic of the proposed legislation on religion fearing the end of the church's autonomy, had it gone ahead. He is still worried about the future of his church in the country and openly speaks out on the current tension between the State and Church.

Noko counselled the gathering that "dialogue is the best way forward". Still some observers fear that with most of Kazakhstan's Lutherans now in Germany, the church could in a few years time cease to exist when the older generation is no more.

The Protestant churches were not only weakened by emigration, but also by people increasingly turning away from the traditional churches and embracing charismatic religions.

Some government sources in Kazakhstan explained that the proposed restrictive law was aimed to control the influx of charismatic religious communities that have sprung up in the former Soviet republics. Statistically 11 percent of the believers in Kazakhstan today belong to newly-founded religious communities.

The Norwegian-based Forum 18, a religious rights' group active in former Soviet states, noted that it is especially non-traditional religions that are harassed by the State in Kazahkstan. Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, Unification Church members, and even some splinter Muslim groups have been targeted.

Earlier in 2009 a Baptist pastor from the Akmola region, surrounding Astana, was fined and the church banned. The Council of Baptist Churches refuses to register any of their congregations with state institutions.

ENI featured articles are taken from the full ENI Daily News Service. Subscribe online to the Daily News Service and receive around 1000 full-text articles a year. Unless otherwise stated, ENI featured articles may be re-printed, re-posted, re-produced or placed on Web sites if ENI is noted as the source and there is a link to the ENI Web site