Increase in police raids, arrests raises concern among Baptists in Kazakhstan

A sharp increase in police raids, arrests and fines in the past two months has traumatized Baptists in southern Kazakhstan, raising concerns about the future of religious freedom in the country.

The attacks are reminiscent of persecution during the previous rule of President Nursultan Nazarbayev from 1991 to 2019, a legal expert in Kazakhstan told Christian Daily International.

“The practice of attacks, persecution and fines against religious minorities often occurred during the adoption of amendments to the law on religious activities,” said the legal expert, who fears that Kazakhstan could strengthen religious laws in the near future.

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“So, on the one hand, this situation is very reminiscent of the old methods of the old regime,” he said. “But it could also be a provocation against the new government [of President Kassym-Jonmari Tokayev]like the precedents in southern Kazakhstan described by Forum 18 it happened during the gathering of information about the state of religious freedoms by the American embassy, ​​to show that the regimes of Nazarbayev and Tokayev are equally authoritarian. Such an opinion also has its place.”

Persecution of evangelicals in Kazakhstan appears to have worsened under the new regime, he said.

“Currently, the Kazakh authorities have announced many times that there will be a consolidation of the law on religion in the near future,” the source said.

Forum 18 recently reported that police raided four services in three unregistered Protestant churches in Shu district, near the border with Kyrgyzstan, in March and April. Officers reportedly filmed worshipers and demanded written statements to explain their activities at the churches. They also made seven summary fines.

“What happened in the last month in Shuo [District] raised serious concern among evangelical communities that experienced persecution for their religious activity,” the local Council of Baptist Churches reported in a press statement in April, according to Forum 18. The council noted that the Baptist activity “is not illegal or extremist. .”

Police raided Shu Baptist Church on April 14, and two days after a second raid on April 30, officers questioned pastor Andrei Boiprav, 77, in the yard of his Shu village home. The police accused the church leader of “illegal missionary activity”, although the fellowship meetings took place in a prayer house with only members of his church.

The priest refused to sign a record of the alleged offence. His case was pending in Shu District Court with an unspecified date.

In a joint statement, church members said they fear that actions against the priest could cause a “threat to his life and health”, as his condition is in a medically confirmed “unsatisfactory state”, according to Forum 18.

“Officials took pictures and filmed us,” church members said in the joint statement after the first attack. “They haven't issued fines yet, but they have done explanatory work on the need to register the church.”

Police claimed the second attack on the church arose from a complaint by neighbors, but members said they questioned area residents and could find no evidence of a complaint.

“Two officers came into the prayer hall and listened to the entire first sermon, and half of the service,” the church members said of the second attack. “The others talked to church members.” Officers required those present to write statements indicating why they attended the service.

One of the officers “almost apologized” to members, saying that the order for the second attack came from the religious affairs department, and “we have nothing against you,” according to Forum 18.

Even so, the next day police handed out summary fines of 184,600 Tenge (US$418) to three church members who were pressured into writing statements admitting participation in an “unregistered, suspended, or banned, religious community or social organization” under Article 489, Part 10 of the Administrative Code.

Two of the fined church members, Mikhail and Andrej Boiprav, are sons of church leader Boiprav SR.

“I do not agree with the offense record because it contradicts the Religious Law,” Mikhail Boiprav said in a statement to police. Church members did not understand the reason for the fines, according to Forum 18.

Police also raided another Protestant church meeting in the village called The Children of God. Further details about this attack have not been disclosed.

“Illegal Missionary Activity”

In the nearby village of Konayeva, police on March 3 arrived at the service of an unregistered Baptist church and filmed and questioned members, Forum 18 reported.

Court records show that the officials “began filming the course of the meeting and the hall, going along the rows and filming the faces of all those present at the service. They ignored the requests to stop filming and explain their actions,” according to Forum 18.

Operations Officer D. Umbet reportedly claimed that police intruded into the service after “an anonymous call they received with a request to check who met at this address and what kind of meeting it was,” according to Forum 18. He questioned church members, “including whether they gathered voluntarily or not, and required written statements.”

The police promptly fined two church members and the priest Valter Mirau, 47, after the attack on Mirau's home where the church meets.

Pastor Mirau gave a statement to police officers saying that the church met voluntarily. The next day, March 4, inspector O. Sadyrbayev summoned the priest and two other church members and accused them. Pastor Mirau was later fined 369,200 Tenge (US$838), equal to two months' average salary, for leading an “unregistered, suspended or banned religious community or social organization” under Administrative Code Article 489, Part 9.

The two church members were given summary fines of 184,600 Tenge (US$418) by inspector Bekkali Dzhaksylykov on March 5 and 6, under Part 10 of the same code. It refers to “participation in an unregistered, suspended or prohibited religious community or social organization.”

All three Baptists paid the summary fines, which are reduced by half if paid immediately. They appealed in three court hearings in April and May, but judges at Shu District Court and Zhambyl Regional Court rejected the cases.

Pastor Mirau was also fined 369,200 Tenge (US$838) for “conducting missionary activity without state registration” under Part 3 of Article 490 in the legal code. In a hearing in the Shu District Court on March 27, Pastor Mirau said that the church regularly met in his home, and that he did “nothing against the law and did not violate the law.”

The priest asked for a “just decision”, but judge Tazhibayeva found him guilty and fined him. He lost a subsequent April 30 appeal at Zhambyl Regional Court.

Religious official blames police

Shu District police did not respond to Forum 18's questions about the legal reasons for the attacks and fines of the Christians.

Saule Baibatshayeva, an official responsible for monitoring non-Muslim communities at the Religious Affairs Department of the Zhambyl Regional Akimat (administration), however, knew about the police raids, according to Forum 18. The watchdog reported that Baibatshayeva claimed that she and her colleagues tried to stop the police.

“The police are to blame,” Baibatshayeva reportedly said. “They are taking their own measures according to the Administrative Code. There was no order from us.”

Baibatshayeva told Forum 18 that her department has always defended believers, although she did not reveal how the local government will challenge the police raids and fines.

“Those fined know me,” she reportedly said. “Our job is to defend them.”

Baibatshayeva claimed her department told police not to “touch” an unregistered Council of Baptist Churches.

“Let them hold services in their own places,” she said. “Only if they do something outside their territory will they be affected.”

Fined for preaching

In the city of Almaty, preacher Sergei Orlov faces a significant potential fine for “missionary activity without state registration” under Article 490, Part 3 of the Administrative Code after speaking at a residence in honor of International Women's Day on March 8.

A stranger at the meeting filmed Orlov giving a message about women in the Bible. Department of Religious Affairs official Almaz Zhanamanov declined to disclose reasons for the administrative case, which police initiated after a March 13 complaint by an unknown woman about the meeting, according to Forum 18.

Orlov appealed, but Judge Galiya Kasymova of the Interdistrict Special Administrative Court of Almaty denied it on April 19, Forum 18 reported. The trial against Orlov is pending.

Forum 18 cited data showing 203 administrative prosecutions against individuals and organizations exercising freedom of religion or belief in 2023. Some 172 of these resulted in penalties, mostly large fines and subsequent convictions.

“Of the known administrative prosecutions in 2023, officials brought 25 (against 20 individuals, four companies and one charity) for meeting for worship without state permission, hosting such meetings or maintaining places for such meetings,” Forum 18 stated.

'Tightening' feared

The law on Religious Activities and Religious Associations, adopted in 2011, prohibits any religious gatherings without official state registration and requires the creation of a legal entity for religious gatherings.

Some Baptist churches are officially registered in the country, the legal expert told Christian Daily International, but others refuse to do so on the grounds of religious freedom.

He said that registering a religious association in Kazakhstan is “extremely difficult,” because officials refuse to register churches “for various formal reasons.” They can do this to show that Muslim communities outnumber others, he said. The population of Kazakhstan is estimated to be approximately 74% Muslim.

There are other practical obstacles to formally registering churches, recognized by international experts on human rights and religious freedom, he said.

“For example, to establish a legal entity (an officially registered congregation), 50 citizen founders are required, which is a very difficult task for small communities,” he said.

In recent years, he added, authorities in Kazakhstan “rarely enforced the ban on unregistered meetings against evangelical Christian Baptists who prefer to suffer fines rather than register because it contradicts their religious beliefs.”

Stricter religious laws and the expected crackdown on Christians could happen for a variety of reasons, he said.

“I assume that amendments to the law on religion are more a result of pressure on the Kazakh authorities from Russia than a real threat from Islamic radicals, although radical Islamic teachings have a wide distribution in western Kazakhstan and southern Kazakhstan,” he said. “The indirect evidence that this is Russian pressure on the Kazakh authorities is the statement of Russian Defense Minister Shoigu [recently replaced as defense minister by Andrei Belousov] that there are many dangerous non-profit organizations in Kazakhstan, suggesting that the Kazakh authorities should deal with them.”

He also blamed pressure from Russia for the turbulent violations of religious expression in the wider region.

“Also, amendments to the law on religion in Kyrgyzstan, which tighten religious freedoms, were also adopted under pressure from Russia,” he said. “The situation in Georgia regarding human rights violations is also a result of Russian pressure.”

He summarized that “these are only assumptions”, and that the main issue currently remains unjustified police attacks against peaceful Christians in Kazakhstan.

“The real situation is that there have been several attacks in southern Kazakhstan, and church ministers and parishioners have been fined,” he said.

This article was originally published by Christian Daily International.


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