By Felix Corley, Keston News Service
May 16, 2001
KULSARY, KAZAKHSTAN (ANS for KNS) -- Two young men who lead a small Baptist church in the town of Kulsary, the centre of Jiloi district of Kazakhstan's Atyrau region on the Caspian Sea, have protested against an illegal order by the district prosecutor banning the church.
Prosecutor Khagibula Kasymov ordered the Iman (Love) Church to stop all meetings claiming that it could not function until it had state registration, despite the fact that Kazakh law does not ban activity by religious communities without registration - a frequent claim by officials across the country. When church leaders appealed to the regional prosecutor he merely upheld the ban.
In an official order, dated May 2, Kasymov declared the church illegal according to articles 8 and 9 of Kazakhstan's religion law. The prosecutor claimed that according to the law, any new religious community must be registered and a minimum of 10 members are needed to register. He gave the church leaders, Kurmangazy Abdumuratov and Askhat Alimkhanov, 24 hours to sign a statement that they would halt their "illegal" religious activity. They were told that if they refused they would be heavily fined and jailed if they kept meeting. The two complied, although they subsequently complained they had not been given enough time to think over the implications.
The two submitted an appeal on May 6 to Atyrau regional prosecutor Mukhtar Zhorgenbaev, but the response they received on May 15 merely upheld the original ban. They now intend to appeal to the country's prosecutor general in the capital Astana.
Speaking to Keston from Kulsary on May 16, Kasymov denied claims the church had been banned. "We merely halted their activity until they get registration. They're not banned." However, he declined to explain the difference. Asked why their activity had been halted, he said it was because they had founded an association. "They can meet, but as soon as they found an association they must be registered." Asked which law prevents an unregistered religious association from functioning, Kasymov declined to answer, said he would respond to questions in writing and put the phone down.
Abat Kenjagaliev, the official in charge of religious affairs at the Atyrau regional akimat (administration), said he was not familiar with the case. "I have never heard of the church there - there is only one Baptist church in Atyrau region and that's in Atyrau itself," he told Keston by telephone on 16 May. "All the region's religious leaders came for a meeting in Atyrau on 14 May and no-one mentioned the case." However, he denied that religious groups that do not have state registration could be banned. "They can meet, though only for individual services." He said he would find out the details of the prosecutor's ban.
Keston was unable to reach Prosecutor Zhorgenbaev on May 16, as he was away on a work trip, and his deputy, Isemjan Dosanov, said he was not informed about the case, but promised to look into it.
Alimkhanov told Keston by telephone from Atyrau on May 16 that the Kulsary church has halted all its meetings in line with the ban. "We are abiding by the law and won't meet until this is resolved."
Between five and 13 people attended the church's three meetings each week, but they only had six adults with all the documents needed to register. Abdumuratov and Alimkhanov explained that even with up to 30 members it is difficult to obtain the required 10 to sign the church statute because part of the registration process requires all who sign the application to be investigated by the country's political police, the KNB, in which their employer is notified. They claim many people fear signing the statute will cost them their job.
Church leaders have contacted lawyers in the former capital Almaty and the Almaty Helsinki Committee, who agreed that the prosecutor's order violated Kazakhstan's laws and constitution. They intend to appeal the decision, but need a local lawyer in Atyrau region to represent them. So far, they have not been able to find one prepared to take their case. Local lawyers fear taking on such a case could harm their career if they continue to work in the region.
Felix Corley is news editor of Keston News Service, which reports on religious liberty issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. For recent stories and subscription requests, please visit the website at http://www.keston.org