Kazakh Baptists face raids, fines, deportation
OSLO, Norway (BP) -- Authorities in Kazakhstan have fined a Baptist pastor for leading a congregation without state registration and deported another as part of an onging campaign to stamp out religious communities not under the government's thumb.
The Kazakh government fined Baptist pastor Pavel Leonov two months' average salary for leading a religious community without state registration, according to Forum 18, a Norway-based religious freedom organization. Leonov refused to pay the fine, citing financial hardship and because he had done nothing wrong.
Leonov is one of more than 100 people known to have been fined in 2013 for religious "offenses," Forum 18 noted. After jailing Leonov for one day, police in Ayagoz, a city of 40,000 in eastern Kazakhstan, opened a criminal case against him on Oct. 28. He now faces up to a year in prison.
The trouble for Leonov, who leads a church in the Council of Baptist Churches, began with a police raid on the congregation on Feb. 28, Forum 18 reported, after which a district court levied the maximum possible fine against him. After another raid in April, seven other church members also were fined.
When Leonov appeared in court to answer for not paying the fine, he said he could not pay because he is the only breadwinner in his family of seven and he had done nothing wrong, according to Forum 18. On Aug. 5, Judge Korlen Khalelova sentenced him to one day's imprisonment.
Nearly three months later, on Oct. 28, district police summoned Leonov and handed him an official notice that a criminal investigation had been opened against him on Sept. 7 for "willful refusal to carry out a court decision." The penalty could involve a fine, between 120 and 180 hours of community service or a year in prison.
Sumgat Adilbekov, head of the police investigation department, would not explain why Leonov was being punished for following his religion.
"The initial investigation is underway," he told Forum 18 on Oct. 30 from Ayagoz. "I can't say any more on the case by phone."
In addition to taking Leonov to court, Kazakh authorities raided Sunday worship at a Council of Baptist Churches congregation in a private home on Sept. 22, according to Forum 18. Five police officers entered the home in Martuk, with two official witnesses also present. Martuk is a village in a district of about 30,000 people in western Kazakhstan.
Police told the Baptists they had received a telephone call and then started filming without asking permission. In addition to confiscating DVDs and religious literature, six church members and three visitors were taken to the police station and questioned individually. Church members told Forum 18 the police refused to hand over records of the confiscated materials.
On Oct. 24, district prosecutor Adilbek Kushzhanov began an investigation into the leader of Martuk Baptist congregation, Gennady Tsyba, under a law that bans "leading, participating in, or financing an unregistered, halted, or banned religious community or social organization," according to Forum 18. Tsyba had also been fined in August 2011 for holding a worship meeting without state permission.
An official with the prosecutor's office defended the investigation to Forum 18.
"Meeting without registration is against the law -- the case is now in court," he said.
Asked whether this was like the old Soviet system where exercising freedom of belief or religion was illegal without state permission, the official told Forum 18: "No, it's not the Soviet system. This is the Kazakh system."
In another recent case against Baptists in Kazakhstan, Judge Talgat Ekzesov of an administrative court in Karaganda, a city of 450,000 in east-central Kazakhstan, found Baptist leader Aron Reimer guilty of violating the same law Tsyba was convicted of breaking. Reimer was fined and his appeal against the fine rejected on Oct. 16.
Kazakh authorities also deported Baptist pastor Viktor Lim for "illegal missionary activity," according to Forum 18. A stateless person, Lim had lived in Kazakhstan for 20 years, where his wife and children are citizens.
In a case brought by the a a regional religious affairs department in Almaty, the nation's largest city with some 1.5 million people, Lim was accused of leading religious activity without registration as a missionary. District court Judge Berikzhan Baizhunusov found Lim guilty on May 27, levied the maximum possible fine and ordered him to be deported in 15 days. Lim appealed to the regional court, but Judge Yerlan Abdildin rejected his appeal on June 13, according to Forum 18.
"The appeal hearing lasted just 10 minutes -- it was a pure formality," Lim told Forum 18. "No discussion took place."
Lim, who said he paid the fine, appealed to the General Prosecutor's Office, insisting he wanted to stay in Kazakhstan, Forum 18 reported. But Deputy General Prosecutor Zhakip Asanov rejected the appeal on July 26 in a letter seen by Forum 18.
"The court did not accept the argument that conducting services, religious rites and ceremonies was not missionary activity, as these actions are means of spreading a religious faith," the letter said.
Lim left Kazakhstan on Aug. 16 with his wife and children.
"We weren't prepared for this at all," Lim told Forum 18. "I and my family are still recovering from shock."
Police in the capital of Astana also have been intimidating and harassing members of Grace Protestant Church, according to International Christian Concern (ICC), an organization that supports the persecuted church. The church's pastor, Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev, had been arrested in May as part of the crackdown on religious minorities.
ICC reported that police collected information on the church's regular attendees and began calling and harassing both present and past congregants.
"They are scared to go to church," said an ICC contact who did not give his name for security reasons. "His church keeps getting smaller and smaller."
When a congregant asked police why they have been treating church members this way, an officer reportedly responded, "You are worse than spies. You bring Kazakhs to Christ."
According to Forum 18, Kazakhstan is a persistent violator of human rights commitments. The abuses Forum 18 has documented include attacks on religious freedom by government officials at all levels; literature censorship; legal restrictions on freedom of religion or belief; raids, fines, threats and interrogations against religious communities; police surveillance of religious groups; and attempts to deprive religious communities of their property.
John Evans is a writer living in Houston, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).