OSLO, Norway (BP) -- The Central Asian country of Kazakhstan has toughened its crackdown on religious freedom, stripping previously recognized religious groups, including Baptists, of their registrations.
Religious freedom monitor Forum 18 is reporting that Kazakh authorities have rescinded the legal registrations of 579 "small religious groups" (groups with fewer than 50 adult members) as part of a new religion law passed last October.
"We have a new law," Kazakh official Saule Ibrayeva told Forum 18. "And as it does not allow for the existence of religious associations which have fewer than 50 members, then they should either re-register with 50 members or stop their activity as a religious association."
Small religious groups have until Oct. 25 to re-register with 50 members, but regulations for re-registration have not been put in place, according to Forum 18, which is based in Oslo, Norway. Some groups are concerned they will not be able to reach 50 members or that potential members will be afraid of giving out their information to Kazakh authorities. In the meantime, small religious groups will not be permitted to continue their activities.
Pastor Franz Thiessen, head of Kazakhstan's Baptist Union, told Forum 18 that small Baptist groups were warned to stop their activity and hand over their registration certificates. Other religious groups such as Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists and independent Muslims also are being targeted.
Baptists previously have found themselves in the Kazakh government's crosshairs, such as when officials raided the Ekibastuz Baptist congregation on Nov. 30 of last year. The congregation is part of the Baptist Council of Churches, which chooses not to seek state registration out of principle. Shoe repairer Aleksei Asetov, a father of 10 who leads the congregation, was fined an estimated year and a half's wages for leading an unregistered religious organization as part of new, harsher punishments for religious offenders. The judge also outlawed the congregation.
Nikolai Popov, leader of another Baptist Council of Churches congregation, was handed a two-day prison sentence for refusing to pay fines for not registering his congregation with the state. Since the council's policy is not to pay such fines, authorities have in the past confiscated property instead or taken fines directly from wages.
Forum 18's 2009 religious freedom survey of Kazakhstan zeroes in on a number of issues, including attacks on religious freedom by President Nursultan Nazarbaev down to local officials; censorship; raids; interrogations; unfair trials; state-sponsored stoking of religious intolerance; legal restrictions; and police surveillance of religious communities.
Kazakh officials are defending the new law restricting small religious groups. When questioned by Forum 18 over how Christians belonging to a small group could do things like preach or administer the Lord's Supper without meeting together, Ibrayeva responded tersely.
"This is the Law and everybody must obey it," she said. "This is not Norway, this is Kazakhstan."
Compiled by John Evans, a writer based in Houston.