In March of 2013, Greg Mitchell invited the Kazakh Ambassador to the U.S. into an ongoing, multi-faith dialogue with the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, regarding the state of religious freedom in Kazakhstan. The Ambassador agreed.
- In June 0f 2012, approximately 30 participants of the Roundtable self-selected into a coalition of the willing to engage in joint advocacy actions to address rising restrictions on religion in Kazakhstan. See the text of the multi-faith letter they signed to U.S. government leaders.
- From our understanding, restrictions on religion are rising markedly as a result of the 2011 law “On Religious Activities and Religious Associations” (the Religion Law) and the law “On Amendments and Addenda to Some Legislative Acts on Issues of Religious Activities and Religious Organizations” (the Administrative Law) imposing changes in the area of religion in nine other Laws, including Administrative Code Articles 374 and 375, widening the range of sanctions for violations of the Religion Law.
- Participants hoped the first meeting with the Ambassador and other Kazakh officials would facilitate the beginning of a constructive engagement that is open, honest and meaningful; that will increase mutual understanding of the situation, how it is affecting certain legitimate and peaceful religious communities, and how it will impact the state; and that will allow us to resolve differences, increase freedom of religion and conscience, and thereby maintain stability in Kazakhstan.
- Certain provisions of the Religion Law raise significant concerns as they appear to limit the rights of certain individuals to practice their religion; to be inconsistent with Kazakhstan’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion; to undermine the Kazakh government’s recognition that stability and economic success come from religious harmony, mutual understanding and respect; to be inconsistent with UN and OSCE human rights instruments that Kazakhstan has committed to; and to contravene the religious freedom principles enumerated in the Preamble to the Religion Law.
- The implementation of the Religion Law resulted in a steady stream of distressing reports that validate these significant concerns described above. The most concerning reports told us that religious organizations had been closed, religious literature had been censored, and religious activity had been penalized with police raids, short-term detentions, fines, and other penalties.
- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) elevated Kazakhstan to its list of “Tier 2” countries for the first time since it began reporting on Kazakhstan in 2008.
- A “Tier 2” country is one which USCIRF finds to be on the “threshold” of “Country of Particular Concern” status, meaning that violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are “particularly severe” and that violations meet at least one of the three elements of USCIRF’s “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard.
- USCIRF found that religious freedom conditions in Kazakhstan have “steadily deteriorated due to a growing array of repressive laws and policies.”
- “Although the Kazakh government promotes religious tolerance at the international level,” its 2013 Annual Report said, “its restrictive 2011 religion law bans unregistered religious activity and has been enforced through police raids, detentions, and major fines. The law’s onerous registration requirements have led to a sharp drop in the number of registered religious groups, both Muslim and Protestant.”
- Participants of the Roundtable were grateful to the Kazakh Ambassador for immediately agreeing to engage in a multi-faith dialogue with us, to the staff of the Kazakh Embassy for promptly and professionally following up, and to the Chairman of the Kazakh Agency for Religious Affairs and his delegation for making the time to meet with us while they were in Washington, D.C.
- We appreciated the opportunity to express and discuss concerns directly with the Kazakh government, and believed this could establish a civil society + government engagement model that can be replicated with other countries.
The Beginning of the Dialogue
- On May 8, 2013, the dialogue began at a breakfast at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, which was hosted by the Ambassador and attended by leaders of the Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA) and 15 participants of the IRF Roundtable.
- We had a very substantive opening discussion.
- We made it clear that we recognized that the world faces an undeniable threat in the form of religious intolerance, extremism and violence. For this reason, we validated the stated purpose of the Religion Law.
- At the same time, however, we politely reminded the Kazakh government of its own stated viewpoint that stability and economic success come from religious harmony, mutual understanding and respect. This viewpoint is consistent with empirical research, which reveals that cracking down on religious freedom is a dangerous and counterproductive response.
- Therefore, we believe it is in the interests of the Kazakh government to enter into a constructive engagement that is open and honest; that will increase mutual understanding of the situation, how it is affecting certain legitimate and peaceful religious communities, and how it will impact the state; and that will allow us to resolve differences, increase freedom of religion and conscience, and thereby maintain stability in Kazakhstan.
- We believe this dialogue can be helpful in avoiding the potential outcome raised by Aleksandr Klyushev, chairman of the Association of Religious Organisations of Kazakhstan (AROK). He wrote that the Religion Law will “damage our national security by creating unnecessary tension in society” and allow “law-enforcement personnel to claim successes in combating illegal but harmless religious organizations instead of effectively policing threats to our society from criminals such as terrorists.”
- Further, we believe this dialogue can be helpful in bringing the Religion Law closer to international standards. The right to non-discrimination is a basic and pervasive feature of international human rights law. All the major human rights instruments guarantee that everyone is entitled to freedoms “without distinction of any kind such as…religion.” These standards are emphasized in UN human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ICCPR.
- We know that the government of Kazakhstan understands the importance of religious freedom to a stable and prosperous society. We are therefore optimistic that an open and honest dialogue between the Kazakh government, civil society groups and faith communities will help all parties to resolve the significant concerns surrounding the Religion Law.
- But before going any further, the Ambassador invited the Roundtable participants to visit Kazakhstan, look for ourselves, and increase our understanding by talking with, and listening to, Kazakh officials and citizens. The participants accepted this invitation.
The Trip to Kazakhstan
- On December 1, 2013, Mitchell led a five-member IRF Roundtable delegation on a trip to Kazakhstan.
- We met with Kazakh officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ARA and the General Prosecutor’s Office.
- We also met freely with anyone we chose in Astana and Almaty. And we participated as observers in a conference on religion, security and citizenship.
- We learned of promising developments:
- Kazakh officials plan to establish a working group to review the 2011 Religion Law;
- The Research and Analytical Center of the ARA raised the possibility of a training curriculum with the goal of attaining a global, comparative perspective, as well as practical models, regarding: religious governance and management; religious education; and national education systems; and
- During the conference, an official from the same Research and Analytical Center of the ARA said Kazakhstan’s religious management model was in transition, moving towards “cooperation.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur’s Subsequent Trip to Kazakhstan
- Meanwhile, from March 25 to April 4, 2014, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, undertook a visit to Kazakhstan.
- The Special Rapporteur has been mandated through Human Rights Council resolution 6/37 to promote the adoption of measures at the national, regional and international levels to ensure the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of religion or belief; to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles; and to continue her/his efforts to examine incidents and governmental actions that are incompatible with the provisions of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief and to recommend remedial measures as appropriate.
- Here is the brief summary of his formal report:
In the present report, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief gives an account of the main findings of his visit to Kazakhstan undertaken from 25 March to 4 April 2014. While acknowledging a general appreciation of religious diversity in the country, he noticed adverse attitudes towards some non-traditional religious communities. The State monitors religious activities strictly, with a view to preventing extremism and to combating “sects” deemed destructive to people’s well-being. Many of the measures adopted for this purpose are not in line with international standards of freedom of religion or belief. Moreover, the mandatory registration of religious communities, in conjunction with tightly knit stipulations, largely hampers free religious practice, which takes place in an atmosphere of legal insecurity.
- His conclusions include:
66. The Agency for Religious Affairs, which was established in 2011 as a central governmental body responsible for carrying out State regulation of religious affairs in the country, plays an active role in managing religious diversity both nationally and regionally. Much of its activity, such as the facilitation of interreligious gatherings, meets with the approval of many representatives of religious communities, including minority communities. At the same time, the 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations shows restrictive features that are not in line with international standards of freedom of religion or belief. The most obvious problem concerns the mandatory status of official registration. Failure to obtain this status means that a religious community is deemed “illegal”, which has far-reaching negative repercussions on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief. Moreover, even those communities which are registered suffer to some extent from legal insecurity, inter alia due to the official confinement of permitted religious activities to certain predefined issues and territorial boundaries. In general, the 2011 Law is based on the assumption that the exercise of core aspects of freedom of religion depends on specific acts of Government approval — thereby turning the relationship between freedom and limitations, as generally understood in the framework of human rights, upside down.
67. While Kazakhstan has broadly embraced religious pluralism, members of non-traditional small religious communities, frequently branded as “sects”, continue to experience suspicion, mistrust and discrimination in society. Moreover, some provisions of the Criminal Code and of the Code on Administrative Offences — both the existing and the new Codes — which are aimed at combating religious hatred or religious extremism — are defined only vaguely, thus creating a climate of legal insecurity, which is further exacerbated by shortcomings in the handling of criminal procedures, long pretrial detention and related problems. Similar problems are associated with the 2005 Law on Countering Extremism.
- His recommendations include:
(a) …The Special Rapporteur recommends that the Government consider amending the relevant provisions of the Constitution to bring them into line with article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…
(b) The Government should bring its constitutional provisions pertinent to freedom of religion or belief fully into line with article 18 of the Covenant and other relevant international human rights standards.
(d) Above all, the Special Rapporteur would like to recommend far-reaching reforms of the 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations based on an understanding that registration should be in the service of freedom of religion or belief which, due to its status as a universal human right, inheres in all human beings, prior to — and independent of — any specific acts of administrative approval. The most important consequence would be that registration should be an offer, not a mandatory requirement, for religious community practice. Non-registered communities must be able to operate free from discrimination and free from fear of intimidation.
(e) Registration of those religious communities who wish to obtain the respective status position should be undertaken in a spirit of servicing freedom of religion or belief. Procedures should be quick, transparent, fair und without undue bureaucratic complications. Decisions on issues regarding the status of registrations must never reflect the standpoint of a competing religious group.
The Trip Report of the IRF Roundtable Delegation to Kazakhstan
- On May 15, 2014, we published the Trip Report of the International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable Delegation to Kazakhstan, 1-6 December 2013 with our recommendations that are designed to come alongside the Kazakh government on its path.
- From the Executive Summary:
The delegation had two goals: to assess the accuracy of critical foreign government and NGO reports, especially those concerning the 2011 Religion Law, and to explore possible avenues of cooperation with the Kazakh government to address these issues.
In their meeting with Kazakh officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Agency for Religious Affairs and the General Prosecutor’s Office, members of the delegation made the point that Kazakhstan must fully consider and understand the impact of the Religion Law on national security. The need to counter violent extremism is pressing, but cracking down on religious freedom is a dangerous and counterproductive response.
The human rights activists with which the delegation met were highly critical of the law, and validated some of the criticisms of Western governments and human rights groups. However, the effects of the law on security and stability in Kazakhstan remain unclear due to a lack of empirical data. Anecdotal evidence gathered by the delegation, as well as empirical research conducted in other countries, suggests that the law may be detrimental to stability. It also has a highly negative effect on Kazakhstan’s image in the West.
- From our recommendations in Section 4:
The situation in Kazakhstan is complex and is influenced by social, economic, political and religious factors. Therefore, a simplistic narrative that demonizes the government and the Religion Law will not work. However, there are ways Kazakhstan can work to improve the Religion Law, as well as its security situation in general, and begin to rehabilitate its image in the West. To this end, the Roundtable delegation respectfully offers the following recommendations:
1. Continue the engagement with participants of the IRF Roundtable on religious issues. Western organizations and Kazakh government officials need continued dialogue to find common points and increase understanding and consensus on all sides.
3. If it has not already been done, consider establishing an interagency working group to review the 2011 Religion Law.
- As part of this review, consider examining the criminal code and other appropriate legislation that directly or indirectly affects religion. For instance, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who just completed a visit to Kazakhstan on 4 April, stated in the concluding remarks of his presentation of preliminary findings that, “the currently ongoing reform of the criminal code offers an opportunity to revise articles which, as numerous practical examples indicate, have proven to be detrimental both to freedom of expression and to freedom of religion or belief. This particularly concerns articles 164 and 337-1 of the Criminal Code.”
- We respectfully urge that the Kazakh government accept the forthcoming recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who will submit a formal report with recommendations later this year.
- Consider making the working group inclusive and open to the world’s best practices by inviting inputs from civil society, religious leaders of all faiths, and international experts.
- To facilitate these inputs, consider establishing a formal mechanism by which government and grassroots leaders can engage in a meaningful dialogue on the law.
6. Allow for civil society, religious leaders of all faiths, and independent experts in Kazakhstan to establish an inclusive, civil society-organized safe space for ongoing dialogue to discuss these interconnected issues. Government representatives can be invited by civil society to participate.
7. Consider developing a strategy for religious engagement. This strategy can take into account the growth trends in the social role of religion and its institutions, their deepening cooperation with the institutions of the state, and the need to improve the Kazakh model of state-confessional relations.
The Most Recent Discussion
- On November 19, 2014, the dialogue continued at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, which was hosted by the Ambassador and attended by leaders of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Committee for Religious Affairs.
- We had a very candid discussion of the religious situation in Kazakhstan and regional security.
- We greeted each other as “old friends.” And in this meeting to further the dialogue, Kazakh officials said they were going to be honest with us, because we are friends.
- Their main concern is the situation in the world around them—the increasing violence and its connection to religion; the violence that is being done, particularly in Syria and Iraq, under the auspices of religion. They do not want this to type of violence to come to Kazakhstan.
- And in Kazakhstan, their main concern is the fact that there are certain individuals who take extreme views. Terrorist groups exist, and the threat to order comes under the cover of religion.
- So they consider prevention to be most important—prevention of the use of religion for extremist purposes. They are responsible to the people in their country. Stability is their responsibility.
- They acknowledged that there is the opinion that they create too much pressure and violate the rights of small religions, and that there are certain questions about the 2011 Religion Law. But they said it’s the law today. They said it’s not ideal, but it is driven by the situation in Kazakhstan.
- They said this is the way they choose to handle the situation. This is the way they choose to provide peace in their country. They are proud of their model. Some see troubles with it, but no model is perfect.
- Aer hearing concerns from Roundtable participants, they said the religion law is only three years old. And every law should have a chance to work.
- They said there have been misapplications of this law, but they are correcting them. They are teaching law enforcement how to enforce this law. And they are organizing seminars for state and local government leaders.
- They said, in the near future, there will be no changes to the law. They believe it’s working. They believe it’s delivering peace.
- They said they have a working group, and they have a whole paper on how to improve the law, and they can go to parliament tomorrow with it. But they will not do this. Not now. Not while the world is blowing up around them.
- They said our opinion is important to them, but there will be no changes yet.
 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Annual Report 2013.” Available at: http://www.uscirf.gov/reports-and-briefs/annual-report/3988-2013-annual-report.html.
 Study on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, p. 98, para.586, by Francesco Copotorti, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission of Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, UN Pub. No. E.91.XIV.2 (1979).