European Interreligious Forum For Religious Freedom

Kazakhstan - UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief releases his report

Written the Friday, March 13th 2015 à 12:36

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The Human Rights Council started its interactive dialogue with Heiner Bielefeldt, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, on March 10 in Geneva. Kazakhstan and Viet Nam were the concerned countries.

In his report on Kazakhstan, the Special Rapporteur starts with his general observations in that way:

"A.    A society characterized by religious pluralism

2.    Interlocutors from the Government and civil society repeatedly pointed out that Kazakhstan, in spite of its rich and long history, is still a young nation. Since its independence in 1991, it has seen rapid and far-reaching transformations, including an unprecedented pace of economic growth, the establishment of new State agencies, the development of numerous civil society organizations, the further unfolding of ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism and a revival of religious life, epitomized inter alia in a number of impressive new religious buildings. 

3.    Religious pluralism is a hallmark of Kazakh society traceable to far back in history and perhaps even to pre-history. Many people with whom the Special Rapporteur discussed this issue praised the culture of religious tolerance that has existed in the country since time immemorial. Some also mentioned specifically the country’s “nomadic” traditions of hospitality and openness towards others. Today, two big confessions — Sunni Islam (of the Hanafi school) and Russian Orthodox Christianity — shape the religious landscape, together with a number of smaller communities. While Muslims constitute a majority of approximately 70 per cent of the population, Russian Orthodox Christians are estimated to amount to almost 25 per cent. Smaller communities include Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, New Apostolic Church, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Shias, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Baha’is, Buddhists, Scientologists and Hare Krishna adherents. One should not forget that there are possibly also a high number of atheists and agnostics or people who do not care much about religious beliefs and identities. While some of the above-mentioned communities have existed in Kazakhstan for centuries, others arrived in more recent times. The Special Rapporteur noticed broad agreement that the relationship between the various religious communities is generally a positive one. Incidents of interreligious clashes seem to be very rare, and people mostly appreciate religious diversity as something quite natural to Kazakhstan. 

4.    However, this generally positive attitude does not equally include members of non-traditional communities. According to a survey conducted by the Agency for Religious Affairs, the population generally displays different degrees of acceptance towards traditional and non-traditional religious communities. Members of communities perceived as “non-traditional” reported that they sometimes faced societal scepticism, suspicion and discrimination. For instance, they might encounter difficulties when trying to rent a building or room to gather the community or to hold services. Although government representatives mostly avoided the terms “traditional” and “non-traditional” when discussing this theme — except in the context of summits of religious leaders regularly convened in Kazakhstan — no one denied that adverse attitudes existed towards religious groups perceived as standing outside of the country’s traditional mosaic. Moreover, widespread fear of religious extremism, often associated with certain currents of Islam, and worries about the influence of “sects” generally associated with small non-traditional groups pose challenges to the climate of religious tolerance that largely prevails in the society."

Then here are his recommendations:

"VII. Conclusions and recommendations

1.     Representatives of the Government repeatedly emphasized that Kazakhstan had embarked on a process of rapid and far-reaching transformation. The country aspires to fully using its potential as a “bridge” between different geographical and cultural areas and between international and regional organizations. Domestically, reforms are under way, including in the law. In this context, the Special Rapporteur heard encouraging expressions of commitment to further developing the culture of peaceful inter-ethnic and interreligious coexistence that has largely shaped the history of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has seen a revitalization of religious life, inter alia embodied in the construction of impressive religious buildings.

2.     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.

3.     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.

4.     So far, information about religion plays a limited role in public school education. The textbooks used for that purpose contain problematic language and  generally a warning tone with regard to non-traditional religious movements. Some initiatives taken towards broadening “religious literacy” in society may positively empower people to make up their own minds in the area of religion or belief.

5.     Against this background, the Special Rapporteur would like to make the following recommendations: 

(a)     A public debate on the meaning of secularism in Kazakhstan should help to overcome the currently predominant restrictive interpretation according to which secularism serves as a tool for confining manifestations of freedom of religion or belief to predefined strictly monitored territorial boundaries. Based on freedom of religion or belief for everyone, a secular constitution should provide space for the unfolding of the existing and emerging religious pluralism in society, free from fear and free from discrimination. 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. In this context, an open discussion on an inclusive understanding of secularism might also help to overcome restrictive attitudes within the administration and within law-enforcement agencies. 

(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.

(c)     The Government is currently preparing the Fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The Special Rapporteur would encourage those in charge of organizing the event to move beyond the confines of traditional religions and also invite representatives of other communities. Besides the usually male leaders, women should play an active role in the dialogue, including feminist theologians of different denominations. This could serve as a signal to further broaden the understanding and acceptance of diversity within society.

(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.

(f)      Thresholds for registration at different levels (local, regional and national) should be defined in such a way that minorities can fully operate throughout the country. The requirement of registering missionary activities, as well as the practice of licensing the importation and distribution of religious literature, should also be generally overhauled. Representatives of religious communities and civil society organizations working in this field should be consulted throughout this process.

(g)     When amending the 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations, particular attention should also be given to the need of religious communities to socialize the younger generation, which requires an adequate infrastructure of educational institutions. Private religious schools and similar institutions must be able to function freely and without undue administrative stipulations.

(h)     Religious communities should be able to offer humanitarian or charitable services for their followers and/or for the larger society.

(i)      Those religious or belief communities which, for whatever reasons, do not have the status of a recognized religious community, or do not wish to obtain this status, should have viable options to obtain an alternative form of legal personality status that would allow them to carry out important community functions in a suitable manner.

(j)      Overly broad definitions of offences concerning religious discord and extremism, which may negatively impact on freedom of religion or belief in conjunction with freedom of expression, should be replaced by clear and narrow definitions. This concerns both the Criminal Code and the Code on Administrative Offences, as well as the 2005 Law on Countering Extremism. After the adoption (in July 2014) of a new Criminal Code and a new Code on Administrative Offences, reforms aimed at more clarity are still needed. The Rabat Plan of Action (put into effect by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2012) can provide practical guidance in this regard.

(k)     The Special Rapporteur would like to encourage the Ministry of Education to further develop the programmes on religious information for students, also beyond grade 9. School education plays a pivotal role in promoting a climate of religious tolerance. The Special Rapporteur also commends initiatives which recently have been taken for the promotion of “religious literacy” in the population at large.

(l)      The Government should discontinue anti-sect campaigns that stoke negative stereotypes against new religious movements. Information provided on religious beliefs and communities, in particular in the context of school education, must be fair and precise. In this context, the Special Rapporteur commends the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions or Beliefs in Public Schools, which were drawn up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. 

(m)   The Government should further strengthen the national and regional infrastructure of human rights protection; for instance, by establishing regional offices of the Ombudsman’s institution. 

(n)     The Special Rapporteur shares the view expressed by many interlocutors that abiding strictly by the principles of rule of law creates the best conditions for combating the scourges of religious hatred and religious extremism, since a clear reliance on rule of law helps to build trust within society and between State agencies and the population at large.

(o)     Trust-building measures are also contained in the Rabat Plan of Action. It would be useful for the Government to broadly consult with civil society organizations, media, religious communities and other stakeholders on how best to apply the Rabat Plan of Action to the specific situation of Kazakhstan."

You can find the full report here: 

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