I got a disturbing email today from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on the latest moves by the Kazakh government to limit any but the largest and already-established religions to hold meetings, educate their young and obtain property. See their press release here but in short, the Kazakh parliament makes life hell for religious groups that don’t register with the government. Then it limits who gets to register. Folks like the Baptists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have always refused to register and have gotten into deep trouble for this, such as having their pastors imprisoned and church buildings confiscated.
They are not alone in this, as I’ve previously written. The Hare Krishnas have had their property and buildings outside of Almaty (the cultural capital) confiscated and bulldozed. Particularly disturbing is that religious groups cannot take contributions from foreigners or anonymous donations.
Eighteen months ago, I spent 7 weeks in Kazakhstan adopting my little girl, so invested some time talking with the locals and various Americans stationed in the country as to what was really happening. One reason for the restrictions are to limit radical Muslim groups that tend to operate in the southern part of Kazakhstan and to cut off funds from terrorist groups. But the government was being so heavy-handed, it was having the reverse effect of driving Muslims further into radicalism.
And the limit on contributions affects Christians as well. When I visited a pentecostal church in northern Kazakhstan one Sunday, I noticed the piles of evangelistic material sent in from Germany and translated into Russian and Kazakh. Such literature is not easy to get in country, so it has to be imported. There’s also a lot of pressure for Christians to not evangelize the nominally Muslim Kazakhs. So missionaries concentrate on the nominally Orthodox ethnic Russians.
There are equally troubling trends happening in neighboring Kyrgzstan and Tajikstan as well. Forum 18, a Christian news service out of Norway, provides excellent updates on what’s going on in these former Soviet republics. This seeming out-of-the-way part of the world is considered fertile ground for missionaries of all stripes who had no access to much of central Asia until the early 1990s.
For those of you interested in more discussions on religious freedom and U.S. foreign policy, Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center is hosting an all-day conference this Friday on the topic, albeit not on central Asia from what I can glean of the speakers list. Click here to find out more.
— Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times