Monday, February 16, 2009


Kazakhstan‘s Secretary of State Kanat Saudabayev wrote in The Washington Times Feb. 3 of “stronger cooperation of progressive nations sharing common values” and his confidence that Kazakhstan-U.S. relations will “continue to grow” under the new administration.

Recent human-rights violations by Kazakhstan’s government against its religious minorities, however, cause some in the United States and Europe to doubt whether Kazakhstan has earned the right to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as it is scheduled to do in 2010.

The act of Kazakstan’s Constitutional Council in overturning parts of a repressive new religious law on Feb. 11 is a step in the right direction. However, the political climate in the country continues to bode ill for religious minorities, and human-rights experts fear the parliament may still pass other new repressive measures.

Even without the new religious law, Kazakhstan has recently taken actions against its religious minorities that cause serious concerns.

The recent jailing of Unification Church missionary Elizaveta Drenicheva for teaching her church’s doctrine on original sin is only one example of how Kazakhstan’s view of religious freedom diverges from the mainstream of the community of nations. Freedom of religion is, after all, one of the key “common values” shared by nations with a commitment to human rights.

The judge in Mrs. Drenicheva’s case ruled that by teaching her church’s doctrine of the Fall of Man, the 30-year-old Russian missionary had violated Kazakhstan’s constitution. “She taught that people should be divided into sinful and righteous groups,” explained Kazakh press attache Zhanbolat Ussenov. “That is discrimination on a religious basis.” But experts in religion point out that virtually all religious groups do the same, and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s vision of an ideal world where people of all races and religions live in harmony hardly justifies Kazakhstan’s concern that Mrs. Drenecheva is sowing fertile seeds of ethnic hatred, as is charged.

Article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that everyone has the right to express their religious views both privately and in community. Yet the judge sentenced Mrs. Drenicheva to a two-year prison term merely for sharing her religion with people who had come voluntarily to the church’s center in Almaty to hear her lectures.

The clampdown on smaller religious groups in Kazakhstan has been attracting the attention of human-rights groups for some time. The Forum 18 News Service reports Kazakhstan has resumed jailing Baptists who refuse to register their worship services with the government. Khrishna devotees have witnessed their properties bulldozed and their leader banned from the country. The Church of Scientology reports that its centers and members’ homes have been illegally raided by the secret police (KNB).

Coupled with government and police actions, a wave of negative media reports against minority religious groups has targeted Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Ahmadi Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the newer groups. “All these articles have one source,” claims Almaty Helsinki Committee head Ninel Fokina, “the KNB secret police.”

In the early years after the demise of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was often seen as a model of human rights and religious pluralism. Its majority Muslim population seemed willing enough to live in peace with its substantial Russian Orthodox Christian minority, together with a growing segment of Western religions. The recent shift toward repression reflects growing pressure from the two mainstream groups and old-guard secularists of the communist era that there are now “too many religions” in Kazakhstan.

Some see Mrs. Drenicheva’s trial as a test case. Unlike the Baptist churches whose ministers were jailed for refusing to pay fines relating to registration issues, Mrs. Drenicheva’s church is officially registered with the government, and she has been sentenced to prison merely for what she taught.

Some voices within Kazakhstan have spoken out against the repression. Commenting on the Drenicheva case, Evgeniy Zhovtis, chief of the Kazakhstan International Bureau of Human Rights, stated: “You could hardly imagine a better way to discredit our country.”

Mrs. Drenicheva’s case is now on appeal, but the 30-year old Russian missionary remains in prison. She is considered in the human-rights community to be a prisoner of conscience. Freedom House, the oldest human-rights group in the United States, said it “strongly urges the court of appeals to throw out Ms. Drenicheva’s conviction on the grounds that it is a clear miscarriage of justice and the continuation of a worrisome campaign in Kazakhstan against minority religious groups.”

For her part, Elizaveta Drenicheva tries to put a brave face on her situation. “Don’t worry, I’m fine!” she writes to her co-religionists. But she confesses it is not always easy for her to keep her spirits up while confined. “When I at last see the sun I’ll surely dance of joy,” she writes. “I miss the sun so much!”

Dan Fefferman is executive director of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom:

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