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Kazakhstan passes restrictive religion measure

AP foreign, Wednesday November 26 2008

By PETER LEONARD

Associated Press Writer= ALMATY, Kazakhstan (AP) - Kazakhstan's lower house of Parliament approved controversial legislation Wednesday to increase government control over religious groups, drawing criticism from a major international group Kazakhstan is to lead in 2010.

Rights groups say the amendments to the country's law on religion will hinder religious minorities in the sprawling Central Asian country and could force some of them out of existence.

Kazakhstan, where Muslims and Christians each make up about 45 percent of the population, has sought in recent years to cast itself as an active promoter of religious tolerance. But some Christian communities — including Baptists and Lutherans, largely from the ethnic German population — have come under government scrutiny.

Foreign Christian missionary activity, which flourished after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, is also viewed with suspicion by Kazakh authorities.

All deputies in the lower house are members of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's party. But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe urged Nazarbayev not to adopt the legislation.

Under the amendments, which must be passed by the upper house and signed into law by the president, missionary activities would be curtailed and fines for unregistered religious organizations sharply increased. The amendments also would restrict the right to publish religious literature to approved organizations.

"It is disappointing that the law was adopted in such a hasty way without making full use of broad consultations with civil society and expertise from the international community," said Janez Lenarcic, director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Other measures include requiring children to provide written authorization from their parents to attend religious events. Failing to adhere to the law will be punishable by a fine equivalent to 50 times the minimum monthly salary.

Parliament's approval of the legislation comes just one day after an OSCE expert team agreed with the Kazakh Justice Ministry to draw up recommendations on the law.

Kazakhstan last year secured the right to chair the OSCE in 2010 by promising to improve democratic standards in the country, but critics say the government has adopted few concrete measures in meeting its obligations.

"The law completely contradicts OSCE commitments in the area of human rights," said Felix Corley of the Norway-based Forum 18 religious rights organization.

Changes to the law on religion follow a broader pattern of weak democratic freedoms in former Soviet Kazakhstan, Corley said.

"The government in Kazakhstan wants to control everything that moves in society, whether in the area of religion, politics or economics. It does not like organizations it cannot control," he said.

Kazakhstan hosted an international forum on religious rights in 2006, swiftly building a 250-foot (77-meter) glass pyramid-shaped venue costing more $65 million in the capital, Astana, in time for the meeting.

But religious freedom advocates maintain the government is behind this year's campaign of negative media coverage of Hare Krishnas, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Scientologists — all of which have a minor presence in the country.

"The government seems to regard religion as potentially a source of opposition to its rule, something that undermines the homogeneity of society and could cause instability," Corley said.

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