By BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ASTANA/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife)-- A court in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan has begun hearing the case against a Kazakh Christian convert who could face a long prison term on charges of "inciting religious hatred".
Yqylas Qabduaqasov, 54, an active member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, was brought to the courtroom in the capital Astana Friday, October 9, in handcuffs, reporters said.
"Saryarqa District Court Judge Aqmaral Isaeva allowed journalists to film only three minutes of the trial's start and then banned any recording devices in the courtroom," said the U.S.-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty network.
Several witnesses in the case reportedly testified that Qabduaqasov expressed ideas during Bible study sessions that sounded "insulting to Muslims and the Prophet Muhammad".
Qabduaqasov, who was detained in mid-August, pleaded not guilty. He could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted, according to trial observers.
His case is part of what Christian advocacy groups view as wider persecution of minority Christians, and especially converts, in the heavily Islamic nation.
"All Christians are affected by persecution in Kazakhstan, but Christian converts from Islam and non-traditional Protestant groups face most pressure, both from family and community, and from the regime, which is constantly working to increase its control over society," said Open Doors, an advocacy and aid group.
"More and more legal restrictions are being imposed on the church. Christians are frequently fined for their activities and pastors arrested and imprisoned," added the group, which is in close contacts with believers in the region. At least 71 people were reportedly fined in 2014 for worshipping in unregistered, underground churches.
"Radical Islam has already left its traces in Kazakhstan, and the government is fearful of what may happen if jihadists come to their country," said Open Doors.
The country of autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev ranks 42 on Open Doors' annual 'World Watch List' of the 50 "worst countries in regards to Christian persecution." Some 2.5-million people of Kazakhstan's 16.7-million population are Christian, according to Open Doors estimates.