Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent, BosNewsLife
BUDAPEST/ASTANA (BosNewsLife)– A global Christian rights group welcomed a “landmark decision” by Kazakhstan’s Constitutional Council to reject as “unconstitutional” a draft law which would “further restrict freedom of religion and belief in the country,” BosNewsLife learned Saturday, February 14.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said Wednesday’s ruling by the Constitutional Council was partly made on grounds that the “rights and freedoms stipulated by various specific articles of the Constitution shall not be restricted in any way.”
This includes Article 14.2 which states that “no one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of origin, social, property status, occupation, sex, race, nationality, language, attitude towards religion, convictions, place of residence or any other circumstances.”
The announcement apparently followed lobbying from CSW and other human rights organizations hoping to prevent the proposed bill, known as the ‘Law on Amendments and Additions to Several Legislative Acts on Questions of Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.’
Kazakhstan’s International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law said earlier in a statement that the judgment also implies that the current Religion Law is “unconstitutional.”
Under that legislation Christians and other, religious communities in Kazakhstan, already “face violations of their right to freedom of religion and belief,” CSW said, adding that this is “in defiance of international human rights standards” which the former Soviet republic is party to.
U.S. officials have also expressed their concern. The United States State Department said recently that a “new government initiative included criticism of “nontraditional religious groups” and called for new legislation to increase control over missionaries and the dissemination of religious materials.”
In addition, high-level government officials have publicly criticized foreign missionaries and minority religious groups, the State Department said. “The Government’s enforcement of current laws led to continuing problems for some unregistered groups, as the law imposes mandatory registration requirements on missionaries and religious organizations.” It added that “local officials attempted on occasion to limit the practice of religion by some minority groups.”
The country is religiously divided with nearly half of the population (46 percent) consider themselves ‘Christian’, with most of them belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, according to estimates by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Protestant Christians, several of whom have reportedly been persecuted, comprise roughly two percent of the population, Muslims and others about 54 percent of Kazakhstan’s over 15 million people.
Autocratic President Nursultan Abish-uly Nazarbayev has one month to respond to the decision, but analysts say he is likely to face international pressure especially from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which Kazakhstan is due to chair in 2010.
Elections in December 2005 returned Nursultan Nazarbayev for a further seven-year term with more than 90 percent of the votes. However opposition groups claimed the ballot was rigged and OSCE observers declared it to have been “seriously flawed”. He also signed a constitutional amendment in 2007 that would allow him to remain president for the rest of his life.
CSW Advocacy Director Alexa Papadouris suggested to BosNewsLife that rights activists were cautiously optimistic that the political situation for Christians would improve in the country.
“We hope the Constitutional Council’s decision will also lead to a review of the constitutionality of the current restrictive legislation, and we trust that this decision will send a message to other Central Asian states…”
Papadouris said it is “imperative that the international community now call on the authorities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to ensure their treatment of religious communities accords with international standards of freedom of religion and belief”.