By BosNewsLife News Center with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
BUDAPEST/ALMATY (BosNewsLife)– Christian rights activists have urged prayers for three evangelical pastors who face lengthy prison sentences if they return to their native Kazakhstan from the United States.
“The three self-exiled pastors have been sentenced to terms up to five years for leading the New Life Pentecostal Church in the city of Almaty,” said the well-informed advocacy group Voice Of the Martyrs Canada (VOMC).
The sentences were announced on November 1, when the court rejected their latest appeal, trial observers said.
“The founding pastor, Maxim Maximov, faces five years in prison. His wife Larisa Maximova, and ministry colleague Sergei Zaikin, each face four years,” VOMC told BosNewsLife in a statement.
All three pastors plan to appeal their conviction at the Supreme Court, according to Christians familiar with the case.
The charges include “causing psychological harm,” and alleged involvement in illegal associations, VOMC confirmed.
“In at least one case, however, the time frame for the accusation was before the victim was even born. The three pastors have fled the country and are presently living in the United States, though they would like to return to their homeland,” the group added.
The New Life Church was founded in 1991 when Kazakhstan was part of the then Soviet Union. Following the collapse the Communism and the Soviet Union, the congregation was officially registered in 2012, Christians said.
Despite its legal status, the church has faced repeated attacks by the state-controlled media and authorities over the past few years, according to rights activists.
“Though all charges were against the three individuals, five properties belonging to their church — including the main worship building — have been confiscated
and placed under a restraining order,” VOMC explained, citing several sources.
Some governing authorities reportedly offered to resolve the issues for bribes. “In November 2018, another church leader, Pastor Ivan Kryukov, was approached by police who suggested that all these legal problems could be dismissed if the church gave monetary compensation,” VOMC said
This year, church leaders were reportedly told that their collaboration with the country’s secret police would help to overcome problems. “Offers like these have been declined by the pastoral team due to the injustice of their situation,” VOMC said.
It urged supporters to pray for the church leaders. “Please intercede for these three exiled church leaders, as they spend extended time away from their homes and church. They are threatened with imprisonment if they return,” the group wrote.
“May their congregation members find ways of meeting together for worship and encouragement. In the meantime, pray that the courts will provide a just and equitable ruling.”
The reported prison sentences come amid broader pressure on Christians in the former Soviet nation, according to rights groups. “In Kazakhstan, there are two main drivers of Christian persecution: One is the state and the other the Muslim culture. The government is continuously working to maintain and increase its control over society,
using surveillance, raids, and detentions,” said Open Doors, a leading advocacy group.
“Christians are under nearly constant surveillance, and the threat of militant Islam is used as an excuse to restrict freedoms, resulting in worsening conditions for the Christian minority,” the group added.
Suppressed under Soviet rule, the main religion, Islam, is undergoing a revival, observers say. The former Soviet republic is ethnically diverse, with Kazakhs making up nearly two-thirds of the population of 18 million. Ethnic Russians comprise just under a quarter, and smaller minorities the rest.
Adding to difficulties is political uncertainty. Long-time autocratic ruler and Kazakhstan’s founder Nursultan Nazarbayev recently stepped down. His long-time ally Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took over as president after the president’s March resignation. He says he will continue the policies of his predecessor and rely on his opinion in crucial policy matters.
That could impact devoted Christians and other groups if they are seen as a potential threat to the autocratic government’s power base, according to a BosNewsLife assessment.