Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and the eighth largest in the world, but its population density is very low, with fewer than six people per square kilometre. About two thirds of the population is ethnic Kazakh (mainly Muslim) and about a quarter ethnic Slav (mainly Russian), with some smaller minorities.
Kazakhstan has huge oil and gas reserves and major investment in the oil sector since 1991 brought rapid economic growth. Oil money is responsible for the development of Astana, which became the capital in 1997, taking over from Almaty, but the economy has declined in recent years.
The government’s repressive regime controls society very tightly, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe considers elections not to be free and fair. Nursultan Nazarbayev was president from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until March 2019; before that, he was first secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and ruled the country from 1989. He resigned in March 2019, saying that the country needed a new generation of leaders. The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, became interim president and was elected to office in June 2019. He was re-elected in a landslide victory in November 2022.
Kazakhstan is constitutionally secular, with freedom of religion, but as in other central Asian countries the threat of Islamic extremism has led the government to impose increasing restrictions and it now controls all religions very strictly. The main state agency that controls freedom of religion or belief is the Social Accord Committee (created as the Religious Affairs Committee in September 2016), which is part of the Social Development Ministry.
Unregistered religious activity and proselytism are illegal (including distributing religious literature without permission), and the activities of registered groups are strictly regulated. Sunni Islam, the majority religion, is under total state control and other Muslim groups such as Ahmadis are banned. Several legally resident foreigners – including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and protestants – have been fined and handed deportation orders in recent years as illegal “missionaries”.
The Russian Orthodox Church (the largest church in Kazakhstan) experiences few difficulties as the government does not view it as a threat, and Catholic churches are exempt from registration due to a government agreement with the Vatican, but other denominations are facing increasing problems. Police frequently raid church meetings, detain leaders and members and impose large fines. Christian converts from Islam come under pressure to recant from family and community.
In 2011, Kazakhstan’s government introduced a repressive new Religion Law that increased restrictions on meetings and “missionary activity” for all religions. The law required religious groups to re-register under greater restrictions, a complex and expensive process, and it required that religious groups have at least 50 members locally, 500 nationally and 5,000 nationally in order to register, which is impossible for small churches. In 2018, the government approved a set of amendments that imposed even harsher restrictions, including a ban on religious teaching unless within a registered organisation.
On 29 December 2021, President Tokayev signed into law further amendments to the Religion Law that make holding religious events away from state-registered places of worship more difficult. Any state-registered religious community that wants to hold a pilgrimage or other event away from their state-registered place of worship now needs advance state permission and must provide details including start and end time, how people will get there, whether loud speakers will be used and how many vehicles will be used plus their travel route. The amendments came into force on 9 January 2022.
Access to religious literature in Kazakhstan is strictly controlled. The government censors all religious texts, restricts where they may be sold and has banned at least 695 texts (including Muslim, Ahmadi, Christian, Hare Krishna and Jehovah’s Witness) for alleged extremism. In 2012 new censorship regulations went into effect, and in December 2016 President Nazarbayev signed a law that amended twenty other laws, including increasing penalties and state controls on the production, distribution and import of religious texts.
Forum 18 News Service reports that members of churches affiliated with the Baptist Council of Churches in Kazakhstan (and other countries in Central Asia) have chosen a policy of civil disobedience, refusing to register or to pay fines imposed for practising their faith.
Affiliated congregations are frequently raided and members handed summary fines by police with no court hearing for leading or participating in religious meetings without state permission.
Many who refuse to pay fines are put on Kazakhstan’s exit blacklist, preventing them from leaving the country, and some have property confiscated (such as washing machines or cars), while others have restraining orders placed on property (homes, cars, livestock), preventing them from selling.
(Barnabas, BBC, Forum 18, US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch Monitor)