RELIGION IN THE SOCIAL-POLITICAL CONTEXT OF KAZAKHSTAN

Iakov TROFIMOV


Iakov Trofimov, Ph.D., professor, Karaganda Bolashak Institute of Actual Education (Kazakhstan)


Since the early days of human history religion and politics have remained closely connected, this fact coming to the fore in the most dramatic way in the early 21st century. Many states have to revise their relations with religious communities, look for means and methods to counter religious-political extremism and terrorism as its violent form.

Kazakhstan has had its share of these problems: its geographic location makes it a transit state for the emissaries of political Islam. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Uighur fighters defending Islam in Xinjiang as well as extremists heading for Kyrgyzstan and Chechnia are using our republic as a transit route. Recently Kazakhstan attracted the gazes of international terrorists, extremist organizations and international drug-pushing mafia.

In his book Kriticheskoe desiatiletie (The Critical Decade) President of Kazakhstan Nazarbaev has written: The Central Asian terrorist potential is high. Throughout the period when the Central Asian countries were strengthening their independence and sovereignty extremism and terrorism have betrayed themselves in all of them in one form or another.1 Social and economic difficulties from which none of the local countries is completely free add to the attractions of radical Islam.

Kazakhstan has its share of political Islamists: in 2000-2003, the law enforcement bodies arrested in the South Kazakhstan Region several members of the clandestine religious-political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir engaged in spreading leaflets calling to set up the Islamic Caliphate, condemning Israel for its anti-Palestinian steps and the struggle of the Russian special services against the Chechen terrorists who in 2002 had taken hostages in a Moscow theater. Similar leaflets were found in the Almaty, Akmola, and Karaganda regions. It was at the same time that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan suspected of attempted murder of the President of Uzbekistan were arrested and deported to this country; one of those who had been involved in the terrorist act in Buynaksk in Russia was arrested and deported to Russia. A group of Uighur separatists was liquidated in the course of a special operation in Almaty. According to the press, two citizens of Kazakhstan were arrested in the course of the counter-terrorist operation in Afghanistan; today they are kept prisoner at the U.S. American military base in Guantanamo.

There are members of Tabligi Jamaat, an organization that is regarded as potentially dangerous, in Kazakhstan. Those who fell under its spell are dispatched to Pakistan for Islamic studies.2 From time to time law enforcement bodies deport preachers of political Islam acting secretly in the republic. In January 2003, 12 such people who had arrived from Pakistan were sent back home from the Almaty and South Kazakhstan regions; in May three citizens of Kyrgyzstan were deported from Karaganda for a similar offence.

The above causes legitimate concern among the republican authorities who are doing their best to readjust the relationships between the state and religious organizations. In 2000, a Council for Contacts with Religious Associations was set up at the government of Kazakhstan with its branches in all regional centers across the republic. The Council includes as its members academics, the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Chief Mufti of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, and state officials. Members of the religious associations left outside the Council are displeased with the fact.

One should say that the Council, its secretariat and regional branches have failed to show good results: there is still no exhaustive list of the religious organizations acting in the republic because the Council limits itself to dealing with the registered ones. The Council believes that there are 3 thou religious organizations in Kazakhstan representing 45 confessions. I am convinced, however, that there are at least 5 thou of such organizations belonging to 62 confessions. Below I shall demonstrate that the main discrepancy is related to the number of the Islamic communities. I should say that the Council has not yet offered an outline of state policy in the sphere of religion.

In 1999-2002, the government initiated several draft laws designed to amend and extend the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Religious Associations in the Republic with the aim of tightening control over religious activities and limiting the freedom of conscience (especially for the followers of the so-called nontraditional religions). The drafts raised a wave of protests among the Protestant communities, international human rights organizations, the OSCE, and some of the Western embassies. The earliest of the drafts (drawn in 1999) subjected to scything criticism never reached the parliament. The 2001 draft was more favorably received; late in 2001 the parliament passed the Law on Introducing Additions and Amendments into the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Religious Associations. Numerous protests forced the president to transfer the law for the Constitutional Councils consideration. The law was annulled because some of the amendments contradicted the constitution. Today, another variant of the same law is being drafted. According to my information, it is likewise designed to encroach on the nontraditional religions legal rights. In view of the Congress of the World and Traditional Religions held in Kazakhstan in September 2003 the parliament postponed its discussion for an indefinite period of time.

The state concentrates on Islam. This is quite natural in a country with 70 percent of its total population being considered traditional Muslims (the number of practicing Muslims is 2 to 3 times lower). In addition, there is always a threat of politization of Islam. In 2000, the leadership of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan was changed. A. Derbisaliev, a bureaucrat who used to serve as a counselor of the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Saudi Arabia, was elected the Chief Mufti. In this way the state, first, tightened its control over Islam in the country and, second, prevented a split among the Muslim communities (the central mosques of Shimkent and Kostanay refused to obey the old Chief Mufti because of his alleged financial irregularities). The newly elected mufti tried to reform Islam along fundamentalist orthodox lines and restore classical, Arabic Islam never known in Kazakhstan.3 From the very beginning Derbisaliev proceeded from a utopian idea that Islam has no local specifics and he never abandoned it.

As his first step he tried to recall back to the country all citizens of Kazakhstan who studied Islam abroadand failed. He managed to bring back only those who had been sent abroad by the Spiritual Administration; all those who studied using the funds of international Muslim organizations ignored the order. Some of the students are learning Islam in Qom (Iran) in Shia madrasahs which do not obey the Sunni republican leaders. In fact, the activities of the newly elected chief mufti displeased the Muslim world.

Today, Derbisaliev changed his position: the more knowledgeable students and graduates of the Egyptian University of Islamic Culture Nur Mubarak in Almaty are sent to Arab countries for more training. In 2002, 16 students went to the Egyptian university Al-Ahzar; there are students from Kazakhstan in Islamic schools in Turkey and Pakistan.

Under the new mufti the number of Muslim communities dropped from 5 thou that existed in 2000 to about 1,600 in 2003. Earlier the same happened in Uzbekistan where there were about 6 thou Muslim communities in 1993 and 1,500 in 2001. The communities did not disappear, however. The explanation is very simple: in Kazakhstan, as earlier in Uzbekistan, it was decided to count only the mosques registered with the Ministry of Justice while in the countryside many of the communities have no mosques and do not want registration for several reasons. First, the registration fee of about $100 is too high for many of them; second, they refuse to have anything to do with the Spiritual Administration that carries no respect with them; third, there are numerous Islamic trends in the republic some of which (Hanafi Sunni, for example) do not want to take commands from the Spiritual Administration. They are: Shiites, Sufis, and Shafiite and Hanbali Sunnis. To my mind, the number of nonregistered Muslim communities in the republic is 1.5-2 times greater than the number of the registered ones.

In 2001, the Spiritual Administration started registering the imams and mullahs in an attempt to supervise personnel of the mosques so that to weed out the oppositionally minded clerics. The attempt failed because some of the imams popular with the faithful and local administrations ignored the bans and continued working. It should be added that some of the mosques were registered as autonomous ones and were independent of the Spiritual Administration.

The Administration, however, was not discouraged: it violated the norms of Islam by introducing rotation of imams (who, according to the Islamic rules, should be elected by the faithful themselves). In 2003, for example, the imam of the central mosque of Karaganda was moved to Atyrau while his post was filled with the imam of the central mosque of Ust-Kamenogorsk, etc. In this way the Administration expected to reduce the imams to mere bureaucrats and to deprive them of their authority among the faithful.

The draft law On Introducing Additions and Amendments into the Law on the Freedom of Religion and Religious Associations that was never adopted could have given state powers to the Spiritual Administration. If passed, the Administration would have been given the final say when it came to registering Islamic religious associations or building (and opening) Muslim cultic and other objects. In other words, the Administration wanted to become a quasi-state body.

According to Akhmatkan Kaji, the chief imam of the Almaty Region, the Administration had several suggestions related, in particular, to a division of powers between the Eparchical Administration of the Christian Orthodox Church and the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan in regulating activities, attestation and registration of Christian and Muslim communities and members of the clergy in the republic. It was deemed necessary to ban all religious associations operating using foreign money as well as instruct the officially registered associations to help identify extremist trends.4 This means that the Spiritual Administration tried, together with the Russian Orthodox Church, to monopolize all religious activities in the country. Today, the Administration is striving to monopolize the Islamic space with the help of the state: it is out to force all autonomous Muslim communities to move under its jurisdiction.

Many of the imams and mullahs disagree with these novelties and expect that the state will be on their side. In February 2003, the imams of Semipalatinsk and nearby areas gathered together in the citys central mosque. According to the Vremia newspaper of 20 February, the meeting discussed the problems of sects functioning in Semipalatinsk. The chief imam of the central mosque Nurzhan Kaji Arstanbekuly announced that religious organizations would identify and uproot the sects jointly with the law enforcement bodies. The newspaper offered no comment: despite its widely advertised democratic nature and support of human rights it obviously approved of uprooting sectarianism and encroachments on the freedom of conscience. This is typical of many other newspapers and electronic media.

Christian Orthodoxy is the second largest religion in Kazakhstan (about 28 percent of the believers). By 1 January, 2003 the Russian Orthodox Church had 222 parishes in the republic (the number for 1989 was 62) and eight monasteries. In 1991, they were divided into three eparchies (Almaty and Semipalatinsk, Shimkent, and Urals) by a decision of the Holy Synod. In 1999, the Almaty and Semipalatinsk eparchy was transformed into the Astana and Almaty eparchy that also included the Christian Orthodox structures of Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan. For a long time Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexii II refused to unite the Orthodox Churches into the single Kazakhstani Exarchate, something that the local flock and the state wanted. In 1995, he visited the republic; it was as late as May 2003 that the Holy Synod passed a decision about a Metropolitan See in Kazakhstan; Metropolitan Methodius (Nemtsov) was appointed its head.

In its rivalry with other religious organizations the Russian Orthodox Church relies on the state: the communities of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Almaty, Semipalatinsk, and Kostanay find it impossible to register in the republic on a formal pretext that the Charter of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad says about the need to fight the godless power in Russia. There is no longer godless power in Russia; the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad is registered in the Russian Federation yet the judicial bodies of Kazakhstan insist that the charter contains a political program (which is impossible for a religious association). The communities continue functioning; the prestige of the ROCA is strengthening. This is testified by the fact that in August 2002 Archbishop Lazarus ordained Archimandrite Iriney (Klipenstein) as a bishop and gave him a chair in Kazakhstan. The Roman Catholic Church has recently strengthened its positions.5 In 2003, the bishops of Astana and Karaganda were made archbishops. The Pope John Paul II transformed the Apostolic Administration in Astana into the archdiocese called the St. Mary Archdiocese of Astana and the Apostolic Administration in Almaty, into a diocese called the St. Trinity Diocese of Almaty. At the same time, the Pope institutes a metropolitan see with the center in Astana called the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan headed by Archbishop Tomasz Peta who recently became citizen of Kazakhstan. The Russian Orthodox Church negatively responded to these decisions and interpreted them as encroachments on its canonical territory.

Numerical Strength of Religious Associations in Kazakhstan in 1990-2003

Table ...

Today there are 90 Catholic communities and 160 groups in the republic instructed by priests from Poland, Italy, Germany, America, and a Korean and a Swiss clerics. There are over 115 monastic congregations; prelates of Opus Dei have been serving since 1997.

Followers of the Uniate (Greco-Catholic) Church attend Catholic churches, all of them being either settlers from Western Ukraine or their descendants. So far, there are three Uniate communities in Kazakhstan (in Pavlodar, Astana, and Karaganda). In 1997, the Karaganda Uniate community acquired a church of its own, the first in the republic.

The number of Protestants is also growing: in the last few years the Baptists numerical strength increased by 20 percent and, according to their center, there are 12,500 Baptists united into 269 communities and 124 groups (their number has nearly reached the peak of the 1970s-1980s). The number of Lutherans is declining; in the past it was popular mainly among the local German population the numerical strength of which is also going down due to objective reasons. By 1 January, 1993 there were 152 Lutheran communities in the republicby 1 January, 2003 there were only 100 of them. Three main Lutheran trends are present in the republic: the Evangelical Church headed by a bishop; the Lutheran Brotherhood and independent Lutheran communities without a center; the followers of the Synod of Missouri. The latter officially registered their center in 1998; it has branches in Almaty and several regions; it disseminates religious literature in German, English and Russian and extends material and spiritual support to the Lutheran community.

There are no longer Church Mennonite communities in Kazakhstanthere are one small community of Mennonite Brothers in Karaganda and several groups in the Karaganda and Akmola regions (about 300 believers in all). The community has a print shop issuing religious periodicals and books.

The Pentecostalists are represented by various trends, the most popular of them being the Evangelical Christians in the Apostolic Spirit (edinstvenniks). Their largest communities are functioning in Karaganda and Almaty; there are smaller groups in many regions. In the 1990s, communities of the Korean Pentecost Church Sun Bok Ym appeared in Almaty, Karaganda and Shimkent.

The number of the followers of The Jehovahs Witnesses is snowballing: in 1998 alone 1,262 joined in. Today, there are about 14 thou followers in about 131 communities. There are 26 communities in Almaty with about 4 thou members. This rapid growth is created by the adepts active propaganda and dissemination, on a great scale, of imported religious literature. The Jehovahs Witnesses are upgrading their organizational structurethey set up new communities under local activists the main task of which is to disseminate religious books and enlist supporters in their neighborhoods.

Buddhists set up their community in Almaty in 1999. It is a multinational one and unites Buriats, Mongols, and Kalmyks for whom Buddhism is a traditional religion. There are followers of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order founded in Japan early in the 20th century. A monk of the order Junsei Terasawa visited Almaty twice (in 1994 and 1998) where he met his pupils. In 2002, he organized a peace march across Pakistan and India that attracted Buddhists from Kazakhstan.

The number of Judaic communities increased despite Jewish emigration to Israel. Early in 2003, there were Judaic communities practically in all regional centers (before 1998 there were four of them: two in Almaty, one in Shimkent and one in Kzyl-Orda). In 1998, a Jewish cultural center was opened in Almaty. It was named after Menahem Shneerson, the Seventh Lubavitch Rabbi. The synagogue, the first newly built one in the post-Soviet period, is named after his father Levi Itzkhak buried nearby. Menahem Shneerson was exiled to Kazakhstan (to the village of Chiili) in 1939; in 1944, he was moved to Alma-Ata where he died several months later.

Numerous charismatic Protestant churches (Grace, Agape, New Life, New Heaven, The Living Vine, etc.) came to the republic in the last decade together with so-called nontraditional religions: Ahmadie, Bahai, The Temple of Isida, the Family of God, the Sri Chinmoy Center, the Sai Baba Movement, Transcendental Meditation, the Mormons, the Ivanovs, The Scientological Church, the Last Testament Church, the Church of Satan, and others. New religious schools were opened to train more clergy.

Religious patchiness forced the public and the state to become more tolerant; there is an obvious desire to reach harmonious relationships among confessions and nationalities and to prevent religious extremism. In 2000, Almaty hosted three conferences on the subject Dialog of Confessions Is Vital organized on the initiative of the progovernmental Otan Party and the Arabic-Turkic Center Spirituality, Culture, Economics. The conferences were attended by the Christian Orthodox clergy, representatives of some of the Protestant churches and Muslim clerics. Similar conferences are regularly organized in other regional centers.

The fact that President Nazarbaev actively participates in the dialog among the confessions adds to religious tolerance in the republic. In 2001, the Pope visited Kazakhstan on his personal invitationthe visit being a proof that a dialog between Christianity and Islam was possible and very much needed. The president put in a nutshell the impression of the visit and the sermons delivered by the Pope in the republic: I listened attentively to the Holy Mass that you conducted and was touched by your words. I completely agree with your words about the need for the civilizations to follow the road of accord and trust. I highly appreciate the fact that you addressed not only the Catholics but the followers of all other religions and reminded them all that God is one and that we, too, should be united.6

The chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel E. Bakshi-Doron visited the republic in 2002 where he met the chief mufti of Kazakhstan. This meant that Kazakhstan played a special role in the Islamic world. A Euro-Asian Jewish Congress was set up in the same year; A. Mashkevich, President of the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan, was elected president of the newly established congress. In October, the republic greeted rabbis from 28 European and Asian countries who arrived to meet the imams of Kazakhstan. It was during this meeting that President Nazarbaev decided to personally organize a dialog between Islam and Judaism.

In February 2003, an International Conference of Peace and Accord took place in Almaty; it was attended by the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; state minister of Turkey Mehmet Aydin, presidential advisor of Afghanistan Yahia Marufi; Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Vilaiat Guliev; and members of the Muslim, Christian Orthodox and Judaic clergy, and prominent Judaic figures from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The conference will gather for its second meeting in 2004 in Turkey.

In the latter half of June 2003 Kazakhstan greeted top figures of the world Jewish community: Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger made his first official visit in the new capacity to Kazakhstan; he was followed by Chairman of the World Jewish Congress Israel Singer and by famous businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder, head of the well-known Estée Lauder company, who also owns TV channels and is one of the richest men of the world.

The guests met President Nazarbaev, Supreme Mufti of Kazakhstan Absattar Kaji Derbisaly and leader of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress Alexander Mashkevich. They discussed a congress of the world and traditional religions scheduled for September 2003; the idea belonged to President Nazarbaev and had been discussed during the visit of State Secretary of the Vatican Cardinal Angelo Sodano who came to Kazakhstan on the presidents invitation in May 2003.

Congresses of religious leaders of the world and traditional religions initiated by a secular leader have no precedents in history. As a rule, such events (congresses, forums, and conferences) are initiated by members of confessions, which narrows down the range of their participants. The very fact that the congress did take place on 23-24 September, 2003 in Astana is an ample confirmation that such forums were needed and that Kazakhstan enjoyed high international prestige. The congress was attended by Islamic clerics (from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Kazakhstan), representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Constantinople Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, the World Lutheran Federation, Judaism, Buddhists from China and Mongolia, Hinduism, Shintoism and Taoism.

Cooperation and tolerance reined supreme at the congresssomething that does not happen often at similar meetings. Its success was ensured by the main ideas formulated by its participants: Peace on earth is impossible without peace among the religions. Peace among the religions is impossible without a dialog among them (Egypts Minister of the Waqfs Mahmoud Hamdy Zaqzouk); Peace is something that all religions want to attain (deputy chairman of the Buddhist community of China Jiamuyang Luosangjimei). Other participants shared these lofty ideas.

The Declaration of the Participants of the First Congress of Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions was adopted unanimously. It said in particular: Variety of religious beliefs and confessions should not bring in mutual distrust, discrimination and humiliation. It should bring in mutual knowledge and harmony that would throw into bolder relief the unique nature of each religion and culture. We are prepared to do our best to prevent the use of religious distinctions for sowing hatred and strife. We are prepared to do our best to protect mankind against a global conflict among religions and cultures.

The congress passed a decision about its permanent functioning; it was decided to held similar congresses at least once in three years. The second congress will gather in Astana; a preparatory secretariat will be set up soon.

Success of the first congress will undoubtedly promote religious harmony in the republic.


1 N.A. Nazarbaev, Kriticheskoe desiatiletie, Atamura Publishers, Almaty, 2003, p. 52.
2 See: Panorama, 12 July, 2002.
3 For more detail, see: Ia. Trofimov, The State, Society, and Religion in Kazakhstan Today, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 2 (8), 2001, pp. 128-129.
4 See: Svoboda sovesti v Kazakhstane. U barera obshchestvennogo soznania, in three parts, Part II, Almaty, 2002, p. 19.
5 See: Ia. Trofimov, The Catholic Church in Kazakhstan, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 3 (15), 2002.
6 Da liubite drug druga. Special issue of Credo, 2001, p. 14.

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