Astana, Kazakhstan - Lawmakers in Kazakhstan have voted for controversial legislation that Christians and rights activists say will further limit religious freedom in the mainly Muslim Central Asian state.
Under the new Religion Law, adopted by the lower house Wednesday, September 21, foreign missionary activity will be impossible in the country without official registration by the Religions Agency and renewed annually.
A missionary can be expelled if the person poses "a real threat to the constitutional order and public peace", it says. Christians have suggested this could negatively impact evangelism, the distribution of Christian literature such as Bibles.
Additionally, prayer rooms will be banned in all state institutions. Religious ceremonies are only allowed to take place out of office hours, according to the legislation's text.
SENATE APPROVAL EXPECTED
The law, expected to win swift approval by the Senate, stresses "the historic role of the Hanafi school of Islam and of the Christian Orthodox faith in the cultural and spiritual development of the Kazakh nation".
Supporters of the measure say it meets concerns of President Nursultan Nazarbayev about the possible advent of radical Islam, which is on the rise in the overpopulated and impoverished Ferghana Valley shared by its former Soviet neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The president urged parliament to pass the legislation, calling it a an important step in anti-terror efforts in Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest economy and No. 1 oil producer.
Last month authorities detained a group of extremists who they claimed were planning "acts of terror" in the state, which Nazarbayev has ruled for more than two decades.
LAW IS "REPRESSIVE"
However Forum 18, a major advocacy group, made clear that the Religion Law is "repressive" and make it more difficult for churches to worship freely. It said the law imposes "a complex four-tier registration system, ban unregistered religious activity" such as house churches, and "impose compulsory religious censorship" as "both central and local government approval" are needed "to build or open new places of worship."
The Almaty Helsinki Committee, another rights group, reportedly explained that the issue of prayer rooms in state-owned buildings was deliberately included to distract attention from the fundamental violations of religious freedom.
A separate proposed law will punish a range of "violations" of the new Religion Law, according to observers with close knowledge about the situation.
"Criticisms of both laws by members of many local religious communities -such as Muslims, Christians and members of other faiths - also do not appear to have been publicly discussed by deputies," added Felix Corley of the Forum 18 News Service.
MOST PEOPLE MUSLIMS
Muslims comprise some 70 percent of Kazakhstan's 16.5-million population. The vast majority are followers of the Hanafi school of law, considered to be the oldest and most liberal within the Sunni Muslim tradition.
Rights activists have linked the reported crackdown on Christian and other religious groups part of efforts by autocratic governments in the former Soviet Union states to increase their power-base
Besides Kazakhstan, devoted Christians in two other Central Asian states, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have complained about harassment and detentions and a crackdown on Christian literature distribution.
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