Kazakhstan passes restrictive religion law

Almaty, Kazakhstan - Kazakhstan's president on Thursday approved a bill tightening registration rules for religious groups that has been described by critics as a blow to freedom of belief in the ex-Soviet nation.

Supporters of the bill signed into law by Nursultan Nazarbayev say it will help combat religious extremism, an issue that has come to the fore after a series of Islamist-linked attacks in the west of the country over the summer.

The law will require existing religious organizations in the mainly Muslim nation to dissolve and register again through a procedure that is all but guaranteed to exclude smaller groups, including minority Christian communities. It will also impose a ban on prayer in the workplace.

Passage of the bill marks a reversal of Nazarbayev's earlier attempts to cast Kazakhstan as a land of religious tolerance.

To register locally, a faith group must now be able to provide evidence of 50 members. To register at a regional level, requires 500 members. The most complicated procedure will be registering nationwide, which requires a group to have 5,000 members across the country's regions.

"Several minority religious groups do not have the required number of members and would be prohibited from continuing their activities and subject to fines if they disobey," the Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House said in a statement last month.

Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, a Norwegian-based religious freedom advocacy group, said a second separate law also signed Thursday amends legislation on religion to broaden the range of offenses subject to punitive action.

"These two new laws ... undermine everyone's freedom of religion or belief and, as local human rights defenders have pointed out, are part of a wider picture of increasing governmental controls on society," Corley told The Associated Press.

The laws have been passed at a speed that has upset many activists, who say there was insufficient public discussion on the issue.

Backers of the revised law argue that the legislation is necessary to fight extremism and stem the influence of radical cults.

Authorities have been unsettled by an uncharacteristic outburst of Islamist-inspired violence in the oil-rich western regions over the summer in which several police officers were killed.