Berik Aryn. Religious Freedom: Kazakhstan’s Civilisational Choice

Berik ARYN


Today Kazakhstan, with its unique historical and cultural conditions, distinctive social development and specific character of religious sphere, is implementing its own model of state-religion relations.

The principle of freedom of religion is reflected in the Civil Code, Law on Religious Activities and Religious Associations and other legal acts. The country has created all necessary state legal guarantees to ensure freedom of religion.

The fundamental characteristic of state-religion relations is the constitutional provision on the secular nature of the state.

Kazakhstan is unique in the fact that, thanks to unity and harmony, the country has successfully overcome the difficult path of the historical establishment of its statehood and gained the recognition of the international community.

Sovereignty required the state to be independent in managing economic and political processes, as well as processes in such a delicate and sensitive sphere as religion, with the development of its own model of building state-religion relations.

The close attention of the young state to the religious sphere was due to the development of the religion phenomenon in our region against the background of the collapse of the atheistic system of the USSR at the end of the 20th century.

Visit to the Holy Dormition Cathedral. Astana, 7 January 2019

Throughout modern history, the course towards promotion and consolidation of the policy of interfaith and inter-ethnic harmony, announced by the President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev at the dawn of independence, has shaped the key meaning of Kazakhstan's state policy in the field of religion – unity of the nation in the name of development, stability and a safe future; long-term strategy for the spiritual modernisation of society and verified goals for the regulation of the religious sphere and focused policy to achieve them.

The country's main law regulates the area of the exercise of freedom of religion or spread of religious beliefs in order to protect the public order, security, life, health, morality, rights and freedoms of citizens.

According to Article 14 of the Constitution of Kazakhstan, “everyone shall be equal before the law and court. No one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of origin, social, property status, occupation, sex, race, nationality, language, attitude towards religion, convictions, place of residence or any other circumstances." Article 22 of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan clearly states: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of conscience."

President Nazarbayev, speaking in 1993 with the report titled “Our focus is consolidation, social progress and social partnership," stressed that “Kazakhstan is a secular state; this principle is enshrined in the Constitution." At the same time, he emphasised that “Kazakhstan will not be a state professing religious principles in domestic and foreign policy and, moreover, there can be no talk of creating parties on religious platforms."

One of the first legal acts after Kazakhstan gained independence was the Law on Religious Freedom and Religious Associations (1992), which outlined the basic principles of the young state's religious policy. The law created equal and favourable conditions for denominations to exercise their functions, providing them with ample opportunities for activities. It established the equality of all religions before the law and the right of citizens to determine their attitude to religion.

The main result of the law was the creation of effective legislative foundations that led to the absence of interfaith conflicts in Kazakhstan's society and a positive image of the country in the world community as the initiator of unique inter-religious dialogue platforms of a global scale.

In 1993, at the initiative of President Nazarbayev, the Constitution introduced a provision prohibiting the activities of public and religious organisations proclaiming or practicing religious intolerance.

This provision is reflected in Article 53 of the 1995 Constitution, but with a broader wording. In addition, the text of the new Constitution includes an article against the propaganda and advocacy of religious supremacy.

A number of provisions were introduced into the Civil Code concerning the activities of missionaries, foreign leaders of religious associations and religious educational institutions, which should be agreed on with the state agencies of the country (Article 109).

The Decree of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan on measures to prevent and suppress manifestations of terrorism and extremism (Feb. 10, 2000) outlined the task for state agencies to exercise strict supervision over the prevention of the radicalisation of the religious conscience of citizens and the undermining of interfaith and inter-ethnic harmony in society.

Thus, from the first years of independence, Kazakhstan has officially adhered to a policy of non-interference in the religious sphere, but at the same time coordinates the processes in the sphere of freedom of religion by adopting a set of laws in the political and legal area.

In general, the benevolent position of the state in religious matters created prerequisites for a significant increase in religious associations in the state. An analysis of the situation of that period suggests that the existing network of religious societies covered all regions, cities and most districts of the state and was represented by religious groups that are traditional and non-traditional for our country (Baha'i, Jesus Christ's Church, New Life Church, Society for Krishna Consciousness, Sun Bok Ym, Unification Church and various missions).

In fact, as of Jan. 1, 2011, the number of religious associations grew more than six times and amounted to 4,551, while the number of denominations and faiths reached 46. This diversity of denominational space could not but affect the change in the nature of state-religion relations. In addition, the renaissance of religion and religious culture was accompanied by the scale of mosques, temples and other religious buildings being constructed. The number of believers among of the population increased proportionally.

As a result, according to domestic experts, “absolutisation of the principle of freedom of religion, embodied in extremely democratic religious legislation, to a certain extent caused the young state's vulnerability to new challenges and threats - starting from the penetration of pseudo-religious extremism and terrorism into Kazakhstan and ending with the erosion of traditional values and religious identity of the people."

In these conditions, the demands of society are being updated for the strengthening control over the observance of legislation in religious matters, more active participation of the state in the processes in the religious field, mediation functions between religious organisations and the state, studying the needs of believers to exercise their religious freedoms and elimination of existing hotbeds of tension and conflict situations on denominational grounds.

These factors necessitated the adoption by the Parliament of the country in October 2011 of a new Law on Religious Activities and Religious Associations, defining a new strategic line of the state in the sphere of state-religion relations and ensuring religious freedom regulating religious activities and the functioning of religious associations.

The law was developed taking into account the interfaith situation in the country based on the experience of advanced European secular states and is aimed at strengthening tolerance and harmony in Kazakhstan's society.

The preamble separately mentions Hanafi Islam and Orthodox Christianity and their special role in the history of Kazakhstan. This is done with the aim of identifying certain priorities in the religious policy of the state, which, being secular, nevertheless cannot abstract itself from addressing relevant problems of the strategically important sphere. Thus, the religious holidays Eid al-Adha and Orthodox Christmas are days off in the country.

The law helped to update and improve the regulatory framework (14 additional legal acts) in religious affairs, create the necessary legal conditions for the operation of religious associations, determine the list of documents for registration and develop requirements for the charter of a religious association and the basis and modalities for religious expert review.

As part of implementing the provisions of the law, religious associations were successfully re-registered that ensured the structuring and systematisation of the denominational space of the country, as well as obtaining the most accurate data on the number of religious associations and their religious affiliation that helped to systematise the number of denominations and faiths from 46 to 18.

The re-registration that was completed on Oct. 25, 2012 showed that the number of religious associations and their subsidiaries decreased to 3,088. A decline in the number of religious associations by one-third was due to associations that could not justify their legitimacy for various reasons. Re-registration of pseudo-religious organisations and a number of religious associations that submitted false information in the constituent documents was not allowed.

The 2011 law reflected the practical need for a multi-ethnic society to increase the active participation of the state in religious processes, allowing it to prevent abuses of freedom and threats to the individual, society and the state. Great importance is attached to the regulation of the legal framework for the activities of religious organisations and foreign missionaries.

The law does not divide religions into traditional and non-traditional, small or major. No religion is official or compulsory. The state is equally respectful to believers of all denominations and people of atheistic beliefs.

The legal framework helps to define the basic principles of state policy in ensuring freedom of religion – these are the principle of neutrality, the principle of tolerance and the principle of parity.

The principle of neutrality implies non-interference of the state in the internal affairs of religious associations and of religious associations in the activities of the state and society.

The principle of tolerance means respecting the secular values of the state and religious persuasions of the believing part of the population.

The principle of parity determines equality before the law of all religious associations and representatives of different faiths.

In addition to the law, there are currently 14 legal acts regulating various issues of religious activity, religious expert review, distribution of religious literature, missionary activity, construction of religious buildings, etc.

An important element of the state's efforts in the field of religion is cooperation and open dialogue with religious associations.

The state regularly takes measures to explain legal provisions to religious associations and ensures a constructive interaction of their implementation. Active efforts are underway to involve non-government organisations (NGOs), the expert community and religious leaders to study the religious situation and develop recommendations for improving the religious affairs policy of the state.

The Ministry of Information and Social Development, as an authorised state body of the country in religious affairs, prioritises the further improvement of Kazakhstan's model of interaction between the state and religion and the promotion of the policy of freedom of religion. It is based on the Concept of State Policy in the Religious Sphere for 2017-2020.

The activity of 3,720 religious associations and their subsidiaries representing 18 denominations, officially registered in 2018, is an indicator of the success and effectiveness of the religious affairs policy of the state.

Traditionally, the biggest faiths in numerical terms are still Hanafi Madhhab Islam and Orthodox Christianity. There are also Catholic and Protestant denominations, Judaic, Buddhist and other communities.

The leaders of religious associations of Kazakhstan are actively engaged in socio-cultural events aimed at strengthening civil peace and spiritual harmony. They are part of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan and advisory bodies at the central and local levels.

Kazakhstan clearly demonstrates to the world that religion plays a crucial role in maintaining stability and harmony within the country and strengthening national unity based on universal human values and that various religions and denominations can coexist and develop harmoniously based on full mutual understanding and mutual respect.

In order to ensure full respect for the constitutional right to freedom of religion, the state takes preventive measures to identify and remedy any violations of the law in this area and to restore the violated rights of believers, regardless of their religious affiliation, as well as attempts to use religion, religious symbols and religious identity for the purposes of stirring up sectarian strife and discord.

The state relies on universally accepted international human rights instruments to maintain freedom of religion; therefore, our regulatory framework is consistent with the basic principles underlying the international standards adopted by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and several other international organisations, as well as the experience of developed democracies of the world.

The UN, OSCE, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and other major international organisations welcomed the effectiveness of Kazakhstan's model of ensuring civil peace and harmony.

Kazakhstan's model of interfaith harmony was commended by Pope John Paul II during his visit to the country in 2001, as well as by influential spiritual leaders of world and traditional religions – participants of the I-VI Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana.

It is also important that according to opinion polls, the adopted legislative measures enjoy the full support of the population that has a positive effect on the religious situation in the country.

A significant contribution to the promotion of a positive image of the country as liberal in relation to religion is made by its active cooperation and exchange of experience with major international human rights organisations and the diplomatic corps, including the embassies of Great Britain, the United States, European Union (EU) countries in Kazakhstan, the OSCE Centre in Astana, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' Regional Office for Central Asia and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Moreover, there are a number of comments from experts of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) regarding the expert assessment of religious literature imported into the country and the use of the Law on Terrorism and Religious Extremism to “combat religious dissent and political opposition." They also point to the vagueness in the Kazakh legislation of the definitions of “extremism" and “incitement to social discord," which, in their opinion, leads to an “excessive restriction" of the freedom of religion. There are proposals to cancel the registration procedure for religious associations and missionaries, demanding that some religious communities be given legal status.

Despite criticism from Western partners, Kazakhstan is the most liberal country in the former Soviet Union in terms of religious tolerance and religious freedom.

Recommendations of international human rights organisations are observed at the proper level, opinions of the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion or Belief are taken into account and the role of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held in Astana becomes stronger.

During the visit of Minister of Social Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan Darkhan Kaletaev to the USA in July 2018, a Working Expert Group was created consisting of representatives of concerned authorities of Kazakhstan, the U.S. State Department and the USCIRF, where the sides will exchange views on the regulation of religious affairs, ensuring freedom of religion, and set out the position of our country regarding the criticism of the American side. The first meeting of the Working Group is scheduled for spring 2019 in Astana.

Summarising the above, I would like to conclude that the Republic of Kazakhstan, in its civilisational choice of its own policy of religious freedom, follows the path of enduring values of all humanity – dialogue and accord, harmony of interests, peaceful constructive life, welfare and prosperity.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Berik Aryn is a former Vice Minister of Social Development of the Republic of Kazakhstan. He has been working in responsible civil service positions in Kazakhstan since 2006.

He has held the posts of Deputy Head of the Office of the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan; Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the Arab Republic of Egypt with concurrent accreditation in the Kingdom of Morocco, People's Democratic Republic of Algeria and Republic of Tunisia and Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the League of Arab States.

He has the diplomatic rank of Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Second Class. He speaks Arabic and English.

He has state and international awards including the Kurmet Order (2012) and commemorative medals.

Created at : 29.03.2019, 17:40, Updated at : 29.03.2019, 17:40