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Kazakh prisoners denied access to churches and Christian literature

Country/Region: Kazakhstan, Central Asia

Churches in prisons have been closed and Christian literature confiscated from prisoners as restrictive new religion laws come into force in Kazakhstan.

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An Interior Ministry aide said that the churches had been built illegally, despite their having been authorised by the prison authorities.

The first known closure took place at the end of October in the Almaty Region. Work to build the church had begun in 2008 by twelve volunteer prisoners, five of whom were baptised during the course of its construction. The Justice Ministry had approved the project.      

On 21 October, religious literature, including Bibles and New Testaments, and discs of films and sermons were confiscated from prisoners at a detention camp in Zhetikara in Kostanai Region. The camp authorities claimed that the law banned prisoners from having such material, though the Association of Religions of Kazakhstan said it was allowed for personal use.

There have also been reports of ministers being denied access to prisons to conduct services, as well as the closure of a prayer room used by Christians in a home for disabled people in Almaty. Mosques and prayer rooms for Muslims in prisons have also been closed.

The new Religion Law, which was signed into the statute book by President Nursultan Nazarbaev on 11 October, is ambiguous over what rights prisoners and other residents of state institutions have to exercise their religious freedom. And there have been contradictory statements by the authorities about its implementation.

Marat Azilkhanov, one of the deputy chairs of the Agency of Religious Affairs, said on 21 October that the Criminal Administration System Committee (CASC) would begin removing places of worship from prisons at the end of October. He said:

The law sets out a clear position: all places of worship, including prayer rooms, in corrective institutions and in places of deprivation of freedom of citizens must stop functioning.

But the following day CASC spokesperson Galymzhan Khasenov said that prayer rooms will still be able to function, while churches and other places of worship will be “reformulated” into libraries. He added that religious leaders would have to undergo a new licensing system in order to be able to visit prisons. 

There are 63 Christian places of worship and prayer rooms in Kazakh prisons.

International law defends the right of prisoners to freedom of religion or belief; UN regulations stipulate that “every prisoner shall be allowed to satisfy the needs of his/her religious life by attending the services provided in the institution and having in his/her possession the books of religious observance and instruction of his/her denomination”.   

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