ASTANA – United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief Heiner Bielefeldt, who was invited by the Kazakh government to observe the status of religious issues in the country, shared his opinions and recommendations at an April 4 press conference.
“During the process of preparing the official report, I realised that what I have begun to learn here in Kazakhstan will certainly stay with me and continue to enrich me down the road. I trust that the consultations with representatives of governmental and non-governmental institutions will also continue. The official report, which includes a list of recommendations, will be available at the website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org,) probably by the end of this year. It will be formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council in its March session in 2015,” said Bielefeldt.
Bielefeldt addressed seven issues during his press conference. The first was religious pluralism.
“Kazakhstan is a pluralistic country, and no one can say how many religions are practiced here with certainty. Interreligious relations have been very peaceful in this country. There have been no violent pressures to this day, which is an accomplishment achieved by the people of Kazakhstan. Some attributed this to their ‘nomadic’ traditions of hospitality and openness towards others. The government takes efforts to promote interreligious cooperation and peace. A special role is played by the Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA) represented here by [ARA Deputy Chairman] Mr. [Galym] Shoikin,” Bielefeldt said.
He also said that according to a survey conducted by the ARA, the population displays varying degrees of acceptance towards traditional and nontraditional religious communities. Members of communities perceived as nontraditional confirmed that they sometimes face societal skepticism, suspicion and discrimination.
Although Beilefeldt found that government representatives mostly avoid the terms ‘traditional’ and ‘nontraditional’ religions when discussing this topic, no one among his interlocutors denied that negative attitudes towards religious groups perceived as standing outside of the country’s traditional mosaic exist. He also found widespread fear of religious extremism often associated with certain strains of Islam and worries that the influence of sects generally associated with small nontraditional groups may pose challenges in the future to the climate of religious tolerance that characterises Kazakhstan’s society.
“My second point is secularism. Secularism is one of the defining characteristics of the state listed in Article 1 of the Constitution. According to opinion polls, it is widely accepted amongst the population. Calls to turn Kazakhstan into a religious state, mostly a Sharia-based state, are very rare,” he said.
“An open discussion of the meaning and implications of secularism might also help to overcome restrictive attitudes within the administration and within law-enforcement agencies,” he said.
The third point Bielefeldt addressed was freedom and its limitations. According to him, in discussions with government representatives, they agreed that freedom of religion and beliefs is not without limitations. Bielefeldt said he believes freedom can be limited but also limitations on freedom must be limited. Furthermore, for limitations to be legitimate, they must cumulatively meet the criteria set out in Article 18, paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Accordingly, limitations must be legally prescribed; they must be clearly needed to pursue a legitimate aim. They must also remain within the realm of proportionality, which means they must be confined to the minimum degree of interference needed to reach their aim. In addition, limitations should not have any discriminatory intentions against individuals or communities.
The fourth issue was the 2011 Law on Religious Associations that required all religious communities to re-register in order to obtain the status of a registered religious association at the national, regional or local level. Registration procedures, Bielefeldt said, should always be based on the clear understanding that freedom of religion or belief, due to its nature as a human right, applies to all human beings and can never be rendered dependent on any specific act of state approval or administrative registration.
“My main recommendation in this field is that registration must be offered, not mandated. The groups which have not registered are very small. This is a matter of principle. This contradicts the purpose of the law in general,” he said.
A related issue Bielefeldt discussed is that after three copies of any piece of religious literature are imported into Kazakhstan, they must be registered, as this is the threshold between personal and pastoral use. According to the ARA, in the vast majority of cases, such approval is given without further issue. The main reason for state interference in this field is the prevention of religious extremism and hatred. Bielefeldt said he shares the view that religious extremism and religious hatred are serious problems which require state monitoring, but said he is unsure if the measures taken in Kazakhstan satisfy the criteria set out in Articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Having heard a number of examples from different religious communities, he said he believes the restrictions imposed on the import of literature in Kazakhstan are disproportionate.
His fifth point was on combating religious extremism and hatred.
“It is a serious problem in Central Asia. As already mentioned, I fully appreciate the government’s efforts to counter religious hatred, intolerance and extremism. Indeed, the stability of Kazakhstan, in particular, when compared to the volatile situations in neighbouring countries suffering from violent religious conflicts, is a precious asset that needs to be upheld and further developed and defended. Criminal law should play a role. It is necessary to broaden article 164 of the current Criminal Code. This article combines hatred with a number of other phenomena like religious strife, religious discord, religious antagonism, etc. Even exclusivity or superiority claims made on behalf of certain religions might fall within the remit of this law. As a result of broadly circumscribed offences, all sorts of unwelcome religious claims deemed offensive to parts of society or the government could be penalised with imprisonment. This leads to legal insecurity and adverse repercussions on freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief. These issues need a more detailed analysis. The serious nature of the allegations made motivates me to at least flag these existing problems as important issues needing further follow up,” he said.
The sixth topic was the differentiation between religious instruction and information about religion. Bielefeldt mentioned the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religion and Beliefs in Public Schools (Toledo Guiding Principles), elaborated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Nov. 27, 2007. According to Bielefeldt, the Toledo Guiding Principles insist on a clear differentiation between education that acquaints students with their own religious traditions and education for the purpose of broadening general knowledge about different religions. While the first type of education can be called “religious instruction,” the second can be called “information about religion.” Whereas religious instruction is based on the tenets of a particular faith, information should be given in the spirit of neutrality and impartiality. Mixing or conflating both forms of education can lead to infringements on freedom of religion or belief, particularly in the context of mandatory school education, he said.
“The situation in Kazakhstan is very clear in this regard. Due to the secular nature of public schools, the curriculum merely provides information about religions, not for religious instruction on the tenets of a particular faith. Familiarising the younger generations with their specific religious traditions is thus entirely left to the religious communities themselves,” said Bielefeldt.
The seventh issue Bielefeldt mentioned was religious information as part of the school curriculum. The Ministry of Education and Science introduced religious studies for educational purposes only a few years ago. Currently, this subject is taught over the course of one year at the ninth grade level. The text book used for teaching ninth grade students covers different world religions with neutrality. Bielefeldt recommended teaching this subject beyond grade nine.
“I met with a number of organisations dedicated to the promotion of ‘religious literacy’ in society. Some of these organisations closely collaborate with the ARA. They pursue different purposes: familiarising people with the wealth of religious traditions, promoting a better understanding of religious diversity, encouraging interreligious dialogue and building resilience against religious extremism. These purposes obviously overlap. One basic assumption explained by experts in this field was that religious extremists, while typically claiming to present a ‘pure’ version of their faith, often show a very narrow-minded interpretation of religious messages. Spreading knowledge and deeper understanding could thus help people to build resilience against such simplistic dogma. The need for promoting ‘religious literacy’ was by some associated with the Soviet past which saw a sharp decline in religious practice and knowledge in society,” Bielefeldt commented.
After Bielefeldt shared his opinions and provided his recommendations to the public, Galym Shoikin took the floor.
“It was very important for us to invite Mr. Bielefeldt to Kazakhstan. We did everything possible in organizing this visit and his meetings with representatives from NGOs,” he said.
“Over the course of two weeks, it’s hard to evaluate all phenomena taking place in Kazakhstan,” Shoikin said. “I would like to note the constructiveness of the Special Rapporteur and his recommendations. All recommendations in the report will be discussed and we will also provide our opinion on them. We have almost more than half a year and we will do this with our partners at the UN. Kazakhstan does everything possible to improve its legislation, in particular legislation regarding freedom and religion.”
According to Shoikin, Kazakhstan’s laws do not differentiate between traditional and nontraditional religions. Religion exists in Kazakh society and people have the right to express their convictions.
“Secularism is clearly prescribed in Kazakhstan’s Constitution and now we are discussing the prospects of secularism in our country,” he continued. “We have created equal registration standards for religious organisations and made the process understandable to all. The ARA is open to consultations and cooperation with all religious associations on registration issues.”
“Society requires that organisations carry out their work openly and transparently. Those who didn’t pass registration didn’t comply with legal requirements,” Shoikin said.
In conclusion, he mentioned that President Nazarbayev has spoken about preserving peace and harmony in the country and said that the fight against religious extremism should not become a fight against religion.