Kazakhstan’s Agency for Religious Affairs, which was established by presidential decree in 2011, has done a lot of work during its short existence. Its chairman, Marat Azilkhanov, elaborated upon its activities, religious reforms and major changes in state-confessional relations.
Much of the agency’s work is devoted to ensuring inter-religious harmony, monitoring the compliance of religious organisations with Kazakh law, preventing the use of religion against the interests of citizens, society and the state and preventing religious extremism. No less important is raising awareness among the population. I would like to note that as a result of measures taken by the state, religious life in the country has substantially improved. About 90 percent of respondents called religious life in Kazakhstan propitious and 86 percent of respondents support government policy in this area. Constructive relations have been developed between the state and religious associations, as well as between different confessions.
One of the main prerequisites was a range of measures taken to improve the legal regulation of religion, including the adoption in 2011 of the law “On Religious Activities and Religious Associations” and the creation of the necessary legal framework. We have put in order all procedures and rules in the field of religious activities and have approved clear standards for the construction of religious buildings, the locations of outside premises for religious ceremonies and places for the distribution of religious literature.
In 2012, we re-registered all religious associations; it was quite a large project. Now, all 3,449 religious organisations strictly adhere to the law. Second, the activity of all religious schools was systemised. Only 13 Islamic schools, Orthodox and Catholic seminaries of 29 previously existing institutions kept their doors open after 2012. All of them have the appropriate licenses and the Ministry of Education and Science, together with our agency, strictly controls this area. Third, all worship services, ceremonies and other religious activities are held in accordance with this legislation. Fourth, we created a new database of religious literature to prevent the penetration of extremist publications.
Over the past three years, the agency has examined approximately 25,000 books; about 300 publications received a negative evaluation and were barred from being imported. We conducted a full audit of all religious literature in all prisons, as well as in all schools and libraries. Local governments authorised 235 stores to sell religious literature. Those who breach laws regarding distributing such books and pamphlets in public should know the consequences. Last year, 78 violations were uncovered and fines were issued.
The current legislation also fully regulates missionary activity. Now, missionaries may arrive in the country only at the invitation of officially registered religious associations and carry out their activity in the framework of the structures that invited them. Anyone who tries to do this in an unlawful manner is subject to administrative sanctions. Last year, 51 people were fined and a number of foreigners were expelled from the country. I would like to mention that in recent years, the number of missionaries remained stagnant at somewhere between 300-400 people; mainly representatives of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
The agency maintains close and constructive relations with representatives of all registered confessions. This year, the agency signed cooperation agreements with the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan and the Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan for the first time. Relations between the state and religious organisations are based on the democratic principles of respect for the rights and freedoms of believers, the balance of public and religious interests, partnership and mutual understanding. We carry out a lot of joint activities with religious associations. Religious leaders, especially imams and rectors of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, contribute a lot to ensuring stability, peace and harmony in our society.
A lot has been done to prevent religious extremism and terrorism, primarily through raising awareness.
Efforts aimed at ensuring religious freedom include increasing religious literacy, the rehabilitation of victims of dangerous ideologies and at the formation of a tolerant national religious consciousness and immunity to radical ideologies. For these purposes, the agency has established more than 500 special information groups across Kazakhstan which include expert theologians and religious scholars, representatives of NGOs and government bodies. Since 2013, they have met with more than 1.6 million people; nearly 10,000 informational publications have been published. There are also 28 regional centres in the country that provide assistance to victims of destructive religious activities in addition to a consultative centre Hotline-114 for free round-the-clock legal, psychological and theological help.
We know very well that cooperation with civil society is crucial in attaining our goals. This is why we have created a number of services including a council for relations with religious associations, an advisory-expert council on the religious climate in Kazakhstan, a council for cooperation with NGOs, a council on media coverage of religious subjects and a scientific advisory council on religious literature. Also, we opened a full-fledged educational portal called e-Islam where the traditional basics of Islam are explained and articles seeking to dissuade people from adopting extremist ideas are published.
Together with the Ministry of Education and Science, we are taking comprehensive measures to improve the teaching of the Basics of Various Religions in schools because doing so protects youngsters from radicalisation through misinformation. Thus, it was decided to change the name of the subject to the Basics of Secularism and Religion in order to strengthen its content and clarify that Kazakhstan is a secular nation. Also, the practice of educating teachers on history with an additional emphasis on religion is being considered.
In the future, we will consistently and actively work in all the abovementioned areas. At the same time, our top priority is to develop a spiritual atmosphere based on secular principles and state values fit to meet the new challenges set in the Kazakhstan 2050 Strategy. We must do everything to preserve and develop spiritual and religious harmony in society.