preliminary findings by Heiner Bielefeldt on his visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan


Statement by Heiner Bielefeldt



End of visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan



Presentation of preliminary findings



4 April 2014





  1. Introduction

    From 25 March to 4 April, I have undertaken a visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan in my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. First of all, I would like to express my profound gratitude to the Government of Kazakhstan for having invited me. Let me emphasize that my team and I have very much enjoyed the warm and often overwhelming hospitality of the people of Kazakhstan. From the first to the last day we have felt very welcome here. Many of the meetings we had in the last eleven days made a deep and certainly lasting impression on me. I am particularly grateful to the numerousinterlocutors from different Government agencies, a broad range of civil society organizations, a number of academics and various religious communities, both traditional and less traditional ones. Discussions took place in Astana, Almaty and Karaganda. I learnt a lotfrom the frank communication we had. All the exchanges of views, experiences and assessments took place in a constructive atmosphere. I am also very grateful to the UN Country Team led by the UN Resident Coordinator in Astana for their professional cooperation and support.

    What I can present to you today has the status of preliminary findings in which I focus on some main observations. It is important not to mistake the preliminary findings for the official report which will be more comprehensive, more detailed and more technical. The final report will be the result not only of the visit but also of ongoing research based on the many observations, impressions and questions which such a visit always generates. During the process of preparing the official report, the intensive learning process which has started here in Kazakhstan will certainly continue, and I trust theconsultations with representatives of governmental and non-governmental institutions will also go on. The official report, including a list of recommendations, will be available at the website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (, probably by the end of this year. It will be formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council in its March session in 2015.


  2. General observations and impressions

  1. A society characterized by religious pluralism

Interlocutors from Government and civil society repeatedly pointed out that Kazakhstan, in spite of its rich and long history, is still a young nation. Since its independence in 1991 the country has seen rapid and far-reaching transformations, including an unprecedented pace of economic growth, the establishment of new State agencies, the development of numerous civil society organizations, the further unfolding of ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism and a revival of religious life, epitomized inter alia in quite a number of impressive new religious buildings. During my stay in Kazakhstan, I could see some beautiful mosques and churches.

Religious pluralism is a hallmark of the Kazakhstan’s society traceable far back in history and perhaps even pre-history. Many people with whom I discussed this issue praised the culture of religious tolerance that has existed in the country since time immemorial. In this context, some also mentioned specifically “nomadic” traditions of hospitality and openness towards others. Today two big confessions – Sunni Islam (of the Hanafi school) and Russian Orthodox Christianity – shape the religions landscape together with a number of smaller communities, including Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh Day’s Adventist, New Apostolic Church, Pentacostals, Church of Grace, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Shias, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Baha’is,Buddhists, Scientologists, Hare Krishna adherents and others. One should not forget the probably high number of atheists and agnostics or people not caring much about their religious identities. While some of the mentioned communities have existed in Kazakhstan for centuries, others arrived in more recent times. I have noticed broad agreement that the relationship between the various religious communities is generally a positive one. Incidents of interreligious clashes seem to remainvery rare, and people mostly appreciate religious diversity as something quite normal and natural in Kazakhstan.

This generally positive attitude does not equally include members of non-traditional communities though. According to a survey conducted by the Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA), the population displays different degrees of acceptance towards traditional and non-traditional religious communities. Members of communities perceived as “non-traditional” confirmed that they sometimes face societal skepticism, suspicion and discrimination. Although Government representatives mostly avoided the language of “traditional” and “non-traditional” religions when discussing this theme (except in the context of summits of religious leaders convened in Kazakhstan), no one denied that adverse attitudes towards religious groups perceived as standing outsideof the country’s traditional mosaic do exist. Moreover, widespread fear of religious extremism (often associated with certain currents of Islam) and worries about the influence of “sects” (generally associated with small non-traditional groups) pose challenges to the climate of religious tolerance which largely prevails in the society.

Religious and ethnic pluralism are almost inextricably intertwined in Kazakhstan. While ethnic Kazakhs (who constitute the largest ethnic group) usually understand themselves as Muslims, ethnic Russians (constituting the second biggest group) are generally perceived as Orthodox Christians. Such perceptions and self-identifications do not always reflect an active religious commitment and practice. It seems that religion often serves as a proxy for ethnicity and vice versa. This complex ethno-religious pluralism is widely appreciated as a positive asset on which to build Kazakhstan’s future. The “Assembly of People”, headed by the President of the Republic and convened at least once a year at national level, reflects this existing ethno-religious pluralism. 

Conversion from one religion to another or to atheismis possible without any State interference. While missionary activities are monitored by the State, changing one’s own religion does not incur any State imposed sanctions. However, given wide overlaps between religion and ethnicity, a change of one’s inherited religion may also be perceived as a rupture away from one’s own ethnic and family background, thus possibly leading to social ostracism.


  1. The self-understanding of the State in managing religious pluralism

In the international arena Kazakhstan aspires to serve as a bridge between different global and regional organizations as well as between different world religions. Since the beginning of 2013, Kazakhstan is a member State of the UN Human Rights Council.The country also belongs to the group of friends of the UN “Alliance of Civilizations”. Kazakhstan plays an active role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) whose chairmanship it had in 2010. Although not formally belonging to the Council of Europe, Kazakhstan participates in the Venice Commission,which is tasked with promoting the principles of rule of law in the broader European and Eurasian region. Kazakhstan is furthermore a member State of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the Government has shown commitment towards strengthening the OIC’s human rights component. Finally, the Government takes particular pride in its role of convening regular congresses of leaders of worldreligions and traditional religions; the fifth congress is currently in preparation.

The promotion of amicable relations between different religions thus characterizes Kazakhstan’s political aspirations both in the international arena as well as in the domestic sphere. This commitment for interreligious dialogue has much to do with the existing and further emerging religious pluralism in the country and the Government’s experiences in managing such pluralism. The Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA) founded in 2011, plays an important facilitating role in convening meetings of the Councils on liaising with religious organizations at the national and at the regional level. Such meetings take place at least on a quarterly basis. Beside closed meetings reserved to formal members, some of the meetings are explicitly open for broader participation. Some representatives of religious minorities explicitly appreciated the efforts undertaken by the Government in this field, assuming that without the active role of the State religious communities would probably meet less regularly.

Kazakhstan understands itself as a secular State which does not promote any particular religion or belief. Indeed, secularism belongs to the defining characteristics of the State listed in article 1 of the Constitution. It is widely seen as the sine qua non for the Government to take an active and authoritative role in managing religious diversity. During discussions,Government officials repeatedly underlined that secularism in Kazakhstan does not indicate an anti-religious attitude (as it was the case during Soviet rule) but rather serves as the guarantee of State neutrality vis-à-vis the country’s religious pluralism. However, while clearly emphasizing the need of preventing religions from unduly influencing secular State institutions, representatives of the Government usually gave markedly less attention to the need of protecting religious communities from undue State control. This understanding of secularism is also reflected in political practice. The Government seems to pursue a policy of keeping religions largely out of State institutions, including public schools, the administration and the military. For instance, religious chaplains in the military do not exist in Kazakhstan. At the same time, the State goes quite far in monitoring religious organizations, in particular non-traditional communities. Representatives of the Agency for Religious Affairs referred to opinion polls which indicate that secularism receives broad approval within the populations. Calls for establishing a religious (i.e. Islamic) State, as it exists in some of Kazakhstan’s neighbour countries, seem to remain unpopular and rare.

The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan contains a number of human rights provisions, including freedom of conscience as guaranteed in article 22. According to article 4, international standards have priority over domestic law. Naturally, this also applies to the international standards of freedom of religion or belief, as laid down in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kazakhstan ratified in 2005. A number of State institutions, including the Human Rights Commission under the President and the Ombudsman, have a mandate to monitor the domestic human rights situation, based on constitutional and international standards. The Ombudsman so far merely has an office in the capital; the establishment of regional offices is currently under discussion.


  1. Security and public order concerns

The Government’s active role in managing religious pluralism seems to be strongly, albeit not exclusively, motivated by the fear of religious extremism. Apart from State representatives such fear was also voiced by members of civil society organizations and representatives of religious communities. In the face of religious militancy, violent religious clashes and even rampant terrorism in some of Kazakhstan’s neighbour countries, existing anxieties aremore than understandable. Indeed, everyone with whom I talked on this issue agreed that religious extremism is a real danger and a potential threat to the stability of the country. Some academic experts opined that, due to the Soviet legacy, most believers lack an in-depth understanding of their own religious traditions – a situation which,they said,mayrender people vulnerable to the simplistic messages of religious radicalism. The fact that religious and ethnic pluralism are nearly inextricably interwoven in Kazakhstan mayadd yet another dimension of security concerns.

Stability, tranquility and harmony figured as key-words in many of our discussions. I concur that the political stability which Kazakhstan has by and large enjoyed since its independence is an accomplishment that deserves to be appreciated and further developed. However, the strong emphasis on stability can – and does – lead to subordinating human rights norms, including freedom of religion or belief, to broadly defined security and public order concerns. This might even obscure the specific normative rank of human rights, including freedom of religion of belief. There are reasons to recall that freedom of religion or belief is not a mere dividend of efficient diversity management by the State, but rather has a status of a right inherent to all human beings. Everyone should be able to practice their freedom of religion or belief, individually and in community with others, in private or in public. To have this freedom is a right inherent to all human beings and thus prior to – and ultimately independent of – any acts of administrative approval. Moreover, the ways in which people wish to realize their freedom of religion or belief are manifold and include traditional and less traditional forms of worship, communicative outreach within and beyond one’s own religious community, educational efforts in families and communities, import and distribution of religious literature, the establishment of an appropriate religious infrastructure and many other aspects. Reportedly, the enjoyment of these freedoms is hampered in practice, in particular for members of so called non-traditional communities.

In discussions with government representatives we found agreement that freedom of religion or belief (apart from its absolutely protected forum internum dimension!) is not without possible limitations. An unlimited right to freedom obviously could violate the rights and freedoms of others. However, disagreements repeatedly occurred concerning the question where precisely to draw the line. Fortunately, international human rights law gives clear guidance in this respect.The decisive point is that the onus of proof always falls on those who argue on behalf of limitations, not on those who defend or practice a right to freedom. In other words, the relationship between freedom and its limitations must remain a relationship between rule and exception. In case of doubt the rule prevails, and exceptions always require an extra burden of argumentation, both at the level of empirical evidence and at the level of normative reasoning. Furthermore, for limitations to be legitimate, they must meet cumulatively the criteriaset 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 – i.e. as an ultimate resort – to pursue a legitimate aim;andthey must remain within the realm of proportionality, which inter alia means they must be confined to a minimum degree of interference needed to reach the said aim. In addition, limitations should not have any discriminatory intentions of effects on the enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief by certain individuals or communities.

In discussions with Government representatives, I often sensed a different starting point concerning the relationship between freedom and its possible limitations. Rather than measuring the legitimacy of State imposed limitations against the prevailing status of universal human rights, the idea seemed to be that the exercise of freedom of religion or belief (even of core elements of this human right)would require a specific permission by the State. And instead of confining State imposed limitations to a minimum interference employed as an ultimate resort, I heard pleas for broad State interventions and control measures. Such restrictive tendencies are also reflected in the existing legislation, including the 2011 Law on Religious Associations. Adverse effects for the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief for everyone are also tangible in practice.

I am convinced that there is no inherentantagonism between human rights and the State’s responsibility to providedomestic peace or stability which obviously is a big challenge in Central Asia. By demonstrating full respect for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, the State can actually enhance its credibility as a guarantor of peace based on the “recognition of the inherent dignity … of all members of the human family”, to quote from the preamble of the first ever international human rights document, i.e. the 1948 Universal Declaration. Moreover, full respect for human rights provides the best preconditions for developing trust within society and also between State institutions and the population at large. Also when countering the scourges of religious extremism and religious hatred, the State must always fully respect freedom of religion or belief, which after all has the status of an inalienable and non-derogable universal right. Limitations, whenever deemed necessary must be justified in light of the specific normative rank of this human right, and they must be in compliance with all the criteria set out for limitations in article 18, paragraph 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.


  1. Required administrative permissions for corereligious activities

  1. Mandatory registration as religious association

A major issue in many discussions was the 2011 Law on Religious Associations which 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. Government representatives pointed to the fact that many (albeit not all) States require religious organizations to be registered. Such practice is widespread and can be beneficial for religious communities themselves.

However, registration procedures should in any case be based on the clear understanding that freedom of religion or belief, due to its nature as a human right, inheres to all human beings and can never be rendered dependent on any specific acts of State approval or administrative registration. In other words, freedom of religion or belief cannot be “created” by any administrative procedures. Rather, it is the other way around in that registration should be in the service of this human right, which itself precedes any registration. Following from this general understanding, registration should be an offer by the State, not a mandatory legal requirement. The situation of non-registered religious communities thus assumes the quality of an important test question about the understanding of the normative status of freedom of religion or belief in general.

While the vast majority of religious communities in Kazakhstan have successfully – or at least partially successfully – re-registered after the enactment of the 2011 Law on Religious Associations, a few applicationshave so far remained unsuccessful. As a result, some communities lost the legal status they had previously possessed,whereas others had never been registered at all. There are also examples of a few small groups (e.g. some Evangelical communities) which, as a matter of their conviction, generally refuse to register with the State. Some other religious communities only managed to register at the local level, while failing to obtain registration status at regional and national levels. The predominantreason is the rather high threshold required for registration, in particular at the national level. 

Amain problem concerning the administration of religious registration is that non-registered religious groups can hardly exercise any collective religious functions in Kazakhstan. Any of their activities, even the common performance of prayers and rituals in private homes, are deemed illegal and can incur serious administrative sanctions. Such punitive actions are actually carried out in practice, possibly leading to substantial fines, imposed under articles 374-1 and 375 of the Administrative Code and disproportionately affecting non-traditional communities. I also heard credible stories about police raids in the premises of some non-registered groups, leading to confiscation of literature, computers and other property. Registration under the Law of Public Associations does not present a viable alternative for those communities which failed re-registration under the 2011 law, because the status of a public association (which is much easier to obtain than registration as a religious association) does not allow the respective associations to carry out religious functions. Thus, non-registered religious communities and their members suffer from serious infringements of their freedom of religion or belief.

The 2011 Law on Religious Association also hampers religious activities of communities whose registration status is legally confined to a certain territory. Given the high threshold for national registration, only Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church possess the status of religious associations for the whole country, while other re-registered communities have merely met the thresholds for local and/or regional registration. This means that their community practice is legally confined to certain territorial boundaries within the country. When practicing their religion outside of those boundaries they might confront legal problems, including administrative sanctions. The likelihood of incurring punitive sanctions seems to differ according to the general reputation which a religious community has in society. Here again, the difference between traditional and non-traditional religions comes into play. While traditional religious communities can by and large function without problems, non-traditional and small communities bear a considerably higher risk of being sanctioned when stepping outside of their defined boundaries. Let me underline in this regard that even members of minorities who described their general relationships with State agencies as constructive complained about the lack of legal clarity and concomitant chilling effects on their religious community life.


  1. Theological criteria in registration reviews?

The Government informed methat the reviews of applications submitted for the registration or re-registration as religious associations are always carried out in a spirit of scientific neutrality, without resorting to theological criteria.At least the case concerning the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community clearly deviates from this principle. The application filed by the Ahmadiyya Community for re-registration was denied on the basis of a review unequivocally written from the theological standpoint of Sunni Islam. While the whole document displays religious language, the text makes reference to the decision of the Muslim World League – which is a religious authority – to deny Ahmadis their self-understanding as Muslims.

What defines the core elements of a particular religion usually remains controversial within the various religions, in Christianity not less than in Islam and other religions or beliefs. Freedom of religion or belief gives space to such controversies, as long as they do not lead to discrimination, hostility or violence. Thus, religious communities are free to peacefully distance themselves from other branches or schools of thought deemed as deviating from the defining principles of their faith. But it cannot be the business of the State – let alone a secular State – to enforce particular theological interpretations by measures of administrative law. In recognition of everyone’s freedom of religion or belief, the starting point must be the self-understanding of human beings and how they see their own beliefs.

Having lost their status as a religious association, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has factually ceased to carry out any community functions in Kazakhstan. Apart from obvious flaws in the review of their application, the situation of this small community is also indicative of the adverse consequence of mandatory registration in general. 

  1. Registration of missionary activities

Individuals – including citizens of Kazakhstan – who carry out religious functions with some degree of public visibility, are legally required to register as missionaries. Such registration is only valid for one year and needs to be renewed on an annual basis. The precise meaning of “missionary activities” does not seem to be clearly defined, and the administrative practice appears to lack in consistency. While representatives of traditional religious communities in practice can carry outreligious functions also without specific missionary permits, members of smaller groups have actually been sanctioned for merely talking about their faith or answering questions in public.  At times, the term “missionary activities” is reportedly used in such a broad way as to almost cover all forms of bearing witness and communicating about issues of faith. Lack of legal clarity in this important field apparently creates feelings of insecurity and being held “in limbo”. Again,I would like to emphasize that such concerns were also voiced by members of communities who say that they in general entertainconstructive relationships with local, regional or national Government institutions and participate in interreligious council meetings convened under the auspices of the Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA).

According to international standards, freedom of religion or belief unequivocally includes the right to bear witness to one’s conviction, to communicate within and across denominational boundaries and to try to persuade others non-coercively. This also covers missionary activities.Leaving aside the more specific visa questions concerning foreign missionaries coming from abroad, such activities generally do not presuppose a formal State approval, in particular when carried out by citizens or permanent residents of a country.

The legal and practical problemsconnected with requiring registration in Kazakhstan arefurther exacerbated if all sorts of manifestations of one’s belief are subsumed under the heading of “missionary activities”, which reportedly happens. Legal insecurity thus seriously hampers a very broad area of religious practices, in particular for “non-traditional” religious minorities. Moreover, even those individuals who possess a permit as missionaries may encounter problems when moving beyond the territorial area within which their community has obtained registration status. Another problem occurs when the renewal of a permit takes time, with the result of adding yet another factor of legal insecurity.


  1. Import and distribution of religious literature

A related issue concerns the import of religious literature for which again State approval is required as soon as the import exceeds the threshold for mere personal use defined by three copies of a book. According to the ARA, in the vast majority of cases such approval is given without further problems. The main reason for State interference in this field, I was told,is the prevention of religious extremism and religious hatred. Although I naturally share the view that religious extremism and religious hatred are serious problems which require State monitoring, the question remains whether the measures taken satisfy the criteria set out in article 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Having heard a number of examples from different religious communities I am convinced that the restrictions imposed on the import of literature in Kazakhstan are disproportionate.

Shops which sell religious literature need a specific license. According to information provided by the ARA, the number of shops permitted to distribute religious literature is above 250 nationwide, and applications for a license are generally given without problems. While Government representatives argued that in practice religious communities do not encounter serious problems in receiving the literature they need, the very requirement of a specific license nonetheless reflects an understandingin which the relationship between a fundamental right to freedom and its limitations is turned upside down. Instead of starting on the premise that freedom of religion or belief has the status of a human right against which limitations need to concretely justified, those wishing to exercise their rightsare requiredto apply for a specific permission by the State.


  1. Combating religious hatred and religious extremism

  1. The need for action

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 volatile situations in neighbor countries torn by violent religious conflicts, is a precious asset that deserves to be upheld and further developed. In talks with different stakeholders I sensed broad agreement on the need to remain on the alert and take appropriate political actions in this area.

On some occasions, I referred to the “Rabat Plan of Action on the Prohibition of Advocacy of national, racial and religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” elaborated in October 2012 under the auspices of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Rabat Plan of Action has found broad support in the international community. As the title indicates, it deals with measures to be taken by Governments and other stakeholders against hateful acts of incitement. While requesting States a wide range of activities in this area, the Rabat Plan of Action at the same time defines a high threshold for restrictive legal measures, with a view to fully ensure freedom of religion, expression and other communicative rights. A key message contained in the Rabat Plan of Action is the call to make creative use of freedom of expression in order to counter “hate speech” by “positive speech” and to challenge entrepreneurs of hatred by means of communicative outreach. Those responsible in governments, religious communities, civil society organizations, media and other organizations should jointly and clearly speak out against incitement to hatred and publicly demonstrate solidarity with targeted groups.

Kazakhstan’s commitment to interreligious dialogue coincides with some important recommendations contained in the Rabat Plan of Action. As mentioned earlier, the Government’s engagement in this field comprises both domestic efforts of bringing religious communities together as well as the congresses of religious leaders which Kazakhstan has already convened four times.


  1. Lack of clear definition of criminal offences

When combating religious hatred Kazakhstan also resorts to criminal sanctions. Problems arise from the overly broad terminology used in the relevant articles. The most obvious example is 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 article. As a result of broadly circumscribed offences, all sorts of unwelcome religious claims deemed offensive to parts of the society or to Government agencies could be penalized by imprisonment. This leads to legal insecurity with concomitant adverse repercussion on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

The danger of being sanctioned is not merely hypothetical. Article 164 of the Criminal Code has been used in practice, and some individuals sentenced under this provision are currently serving their prison terms. In discussions with non-governmental organizations working in this area I heard worrisome stories about allegations raised against members of different religious communities, sometimes leading to interrogations, administrative detention and long pre-trial detention. Given the time constraints, I could not make assessments of individual cases all of which warrant a very detailed analysis of their precise contexts and legal merits. This is certainly an issue for further follow up. Nonetheless, I am convinced that articles 164 of the current Criminal Code, due to the overly broad circumscription of offences, is a source of major concerns. From the specific angle of my mandate, I would therefore concur with the critical observations recently made on this issue by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in its comments on Kazakhstan’s State report. What was just said about article 164 is similarly true for other provisions, including articles 337[1] and 337-1[2] of the Criminal Code.


  1. Criminal procedures and conditions of imprisonment

In the context of discussing criminal prosecution of religious extremism, a number of civil society organizations furthermore complained about a lack a transparency and fairness in criminal procedures. They reported that it was not easy for defendants and their lawyers to get hold of important documents on which allegations were based. I also heard about cases of long administration detention or pre-trial detention and unacceptable conditions of imprisonment and use of rendering in psychiatric institutions.

These issues need a more detailed analysis. The serious nature of the allegations made motivates me to at least flag these problems already here as important issues for further follow up.


  1. Educational initiatives

  1. Differentiation between religious instruction and information about religion

When discussing educational matters, mention was made to the Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools (Toledo Guiding Principles) on Information about Religion, elaborated by the OSCE on 27 November 2007. The Toledo Guiding Principles insist on a clear differentiation between education that acquaints students with their own religious traditions, on the one hand, and education with the purpose of broadening the general knowledge about religions, on the other. While the first type of education can be termed “religious instruction”, the second can be called “information about religion”. Moreover, 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.

The situation in Kazakhstan is very clear in this regard. Due to the secular nature of public schools, the curriculum merely provides for information about religions, not for religious instructions on the tenets of a particular faith. Familiarizing the younger generation with their specific religious traditions is thus entirely left to the religious communities themselves.


  1. Religious information as part of the school curriculum

As previously mentioned, the Republic of Kazakhstan subscribes to a strict understanding of secularism which is also reflected in the school curriculum. The Ministry of Education introduced religious studies – in the sense of providing information about religions – only a few years ago. Currently, this particular subject is merely taught during one year, i.e. at the 9th grade. Teachers working in this field told me that the subject meets with great interest by students who are curious to learn more about religions. Information about religions generally takes place within the premises of schools and, according to information received, does not include visits of places of worship or religious sites located in the vicinity of the school.  

The text book used for informing 9th grade students cover the different world religions in a spirit of neutrality. However, the chapter on new religious movements assumes a warning tone, with the purpose of alerting students to dangers of seduction or manipulation. The chapter does not mention any specific groups in this regard.

While the dangers discussed in the text books certainly exist, they should not be associated with one particular type of religions. The history of religious unfortunately entails numerous examples of force, coercion and manipulation perpetrated by traditional or new religions, by big or small communities, by organized groups as well as less organized movements. Associating “destructive” tendencies and concomitant dangers merely with one type of religions may reinforce existing prejudices against small groups often branded as “sects”. On a closer look, this type of small groups and new religious movements comprises a broad variety of different religions and beliefs which deserve to be addressed in respect of their distinctive features.

When visiting Karaganda, I discussedprogrammes of learning about history, including the history of repression under totalitarian rule. I learnt that during the Soviet era numerous political critics and dissenters were exiled in Karaganda and many of them were held in concentration camps. Thus, the region has a particular historic legacy of large-scale political atrocities which is memorized also in schools. We had in-depth discussions on the significance which learning about history has in broader programmes of human rights education within and outside schools. 


  1. Promoting “religious literacy” in society

Given the importance of solid religious knowledge and understanding for living together peacefully in a religiously pluralistic society, programmes of religious information should go beyond school education and also cater to the population at large.

I met with a number of organizations dedicated to the promotion of “religious literacy” in society. Some of these organizations closely collaborate with the ARA. In their agendas they pursued different purposes: familiarizing 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 simplistic slogans. The need for promoting “religious literacy” was associated by some with the Soviet past which had led to a sharp decline of religious practice and knowledge in society.

I appreciate the endeavours to promote “religious literacy” in society. It seems to me that such a positive approach is much more promising than campaigns undertaken by anti-sect-centres which continue to operate in the country. While leaflets distributed by Government sponsored anti-sect-centres appear to display a very alarming tone without always being specific enough about the supposed threats, the promotion of religious literacy can empower people to make up their own minds. All programmes, in particular when enacted or sponsored by Government agencies should be based on precise information. The OSCE Toledo Guidelines include criteria which could be used also when designing programmes of enhancing religious literacy in society.


  1. Religious socialization of young people

Familiarizing the younger generation with their own religion is a task entirely left to the religious communities in Kazakhstan. Representatives of various communities explained how they operate in this regard. Some raised concerns that the general lack of legal clarity in the broad area of religious manifestations also affects their educational efforts. I also heard stories about facilities of private religious education having been closed down by the administration. Representatives of religious communities, including traditional communities with generally good relations to Government agencies, expressed their wishes for more legal clarity based on the understanding that teaching and education belong to core elements of freedom of religion or belief.


  1. Concluding Remarks

    Representatives of the Government repeatedly emphasized in our talks that Kazakhstan has embarked on a process of rapid and far-reaching transformation. The country aspires to fully use the potential which it has as a “bridge” between different international and regional organizations. Domestically, reforms are underway, including in the area of law. I heard commitment to further develop the culture of amicable inter-ethnic and inter-religious coexistence which has shaped the history of country, and I sense a lot of good will and positive intentions.

    The Government is currently preparing the fifth congress of religious leaders. I would encourage those in charge of organizing the congress to move beyond the confines of traditional religions and also invite representatives of other communities. Besides the usually male leaders, women should play an active role in the dialogue, including feminist theologians of different denominations. This could serve as signal to further broaden the understanding and acceptance of diversity.

    I would also encourage a public debate on the interpretation of secularism in Kazakhstan. In my view, a secular constitution should provide open space for the unfolding of the existing and emerging religious diversity, free from fear and free from discrimination. Some of those interlocutors with whom I had a chance to discuss this issue seemed to entertain quite similar views. However, I also came across very restrictive interpretation according to which secularism becomes a tool for confining manifestations of freedom of religion or belief to pre-defined territorial spaces. 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.

    I would like to recommend far-reaching reforms of the 2011 Law on Religious Associations based on an understanding that registration should be optional and in the service of freedom of religion or belief. The perhaps most important consequence would be that registration should be an offer, not a mandatory requirement for religious community practice. Non-registered communities must be able to operate free from discrimination and free from fear of intimidation. Thresholds for registration at different levels (local, regional and national) should be defined in such a way that minorities can fully operate throughout the country. The requirement of registering missionary activities as well as the practice of licensing the import and distribution of religious literature should also be generally overhauled. Representatives of religious communities and civil society organizations working in this field should be consulted throughout this process.

    The currently ongoing reform of the criminal code offers an opportunity to revise articles which, as numerous practical examples indicate, have proven to be detrimental both to freedom of expression and to freedom of religion or belief. This particularly concerns articles 164 and 337-1 of the Criminal Code. It will be important to discuss and monitor the upcoming reform of the criminal code in order to ensure that the new provisions willbe fully in line with freedom of religion or belief, in conjunction with freedom of expression and other communicative freedoms.

    I would like to encourage the Ministry of Education to further develop the programmes on religious information for students, also beyond grade 9. School education plays a pivotal role in promoting a climate of religious tolerance which, as I have heard again and again, remains a defining feature of the society of Kazakhstan. I applaud the initiatives taken for the promotion of “religious literacy” in the population at large.

    I share the view expressed by many interlocutors that strictly abiding by the principles of rule of law creates the best conditions for combating the scourges of religious hatred and religious extremism, since a clear reliance on rule of law helps to build trust within society and between State agencies and the population at large.

    Let me conclude by once again expressing my gratitude to all those who have made this visit possible. I have learnt a lot and I have benefitted from experiences, views and assessments shared freely with me. The hospitality which my team and I have enjoyed here in Kazakhstan is outstanding and will remain unforgettable.

    Heiner Bielefeldt





[1]Article 337 on creation or participation in the activity of illegal public and other associations

[2]Article 337-1 on  organization of the activities of a public or religious association or another organization following a court decision to prohibit their activities or to dissolve them on account of their incitement of extremism.


Leave a Reply