Law on religion should be amended in an open and inclusive process | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Law on religion should be amended in an open and inclusive process

Law on religion should be amended in an open and inclusive process

Authorities should take steps to initiate an open and inclusive process of revising the Bakiyev-era Religion Law, says Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee. – The 2009 Religion Law fails to comply with the Constitution and with international human rights standards. It severely restricts religious freedoms, including imposing registration requirements that in effect ban registration of new religious communities other than the Orthodox Church and the Spiritual Board of Moslems.

In 2008, The Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief issued a Joint Opinion which criticised the then draft Law. It was none the less adopted a few months later. – The Joint Opinion is still valid and we encourage the use of its recommendations in a renewed revision process, says Engesland.

A draft religion law more in line with Constitutional and international law requirements was developed by Kyrgyzstani and Kazakhstani activists in 2010, and presented to the Parliament. However, in a closed process the draft law apparently passed through two hearings before the process stopped. – The draft law is in our view a good starting point for further discussion on a new religion law. However, the drafting process should be open and inclusive, involving hearings with civil society organizations and religious groups, Engesland underlines.

Another legislative initiative related to religion gives reason to concern. In March 2012, a draft law on amendments to the current law was introduced by a group of deputies headed by former Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uluu. The 2009 Religion Law stipulates that all imported religious literature requires state examination, and includes provisions that further limit distribution of religious material. The National Security Services are in charge of this task, implying that imported religious literature is in general perceived as a security risk.

According to the Bakir-uluu group’s draft, the National Security Services could request assistance from the Russian-Orthodox Church and the Spiritual Board of Moslems in examining religious literature. – This is in breach of the Constitution and international standards, which holds that all religions are equal before the Law. Establishing a system where two religious groups are involved in the examination of the texts of other religious groups, is clearly giving these groups a privileged position and jeopardizing the principle of religious neutrality of the state, says Engesland.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and local activists have addressed President Almazbek Atambayev and the Presidential Administration’s Department of ethnic and religious politics and interaction with civil society, stating a range of critical points related to this draft law. If adopted, it will bring Kyrgyzstan even further away from respecting freedom of religion or belief.  You can read the letter here.

According to a recent report by the non-governmental organization Open Viewpoint,Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Kyrgyz Republic: Overview of Legislation and Practice, no religious institutions except those affiliated with the Orthodox Church or Spiritual Board of Moslems have been registered since January 2009. In conclusion, the 2009 Religion Law’s requirement of minimum 200 members in order to register has proved to be an effective barrier of registration and achieving legal status for other religious groups. You may read this report here.

– There are, however, also some promising signs in the ways the Kyrgyzstan Parliaments adopts new legislation, says Engesland. A recent process on amending the Law on Freedom of Assembly has been quite transparent and open to civil society groups and activists. The draft Law that was approved by the Parliament on 12 April 2012 is mainly in line with international standards and also takes into account Venice Commission recommendations, though it still has some shortcomings. – If this law is signed by the President, it could serve as a good example for further legislation processes, concludes Engesland. 

Background

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) and several partner organizations published a report on freedom of religion or belief issues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. The organizations are following developments in both countries, and are now in the process of updating the report.

NHC staff visited the Kyrgyz Republic 11-14 April 2012 as part of research for the updated report, and to prepare for other actions in order to influence authorities to respect freedom of religion or belief. Partner organizations in the project include the Stefanus Alliance, Forum 18 News Service and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights.