– We want to abide by the law; just give us a chance to understand how! | Den norske Helsingforskomité

We want to abide by the law; just give us a chance to understand how!

We want to abide by the law; just give us a chance to understand how!

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) is concerned with recently adopted legislation on religious organizations; coming into force on 25 October 2011. – The legislation is very restrictive, violating international human rights on numerous points. Prohibiting unregistered religious activities and establishing censorship of religious literature is clearly in breach of human rights provisions on freedom of religion or belief. In addition, so far authorities have failed to present instructions on how to abide by the law, says Gunnar M. Ekeløve-Slydal, Deputy Secretary General in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

-Peaceful, law-abiding religious groups and citizens are left in a frustrating situation not knowing how to abide by the new legislation, Ekeløve-Slydal continues.

For religious groups that NHC have talked with, there are four core issues:

– Requirements for registration and prohibition of religious activities by un-registered groups;

– State approval prior to import and distribution of religious literature;

– Removal of prayer rooms in governmental institutions;

– State approval of elected or appointed heads of religious groups.

Regarding registration, it seems that only the government approved Spiritual Administration of the Muslims in Kazakhstan (DUMK) will be able to obtain the national level registration. Not even the Orthodox Church will be able to gain such a registration, if the law is to be followed scrupulously. – However, the key problem with registration is that the Law on Religion prohibit groups with less than 50 members to conduct religious activities, says Ekeløve-Slydal. - This is in violation of international human rights standards on both freedom of religion and on freedom of assembly and association.

The Law on Religion also requires state approval of any imported religious literature to be used in religious activities; amounting to censorship. The task of approving the literature is delegated to the State Agency on Religious Affairs. – Conducting this task speedily is an enormous challenge. Firstly, there are quite voluminous religious texts in most denominations, and in several languages. Secondly, many religious groups get their religious literature imported from headquarters abroad – monthly, or even weekly. How can the Agency be capable of examining all these texts in time?

A hot topic is prohibition of prayer rooms in public institutions, including prisons and health care institutions. Even though the law permits visits of religious leaders, due to limited capacity and Kazakhstan being an enormous territory, such visits will be very rare.

Prohibition of prayer rooms and praying in public also constitutes a problem for devout believers who want to serve in the army. If they are not allowed to pray during the day, they will not be able to fulfil their religious duties. – For a law-abiding citizen this is hard to relate to these prohibitions also because there is no legal provision for alternative service either.

– Not only do these provisions violate human rights. There is also a failure so far by the authorities to guide groups and citizens on how to abide by them, continues Ekeløve-Slydal. As a consequence, law-abiding groups and individuals are left with a frustrating situation of having to wait for clarifications. At the same time, there is a 12 months deadline for re-registering; starting from the moment the law came into force.

Organisations sponsored and directed by the authorities (GONGOs) play an important role related to the law. Some of these organisations have established centres for so-called victims of destructive sects. – A provision of the law on religion that oblige religious leaders to prevent children to take part in religious activities unless both parents agree (Article 3(16)), may make it easy for these centres to split families and to use stories of family conflicts for propaganda purposes against certain religions.

– Representatives of religious groups underlined that they want dialogue with the authorities to have a possibility to understand the law properly in order to abide by it, concludes Ekeløve-Slydal. As it seems now, the law is creating confusion and frustration, undermining the aims of nurturing a tolerant and vibrant civil society in a secular state as the law’s stated goal is.

– The restrictive nature of the law is defended by the authorities as necessary in order to fight violent religious extremism. However, it is neither acceptable nor necessary to violate human rights in order to fight such extremism. Human rights should not be seen as part of the problem, but rather as part of the solution.