No Mercy for Grace Churches
Following a 15-hour church raid in late August, Kazakhstan's secret police (the KNB) placed two pastors and two members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Karaganda under investigation for high treason.
Senior pastor Igor Kim, his sister, and the church administratorall Kazakhstani citizensas well as Aleksei Kim, the pastor of a sister church, face sentences of up to 10 to 15 years, according to Forum 18, a news service that tracks religious-rights violations.
Government leaders in Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, increasingly view adherents of minority religions as unpatriotic. Religion in the oil-rich republic is traditionally tied to race: Kazakhs are expected to be nominal Muslims; Russians are expected to be Orthodox.
Senushi Rukhbayeva, a Kazakh scholar and convert to evangelical Christianity who, like others in this article, asked that her real name not be used, said followers of other religions are viewed with suspicion. Kazakhs who discover she is an evangelical accuse her of repudiating her culture, she said.
Another Kazakh believer told CT, "There is [a lot of] Muslim propaganda addressing the nation through mass media, which makes me feel like our country from year to year is becoming more Muslim. Evangelical Christians will certainly suffer from that."
Political pressures have also converged to create a worsening situation for religious rights. The Beslan school siege and the 2004 and 2005 color revolutions, which toppled nearby regimes, reinforced government suspicions that earnest belief is dangerous.
Several churches in Kazakhstan have had offices raided and computers confiscated, said Jason Tappit, a regional field manager for East-West Ministries. But charges of treason represent a serious upping of the stakes. Tappit believes religious oppression may be rising to a new level, involving "a systematic pursuit of Christian organizations and churches."
The Karaganda church, which reports 3,000 members, is one of 250 Grace Presbyterian Church congregations in the country. Joe Candy, a missionary in Kazakhstan from the mid-1990s until recently, said Igor Kim is the de-facto leader of the country's Protestants.
Grace's leaders have denied any involvement in treason. "I've known [Igor Kim] for 10 years; it's unthinkable that he would be involved in anything inappropriate," Candy said. "He's always been an active proponent of the churches being an active part of society, being supportive of the government, praying for leaders, participating in community events."
Despite the government's unfair treatment of evangelicals, Rukhbayeva said she believes Kazakhstanis are more receptive than ever to Christianity's message. "People are more open to religion [than in early post-Soviet days]," she said.
Kazakhstan is currently bidding for chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body that, among other things, upholds human rights, freedom for national minorities, and democratization. In November 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the U.S. government to reject Kazakhstan's bid because of blatant religious-rights violations.
But Forum 18's Felix Corley said Kazakhstan has not yet felt much heat from the broader international community. "They can crack down on religious minorities without any handicap," he said. "So they'll carry on doing it."
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Forum 18 News Service coverage of Grace Church's problems in Kazakhstan includes "'The Secret Police's Persecution by Proxy,'" "Treason Charges Against Grace Church Leaders?," and "Church Subjected to 15-Hour Raid."