Trip Report

International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable

Delegation to Kazakhstan, 1-6 December 2013

15 May 2014


First of all, the members of the International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable delegation that traveled to the Republic of Kazakhstan in early December 2013 would like to express their profound gratitude to the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the United States for his invitation to visit the country. They are deeply appreciative of the support they received from the Ambassador and his Embassy staff in Washington; and of the access and assistance they received from the Kazakh officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Agency for Religious Affairs and the General Prosecutor’s Office who were part of the formal meeting in Astana. At every step, the members of the delegation were treated with the utmost respect and consideration, and the open, honest and frank nature of the ongoing dialogue continues to make for a constructive engagement. Further, the meetings that delegation members had with civil society representatives increased their understanding and made a deep and lasting impression on them. Finally, the delegation members very much enjoyed the warm welcome and generous hospitality of the people of Kazakhstan.

During its visit from 1-6 December, the International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable delegation met with government officials, human rights activists and representatives of religious organizations, and attended a conference on religion, security and citizenship. The delegation had two goals: to assess the accuracy of critical foreign government and NGO reports, especially those concerning the 2011 Religion Law, and to explore possible avenues of cooperation with the Kazakh government to address these issues.

In their meeting with Kazakh officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Agency for Religious Affairs and the General Prosecutor’s Office, members of the delegation made the point that Kazakhstan must fully consider and understand the impact of the Religion Law on national security. The need to counter violent extremism is pressing, but cracking down on religious freedom is a dangerous and counterproductive response.

The human rights activists with which the delegation met were highly critical of the law, and validated some of the criticisms of Western governments and human rights groups. However, the effects of the law on security and stability in Kazakhstan remain unclear due to a lack of empirical data. Anecdotal evidence gathered by the delegation, as well as empirical research conducted in other countries, suggests that the law may be detrimental to stability. It also has a highly negative effect on Kazakhstan’s image in the West.

The Roundtable delegation was encouraged by several developments during the visit. The Kazakh government said that it will establish a working group to review the Religion Law, and the Research and Analytical Center of the Agency for Religious Affairs showed interest in cooperation with the Institute for Global Engagement on matters of religious education and management. Participants of the Roundtable will continue their engagement with the Kazakh government on these issues as well as those listed in the recommendations section of this report.


The IRF Roundtable Approach

Participants of the International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable (the IRF Roundtable) believe that when there is a safe space that enables an ongoing, meaningful and transparent dialogue between government and grassroots leaders about freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, there is greater stability, security, peace and prosperity, and increased opportunity for women and youth. Participants of the Roundtable come alongside countries in transition – at their invitation – that seek equal opportunity for all citizens to freely exercise their faith, or none, under the rule of law. Before making practical recommendations in this direction, it is the practice of participants to first understand, and then engage. By listening and learning first, they believe that win-win solutions can be found.

The IRF Roundtable Engagement of Kazakhstan           

A five-member delegation from the IRF Roundtable in Washington, D.C., visited Kazakhstan on 1-6 December 2013, at the invitation of the Kazakh Ambassador to the United States. The purpose of their trip was to continue the Roundtable’s ongoing dialogue with the Kazakh government regarding the state of religious freedom in Kazakhstan.

The delegation included:

  • Greg Mitchell (Co-Chair of the IRF Roundtable), The Mitchell Firm
  • Chris Seiple (Co-Chair of the IRF Roundtable), Ph.D., Institute for Global Engagement
  • Wade Kusack, Russian Ministries
  • Leonid Stonov, Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union
  • Susan Taylor, Church of Scientology National Affairs Office

This dialogue began at a breakfast on 8 May 2013, at the Kazakh Embassy in Washington, D.C., which was hosted by the Ambassador and attended by officials from the Agency for Religious Affairs (ARA) and 15 participants of the Roundtable. After hearing their views regarding the 2011 Religion Law, the Ambassador encouraged these participants to visit Kazakhstan and increase their understanding of this complex and important issue by talking with Kazakh government officials and grassroots leaders.

In addition to meeting with Kazakh officials, members of the delegation met freely with anyone they chose in Astana and Almaty, and participated as observers in an international conference on religion, security and citizenship in Almaty.


Participants of the IRF Roundtable engaged the Kazakh Embassy in May 2013 due to concerns stemming from international criticism of Kazakhstan’s 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations. Roundtable participants were also concerned by broader social and political circumstances that affect freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan. This section briefly summarizes these concerns.

The 2011 Religion Law

The 2011 Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations (Religion Law) has been a focus of international human rights criticism of Kazakhstan since its implementation. An analysis by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy found that the law fell short of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and United Nations (UN) standards.[1] The most recent annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) makes it clear that the Religion Law drives its increasingly negative assessment of Kazakhstan.[2] The U.S. State Department’s 2012 International Religious Freedom Report also devotes a significant part of its chapter on Kazakhstan to criticism of the law.[3]

Regardless of whether this is an accurate portrait of the religious freedom environment in Kazakhstan, the Religion Law has greatly damaged Kazakhstan’s international image. In the eyes of Western governments and civil society groups, Kazakhstan’s emphasis on religious tolerance is overshadowed by this law. As U.S. involvement in Afghanistan draws to a close and its geostrategic interest in Central Asia declines, it will give human rights greater priority in the region, further contributing to this situation. Participants of the Roundtable do not want to see Kazakhstan isolated from the West.

Religion Policy and Security in Kazakhstan

Participants of the IRF Roundtable are more concerned with the possible impact of the law on social cohesion and security in Kazakhstan. In a 2010 report on freedom of religion or belief in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee laid out several reasons why stringent policies towards religious groups may increase radicalization:

  • radical Islam emerges where Orthodox Islam is weak and freedom of conscience is restricted by the government;
  • lack of opportunity for legal dissent leads Muslims to express their dissatisfaction through radical Islam;
  • lack of trust in government encourages public perceptions of extremists as victims, rather than criminals;
  • suppression of individual liberties by the government enhances the popularity of extremism.[4]

Though the above points summarize research conducted in Kyrgyzstan, these principles are sufficiently broad that they could easily apply in Kazakhstan. Reflecting on the situation in both countries, the report concludes that “violating freedom of religion or belief always causes and encourages tensions, creating insecurity and conflict.”[5]

Such conclusions are increasingly bolstered by empirical research. An exhaustive 2011 study by academics from Harvard, Notre Dame and Georgetown found “that religious communities are most likely to support democracy, peace and freedom for other faiths, and least likely to take up the gun or form dictatorships, when governments allow them freedom to worship, practice and express their faiths freely and when religious communities in turn renounce their claims to permanent offices or positions of policy-making authority.”[6] Dr. Brian Grim, a noted expert on society and religion who did extensive work in Kazakhstan in the 1990s, has found a strong correlation between government restrictions on religion and religiously-motivated violence.[7]

Because so little data exists detailing the impact of government policies on religious groups in Kazakhstan, it is impossible to discern if the Religion Law is contributing to the growth of radicalism. Empirical evidence from other countries, however, suggests that this could be the case.


A delegation of the IRF Roundtable traveled to Kazakhstan from 1-6 December to meet with government officials and representatives of religious communities and human rights groups. The delegation had two goals: to assess the accuracy of critical foreign government and NGO reports and to explore possible avenues of cooperation with the Kazakh government to address these issues.

Meeting with Government Officials

In their meeting with Kazakh officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ARA and the General Prosecutor’s Office in Astana, members of the delegation noted that the IRF Roundtable is a truly multi-faith group of participants, representing a high degree of diversity. Participants agree on very little theologically, but they all agree on the importance of religious freedom. And they all share common interests and goals with the Kazakh government – stability, security, peace and prosperity in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

Members of the IRF Roundtable delegation sympathized with Kazakhstan’s difficult geopolitical environment, and the fact it has to be vigilant in order to prevent extremism, violence and terrorism. They noted Kazakhstan’s success in this environment and recognized its achievements over the past 22 years. At the same time, they made the point that Kazakhstan must fully consider and understand the impact of the Religion Law on national security. The need to counter violent extremism is pressing, but government interference in religious practice could be a dangerous and counterproductive response.

The Roundtable delegation noted that religion creates a national security problem in some contexts, and that if this is the case, then religion must be part of the solution. Several present cited some empirical research showing a correlation between repression of religious groups and increased religious extremism, as outlined in Section 2 of this report. Religious groups can contribute greatly to social cohesion and stability, but this requires a safe space where dialogue can take place and scholarship can be produced. This in turn can be used to jointly train cohorts of government and religious leaders, reducing their negative stereotypes of one another while deepening their understanding of religion, security and citizenship.

Delegation members also noted the extremely detrimental effect the law has had on Kazakhstan’s international image, as noted in the previous section. One brought up the case of Pastor Bakhytzhat Kashkumbayev as an example of how the Religion Law continues to be a liability for Kazakhstan internationally. Another focused on the problems with mandatory registration of religious communities. They shared their impression that Kazakhstan’s image in the United States has been changing for the worse over the past few years, which is not in the interests Kazakhstan or the United States.

Kazakh officials asserted that the Religion Law did not violate the Kazakh constitution or international law, and stated their belief that the requirement to comply with the law is uniform. They said, however, that the law is not written in stone, and that it could be revised to reflect the changes that have taken place in Kazakh society over the past few years. Officials informed the Roundtable delegation that they would be establishing a working group to review the Religion Law, a process that could take up to a year to complete.

Meetings with Representatives of Religious Communities and Human Rights Groups

The IRF Roundtable delegation, with the exception of Dr. Seiple, met with the following individuals in addition to meeting with government officials:

  • Alexander Klyushev, President of the Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan;
  • Anara Ibrayeva, Director of Astana branch of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law;
  • Roza Umirzkova, Scientologist from Almaty;
  • Sergei Duvanov, Chief of Information and Monitoring Center for the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law;
  • Rinata Alibekova, Senior Program Officer for Freedom House in Kazakhstan;
  • Andrey Sviridov, Site Editor for the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law;
  • Vladimir Voyevodin, Staff Attorney for the Christian Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses;
  • Murat Talibekov, Chair of Kazakhstan Muslim Union and Human Rights Muslim Committee;
  • Roman Podoprigora, attorney, Deputy Director of the Financial and Tax Law Research Institute, former member of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Freedom of Religion or Belief, professor of law, author of a new book on law and religion in Kazakhstan;
  • Artur Artemyev, former Soviet-era Chairman of the Council on Religious Affairs, author of a two-volume study on the same subject.

Those with whom the Roundtable delegation met universally expressed deep frustration with the Religion Law. The four biggest issues raised in the meetings were registration requirements, restrictions on missionary activity, restrictions on religious literature, and property and building architecture. The registration requirements of the law discriminate against smaller religious communities. The law also puts all Muslims under the (Hanafi) Muslim Spiritual Directorate, regardless of whether they are Hanafi.

Those who spoke to the Roundtable delegation were concerned with the procedures used to pass the Religion Law, saying that it was not given the same consideration as the draft religion laws of 2002 and 2009, which the Constitutional Council rendered landmark decisions against. Instead, it was passed quickly with little scrutiny and no input from the Council. They mentioned dozens of cases of what they consider unjust enforcement actions and prosecutions under the law.

There was great concern that the government is not doing enough to protect, or is actively seeking to disadvantage, certain non-traditional faiths. These religious groups, according to many of whom the Roundtable delegation met, have been stigmatized in the media. The degree of negative public opinion against them is consequently very high, and their suffering under the law is little-noticed. They also said the Kazakh courts often use inadequately trained experts.

Conference on Religion, Security and Citizenship

On 5-6 December, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), in partnership with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, hosted an international conference on “Religion, Security and Citizenship in Central Asia” in Almaty at the al-Farabi Kazakh National University. The Roundtable delegation was able to attend this conference as observers. Dr. Seiple, in his capacity as IGE president, was a keynote speaker and moderator.

A key theme of the conference was the balance between hard and soft power. Several speakers discussed how an excessive reliance on hard power for domestic security could be counterproductive. Soft power, they said, should be the default tool during peaceful times. In the context of religious legislation, this means laws that allow for freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, and respect for diversity, while identifying common values towards which all faith groups should aspire.

Most participants, including scholars and government representatives from across Central Asia, agreed that extremism is on the rise throughout the region due to a variety of factors, and that a new approach to religion is needed. Key to this new approach is the strengthening of religious education. On this point, the Kazakh Agency for Religious Affairs requested access to IGE’s international training programs, noting the need for a global comparative perspective on religious education and governance.

Participants urged that more such conferences be held in the future. If new, effective policies on religion are to be developed, safe spaces for government-civil society dialogue will play an important role. The IGE-Carnegie conferences are currently one of the only such spaces that exist for this discussion in Kazakhstan.


The IRF Roundtable delegation noted several positive developments:

  • The Kazakh government will establish a working group to review the Religion Law.
  • The Research and Analytical Center of the ARA expressed interest in attending IGE trainings around the world, and in developing a training curriculum and practical models regarding religious education, governance and management. IGE has been in contact with the ARA regarding this possibility.
  • During the conference, Kazakh government officials noted that Kazakhstan’s model of religious management is in transition, moving towards “cooperation.”
  • Government officials expressed a desire to continue dialogue, despite persisting differences of opinion, and to find common points and increase understanding.

That being said, the Roundtable delegation also received many negative reports from civil society actors, human rights activists and religious leaders during its visit. While it understands that most Kazakhs support the Religion Law, the delegation believes the Religion Law is unnecessarily restrictive and could put the security situation in Kazakhstan at risk, and is generally a liability for the Kazakh government on the world stage.

The situation in Kazakhstan is complex and is influenced by social, economic, political and religious factors. Therefore, a simplistic narrative that demonizes the government and the Religion Law will not work. However, there are ways Kazakhstan can work to improve the Religion Law, as well as its security situation in general, and begin to rehabilitate its image in the West. To this end, the Roundtable delegation respectfully offers the following recommendations:

  1. Continue the engagement with participants of the IRF Roundtable on religious issues. Western organizations and Kazakh government officials need continued dialogue to find common points and increase understanding and consensus on all sides.
  2. Continue to support the conferences of the Institute for Global Engagement and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on religion, security and citizenship.
    • These conferences are an important mechanism for government dialogue with civil society on religion policy.
    • Such conferences give credit to Kazakhstan, and show the world that Kazakhstan takes these issues seriously.
    • These conferences can increase mutual understanding and respect, and identify common values, interests and goals
    • These dialogues can include related topics such as religion and the rule of law, religion and economic development, and the interpretation of secularism in Kazakhstan.
  3. If it has not already been done, consider establishing an interagency working group to review the 2011 Religion Law.
    • As part of this review, consider examining the criminal code and other appropriate legislation that directly or indirectly affects religion. For instance, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who just completed a visit to Kazakhstan on 4 April, stated in the concluding remarks of his presentation of preliminary findings that, “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.”
    • We respectfully urge that the Kazakh government accept the forthcoming recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who will submit a formal report with recommendations later this year.
    • Consider making the working group inclusive and open to the world’s best practices by inviting inputs from civil society, religious leaders of all faiths, and international experts.
    • To facilitate these inputs, consider establishing a formal mechanism by which government and grassroots leaders can engage in a meaningful dialogue on the law
    • Consider institutionalizing the IGE-Carnegie conferences on religion, security and citizenship as a means to this end.
  4. Consider inviting Dr. Brian Grim, formerly of the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, and currently of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, to deliver briefings and empirical evidence on the links between religious freedom and security, and between religious freedom and economic development.
  5. Support academic studies on the impact of government religion policy on society.
    • IGE has an extensive network of scholars who can conduct such research
    • Consider using this research as a baseline to inform policymaking.
  6. Allow for civil society, religious leaders of all faiths, and independent experts in Kazakhstan to establish an inclusive, civil society-organized safe space for ongoing dialogue to discuss these interconnected issues. Government representatives can be invited by civil society to participate.
  7. Consider developing a strategy for religious engagement. This strategy can take into account the growth trends in the social role of religion and its institutions, their deepening cooperation with the institutions of the state, and the need to improve the Kazakh model of state-confessional relations.
    • The strategy can focus efforts on key policy objectives, promote best practices, and spur greater interagency coordination
    • The strategy can serve as a guide for government officials on engaging faith leaders, especially those that are making significant contributions to the prevention and mitigation of conflict, countering violent extremism, and sustainable development and humanitarian efforts.
  8. Kazakhstan should build on its tradition of fostering religious tolerance and celebrating diversity. To this end, consider expanding the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to include leaders of any faith group that wishes to participate; and to include female leaders of faith groups.


[1] The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, “Legislative Analysis of Draft Religion Law: Fundamental Right to Religious Freedom in Jeopardy.” 20 September 2011,

[2] The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, “Annual Report 2013.” April 2013,

[3] U.S. Department of State, “International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.”

[4] Norwegian Helsinki Committee, “Broken Promises: Freedom of Religion or Belief Issues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.” June 2010, p. 18,

[5] Ibid, 48.

[6] Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott and Timothy Samuel Shah, “God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.” (New York: Norton, 2011), p. 18.

[7] Brian Grim, “The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).