Prague, 12 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A young ethnic Kazakh living in the southeastern city of Almaty recently converted from Islam to Protestantism, along with many members of his family.
"My parents are also following this religion,” he says. “My uncle on my mother's side revealed the truth for himself. He shared [it] with my mom [and] my mom shared with us. We started attending [Christian] gatherings. Then my father joined us. Now, we are spreading the true word of God among others and study the [Christian] teaching."
This Kazakh boy has reasons for optimism in light of improvements in the situation of religious minorities in the country.
Igor Rotar, the Central Asian correspondent for the Forum 18 news service, recently visited Almaty and the southern region of Shymkent. He found almost all religious communities reporting no major problems with the authorities. Forum 18 is a Norway-based news agency covering religious issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
"All believers say the situation improved after 2002 [when] the parliament voted a new [restrictive] religious law [and] the Constitutional Council said it contradicts the constitution. And now there are no big problems in Kazakhstan about religious freedom. They have only some problems with local bureaucrats," Rotar said.
Rotar says the Constitutional Council's ruling is perceived as a governmental order to stop repression against religious groups.
Ninel Fokina, head of the local human rights group Almaty Helsinki Committee, told Forum 18 that the situation of believers' rights has become "near perfect."
Russian Orthodox Christians make up about 40 percent of the country's population. Islam is loosely practiced among ethnic Kazakhs. Most devout Muslims are ethnic Uzbeks who live in the densely populated southern regions bordering Uzbekistan.
According to Kazakhstan's law on religious associations, a religious community needs only 10 signatures to register -- one of the lowest qualifying thresholds in all the former Soviet republics -- and registration itself is not obligatory.
Some religious communities refuse to register on principle, while others fail to do so because of the high registration fee of more than $100.
However, according to Article 375 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, religious leaders who refuse to register their associations may be fined up to 20 times the minimum monthly wage. The activity of the community also may be banned.
Despite the contradiction between the law and the code, cases of religious organizations being fined or banned are said to be rare. Rotar quotes Roman Dudnik, chairman of the Emmanuel Protestant Society, as saying that believers win in more than 70 percent of the cases filed under Article 375.
The level of religious freedom provided by the law sparks discontentment among some Kazakhs, however. Ongar-Haji Omirbek is a cleric from the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan.
"Nobody likes this law because it just opened our gates to every [religion]. Because of that, many religious sects -- even those officially banned in their countries -- started coming to our country from different parts of the world. And they freely do whatever they want to do in our motherland," Omirbek said.
Until 2003, unregistered religious associations faced the most widespread repression by the authorities.
Rotar says leaders of the Jehovah's Witness, Hare Krishna, Ahmadiya Muslim, and Baha'i communities -- all of which face serious harassment in neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan -- have told Forum 18 that they now experience few problems with the authorities in Kazakhstan.
However, law enforcement officials in the Karasai District are reported to periodically carry out investigations into the Hare Krishna farm on the outskirts of Almaty. Hare Krishna believers claim they are victims of the attitudes of local officials, not of state policy, however.
Rotar compares the situation of Muslims in Kazakhstan with those in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. He recently visited the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, as well as the south of the country, and found that both registered and unregistered religious communities appear to function freely.
"The religion situation in Kazakhstan is not perfect but is good,” he says. “And the situation in Kyrgyzstan is good, too. But, of course, if we compare with Uzbekistan, the difference is very big. In Uzbekistan, it is not possible that mosques work without registration. It is not possible that mosques are independent from the Muftiat, [which] is really part of the government. In Kazakhstan, there are independent mosques. [The Uzbek government] allows only the official Islam controlled by authorities. It is possible in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, [where] we can see very different movements in Islam."
Rotar notes that mosques in the southern Kazakh region of Shymkent have successfully fought off state pressure to submit to the jurisdiction of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Kazakhstan.
"All believers say the situation improved after 2002 [when] the parliament voted a new [restrictive] religious law [and] the Constitutional Council said it contradicts the constitution."
Many imams of ethnic Uzbek mosques object to what they regard as the "Kazakhification" of the local Muslim community, which has traditionally been dominated by the local Uzbek minority.
Members of Hezb ut-Tahrir do remain under pressure in Kazakhstan, however, although it is the only Central Asian republic that has not officially banned it. Hezb ut-Tahrir is an underground organization with members throughout the region who call for the creation of a regional Islamic caliphate.
The full report can be found on the Internet at http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=249
RFE/RL Kazakh Service Director Merhat Sharipzhanov contributed to this report.