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Kazakh Lawmakers Pass Controversial Religion Bill, Surprising OSCE

(RFE/RL) -- Kazakhstan, the Central Asian energy giant due to lead the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, appears to have wrong-footed the human rights and security organization shortly after agreeing to coordinate with it on controversial legislation on freedom of worship.

Hours after Kazakh officials met with OSCE experts in Astana this week and vowed to work together on a controversial draft law on freedom of belief, the Kazakh lower house of parliament has passed the bill. The swift action by the Majilis seemed to surprise the OSCE, which Astana is due to chair despite criticism of its record on human rights and democracy.

"Of course, [passage in parliament] comes very early after the visit of our experts," Jens-Hagen Eschenbaecher, spokesman for the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), told RFE/RL. "We expressed [on November 25] our hope that our comments on the draft would be fully taken into account. We obviously hope that this still will be the case."

After meeting with Kazakh officials on November 24-25, the OSCE said in a written statement that Kazakh officials had agreed to a fresh OSCE review of the latest text of the draft law and to make that review public. That had appeared to be a change of course for Kazakhstan, which refused to release the OSCE's first review of the bill even though Astana itself had asked the OSCE to conduct the study.

The bill, which was passed early on November 26, comes amid wider moves across Central Asia to clamp down on freedom of worship. It now moves on to the Senate and then to President Nursultan Nazarbaev for final approval.

Human rights activists have criticized the draft law, which would amend existing legislation on religious organizations, as a setback for freedom of worship and conscience in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Senate on November 17 significantly harshened the latest text of the bill, which among other things would severely punish unregistered religious groups and require children to present written permission to attend any religious event.

There appears to be wide support for the bill in the Kazakh government and parliament, and its passage per se is perhaps not a surprise. But Felix Corley, editor of Forum 18, a Norway-based religious news service, says "it is odd" that the Majilis acted shortly after the talks with the OSCE.

"Either one part of government does not know what the other is doing, or there is some kind of deliberate attempt to string along the OSCE and deceive it," Corley tells RFE/RL. "At the moment, we're not clear which possibility it is."

At least once before, Nazarbaev has vetoed a bill approved by parliament that would have curtailed freedom of worship. Whether he ends up doing so again seems certain to affect Kazakstan's image, if not its standing within the OSCE. Activists say the draft law contradicts human rights pledges Kazakhstan has made as an OSCE member and signatory of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

In Central Asia, Kazakhstan is hardly alone in moving to restrict freedom of thought or religion.

While such liberties have long been scarce in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan's parliament recently passed a law that will introduce new limits on freedom of worship and conscience if it is signed by the president, Kurmanbek Bakiev. "It is a regional trend," Corley says. "In Tajikistan, just the other day there was renewed activity in parliament on a religious law and many religious communities are about it."

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