OSLO, Norway (BP) -- Police and other officials in Kazakhstan raided at least eight different worship meetings in January, including three Baptist congregations.
Forum 18, a Norway-based religious freedom monitor, reported that three Council of Churches Baptist pastors were fined two months' average wages for leading meetings.
The North Kazakhstan Regional Police announced the raids on the three Council of Churches Baptist congregations in a joint operation with the the government's Agency of Religious Affairs (ARA), according to Forum 18. The police statement said the raids targeted "illegal missionary activity" and "illegal migration" and that special focus was given to "places where religious books are traded."
Forum 18 reported that operations against unapproved religious literature have taken place elsewhere in Kazakhstan, and that seven people have been fined since August 2012 for "illegal missionary activity." All religious activity and literature in Kazakhstan must be approved by the state, and congregations that are either unwilling or unable to register face raids and fines. The Council of Churches Baptist refuses to register with any government, Forum 18 says, and its members have a policy of not paying fines imposed on their religious activity, as they believe such fines are unwarranted.
Two of the raids on Council of Churches Baptist congregations, at Petropavyl and Taiynsha on Jan. 20, followed similar patterns, according to Forum 18. Police entered the rooms regardless of permission and filmed the people at the services. Two congregational leaders, Aleksandr Pukhov in Petropavyl and Aleksandr Kerker in Taiynsha, were each fined for leading unregistered religious organizations. Both refuse to pay.
When contacted, police in both cases denied they raided the congregations.
"We didn't raid them," Major Kanat Amrin, head of North Kazakhstan Regional Police's Department for the Struggle against Extremism, Separatism and Terrorism, told Forum 18. "We have a religion law, which requires all religious activity to be registered. No one has the right to break the law."
Another Council of Churches Baptist congregation was raided on Jan 20 in the village of Kishkenekol, Forum 18 reported. This time, police stopped filming at the request of church leader Roman Pugachev and waited until the service ended to question those present. Pugachev was fined but refuses to pay and will instead launch an appeal.
Five other congregations -- three Jehovah's Witness and two Protestant - also were raided by Kazakh authorities. Illustrating the government's hostility to religious freedom, Major Kanat Rakhmetzhanov, head of Sarykol District Police, responded to a question from Forum 18 about whether police would have raided a home where people were drinking, reading poetry or watching TV.
"It is not against the law to gather to watch football, read poetry or drink vodka," Rakhmetzhanov said. "But our lads wouldn't have gone to such a meeting for no reason. We had reliable information that prayers were being said."
Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country just south of Russia, guarantees religious freedom in its constitution, but its laws narrow that freedom. According to the U.S. State Department's 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, the chief problems for religious minorities (including evangelical Christians) are prosecution by government officials for conducting unregistered religious activities.
The report noted that while all religious groups must register with the government, some minority religious groups reported long delays in their applications being processed. The government usually claimed the groups' charters did not meet the requirements or had to be referred for expert theological review.
Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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