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Mafia state

Kazakhstan | A booming oil economy, a U.S. security ally, but behind the scenes former Soviet republic plays police state

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

ALMATY, Kazakhstan- Last month, police and state security forces subjected Grace Church of Almaty to a 17-hour raid, confiscating computer hardware and Christian literature. State-run media alleged that the church was engaged in espionage, financial impropriety, and possession of drugs.

Following this raid, workers from a state-controlled TV station visited a local seminary founded by missionaries. The station engaged in a similar smear campaign, falsifying statements of those interviewed and accusing the seminary of attempting to brainwash people. The seminary is currently being investigated by Kazakhstan prosecutors, and it faces possible fines along with being forcibly closed down.

This is a pattern across Kazakhstan, the former Soviet republic made infamous in the movie Borat, a self-proclaimed democracy that claims to be a key ally to the United States in the war on terror. One of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in the world with vast energy resources, Kazakhstan has lured billions of dollars in American aid and investment to help rebuild its economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But behind the scenes, the reality is different.

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Last month's church raid was preceded by simultaneous raids on other Grace Church congregations in Karaganda and Oskemen last year. State security forces and police arrived during meetings at each facility in August, sealed the building, and did not allow members to leave for over 15 hours. Church members were interrogated and forced to sign written statements, as security forces seized church computers and Christian literature.

Since these raids, numerous church members have been subsequently investigated by various government agencies, from prosecutors to tax police, financial police, and sanitation inspectors.

State-run news agencies have claimed that the churches were involved in espionage, high treason, tax evasion, and drug abuse. Local officials have warned other Protestant leaders in the area that they could face similar problems.

In the past two years throughout Kazakhstan, numerous individuals and congregations have experienced arrests, heavy fines, and discrimination from government officials. On Jan. 17, President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated that measures were needed to halt the activities of "illegal religious movements," and particularly those of foreign missionaries. Nazarbayev has remained in power ever since being the first elected president of Kazakhstan following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Prior to the church raids senior religious affairs official Yeraly Tugzhanov boasted at a multilateral conference in Europe that his Central Asian nation is an "oasis of stability and religious accord." He further boasted that there "are no grounds for discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation." Yet three days before those statements, six Jehovah's Witnesses in Atyrau were given heavy fines for meeting without registration. The following day, government officials ordered the demolition of a Hare Krishna temple outside of Almaty.

Despite Kazakhstan's repression of political opposition and human rights, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, awarded Kazakhstan with the chairmanship for 2010-at the same time that Human Rights Watch labeled recent elections fraudulent and corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Kazakhstan as one of most corrupt nations in the world.

-James Elliot is a writer living in Almaty, Kazakhstan

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