The basis of a secular state is freedom of conscience, equality of religious beliefs, neutrality of political leadership in relation to religious confessions. The secular state legally regulates the implementation of the right to religious freedom and the activity of religious associations by citizens. The system of relations between the state and religious associations is not isolated from the rest of the system of social relations. Religion and religious associations are part of the institutions of Kazakh society and believers are full citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
In connection with the above, it is necessary to emphasise that the secular character is one of the basic principles of the construction and functioning of a modern Kazakh constitutional state. State authorities are formed and act on the basis of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, rather than on the basis of canon law.
Currently, on the basis of the fundamental provisions of the Constitution, the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Religious Activity and Religious Associations”, adopted in 2011, is the legal mechanism for citizens to exercise their right to freedom of conscience, as enshrined in the Basic Law, international acts and human rights conventions. The principle of separation of religious associations from the state, according to which
- Religious associations are not subjects of political activity
- Religious associations are not involved in political activity and do not participate in government and the formation of state organs
The Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience to everyone and also prohibits any form of discrimination on religious, ethnic and other grounds. Freedom of conscience means the right of every citizen to independently choose a spiritual value system. The realisation of the human right to freedom of conscience is one of the vital interests of Kazakhstan as a multi-confessional country and is an essential component of its democratic and legal development. Kazakhstan relies on universally recognised international acts in the field of human rights. Kazakhstan’s legal framework in the area of guaranteeing freedom of religion and belief meets pan-European and global democratic standards. According to the conclusions of many experts, the country’s legislation complies with the basic principles underlying the international standards adopted by the OSCE and other international organisations, as well as the experience of developed democracies.
In the republic there are favourable conditions for the coexistence and effective interaction between the representatives of different religions and beliefs. The model of interreligious relations in Kazakhstan has become a unique example for other countries. As is well known, the richness of the world lies in its unique diversity. In this respect, the statement of Eurasianism scholar L. N. Gumilev, who wrote: “Ethnic diversity is the best form of humanity’s existence, is justified. Kazakhstan is rightly called a “crossroads of civilisations”. Kazakhstan is a natural border between the great world religions – Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. Representatives of different peoples and ethnic groups have lived and worked together here for centuries.
At the current stage of world development, the interest of representatives of different strata of the population in the spiritual, including religious, component of the life of society has increased significantly. This is evidenced by the increase in the number of believers in Kazakhstan in recent years. According to experts’ estimates, the number of believers has increased from 20-25% to 90-95% compared to the mid-1980s. Muslims and Orthodox Christians have traditionally led in the number of believers, accounting for over 90% of believers according to the 2009 census. Specifically, 70.2% of the population identified themselves as Muslims, 26.0% as Christians, 0.3% as Judaizers, 0.1% as Buddhists and 0.2% as followers of other religions. At the same time, 2.8 % of the population considered themselves non-believers.
According to statistics, there were only 25 mosques in Kazakhstan in 1979; on 1 December 2020, there were already 2,690.
The country’s confessional diversity, represented by both traditional Kazakh faiths (Hanafi Islam and Orthodox Christianity) and new religions and beliefs, currently ensures social stability, peace and harmony in the state. The representatives of 18 denominations work together in the republic, representing the religious interests of Kazakhstan’s multi-ethnic and multi-denominational population. Religions in Kazakhstan are represented by people of different ethnic, linguistic, cultural and social groups who adhere to different faiths, different religious practices and views of the world around them.
Considering the fact that historically and culturally our society is mainly oriented towards two traditional religions, Sunni Islam (Hanafi mazkhab) and Orthodox Christianity, the largest religious communities are Muslims, whose number as of 1 January 2021 was 2,691. The second largest number of adherents in Kazakhstan is the Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan (OCA), which has 343 religious associations.
The next religious trend for Kazakhstan is the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), which has 86 religious associations. A notable place in Kazakhstan’s confessional space is occupied by Protestant religious associations, of which there are about 600 in the country. In addition to the above, there are 7 Jewish communities, 2 Buddhist religious associations, as well as a number of other denominations.
In recent years, the number of missionaries coming to Kazakhstan has increased. While in 2003 there were 89 missionaries, in 2011 there were already 200 missionaries, and in 2020 there were a total of 396 registered foreign missionaries from 30 countries. Although due to the pandemic, the number of missionaries has decreased compared to the same period in the past.
The current Religious Activities and Associations Act (2011) has streamlined the legal domain of the country’s denominational space. For the first time in the years of independence, the Concept of State Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the religious sphere for 2017-2020 was adopted. The Concept aims to consolidate the efforts of state authorities, religious associations and civil society institutions to develop and reform state policy in the religious sphere, and to develop and implement measures to further develop the Kazakh model of state-confessional and inter-confessional relations based on the specifics of the people’s historical and cultural heritage. Thanks to the effective state policy in the field of religion and the implementation of the law, the Kazakh segment was transformed: old mosques were reconstructed and new ones were built; a network of spiritual educational institutions was created; Islamic publications appeared; believers were given the opportunity to make the Hajj. The main institution carrying out state administration in the sphere of ensuring inter-religious harmony, citizens’ rights to religious freedom and interaction with religious associations in Kazakhstan is the Committee on Religious Affairs of the MEWR RK.
Thanks to the effective policy and constructive implementation of the current law, there are no conflicts on religious grounds in Kazakhstan. The constitutional principles of the secular character of the state and the separation of religious associations from the state are realised through the clear separation of the spheres of competence and functions of the state and religious associations, which is a prerequisite for their cooperation on mutually acceptable terms.
The system of relations between the state and religious associations in the Republic of Kazakhstan, which is being formed in reality, acquires the character of cooperation (partnership) on the basis of a clear division of their functions. This system of relations enables religious associations to participate in various spheres of life in society, thus opening conditions for a harmonious combination of secular and religious legal principles. Thanks to this approach, cooperation between the state and religion implies joint activities in areas such as:
- Peacemaking on an inter-ethnic and inter-confessional level;
- Matters of mercy and charity;
- Joint implementation of social programmes;
- Protection, restoration and development of historical and cultural heritage; Activities for the preservation of the natural environment
- Activities for the preservation of the natural environment;
- Joint support for the institution of family, motherhood and childhood;
- Ensuring religious freedom for soldiers, persons in detention centres, in medical institutions, etc.
The law does not restrict the rights of religious associations to spread religious doctrine, but only regulates the mechanism for the work of missionaries. Religious associations registered in Kazakhstan have all the conditions for inviting foreign missionaries to work in the country and their religious activities. On the territory of the Republic of Kazakhstan, all citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan, foreigners and stateless persons can carry out missionary work after the appropriate registration.
The growing importance of the religious factor in the life of modern Kazakh society is evident. Its dynamics and characteristics are expressed in the following forms: increasing influence of religion on many spheres of socio-political life; increasing influence of religious associations on the daily life of the population; expansion of the sphere of religious education, strengthening of its financial and material base; intensification of missionary and propaganda activity of religious organisations from various foreign countries in Kazakhstan.
The religious situation in the republic has undergone certain changes in recent years. In particular, the denominational palette has changed and some of the problematic issues in the country’s regions are being updated. With the increasing role of religion, the negative aspects of the religious life of part of the population have also become apparent. In particular, the number of citizens who oppose the established patterns of secular society, national traditions and culture has increased in the country. Non-traditional religious movements have emerged. In addition, extreme forms of aggression and religious radicalism began to appear among a section of the believing population, which together became a factor threatening the security and stability of the country and its citizens.
In view of the emerging trends, the main concerns of the people in terms of strengthening stability and security, ensuring peace and harmony in society, and protecting the youth and the entire young generation from the influence of religious extremism and terrorism were directed to the secular state.
The leader of the nation – the First President of Kazakhstan N. Nazarbayev in his address to the nation “The Strategy “Kazakhstan-2050″: The New Political Course of the Established State” outlined the archival task – to form the religious consciousness of Kazakhs in accordance with the country’s traditions and cultural norms. He stressed that the state and citizens must stand together against all forms and manifestations of radicalism, extremism and terrorism.
Today, not only external forces associated with religious extremism and terrorism pose a threat to the country, but also internal ones. After tragic terrorist attacks that occurred in 2011 and 2016 in Atyrau, Aktobe and Almaty, whose organisers and executors included citizens of Kazakhstan, it became clear that public security is under threat. No one denies the fact of religious extremism and terrorism in the country, nor is there any denial that there is a threat to national security. Reference can be made to the opinion of experts who note several reasons for the spread of religious extremism:
- Strong social stratification of society, formation of marginal social groups, decline in the quality of secular schooling (especially in rural areas);
- The number of informal Islamic communities not affiliated with the Spiritual Council of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SBMK), including those financially supported from abroad, has increased. As a rule, such communities tried to work with the lower social strata (the rural population and internal labour migrants);
- Fragmentation of the Kazakh ummah into ethnic sectors due to the concentration of the “official” clergy associated with the SDMK only on the Kazakh-speaking stratum of the population and, at the same time, the low religious authority of Kazakh imams among other ethnic groups (Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tatars, ethnic groups of the Caucasus), the appearance of “ethnic” mosques interacting only formally with the SDMK;
- Activation of “non-traditional religious” and similar groups in attempts to penetrate power structures (e.g. the so-called Koranites, some branches of Sufism), and the use of religion for political competition;
- With technological development, the possibilities for “amateur extremism” with elements of religious overtones have increased, drawing on the frustration of youth, the following of fashion and the desire to stand out.
It is important to note that countering and preventing religious extremism is one of the priorities of public policy in Kazakhstan. A great amount of work has been done in the framework of countering religious extremism and terrorism, for example, special laws against extremism and terrorism have been adopted, the state programmes “On Countering Religious Extremism and Terrorism in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2013-2017 and 2018-2022” have been approved. A lot of work in this direction is done by awareness-raising groups. For example, about 3,000 specialists across the country conduct events of various formats, lectures and meetings, aimed primarily at such target groups: Youth, believers, unemployed, prisoners and their families, employees of private companies, trade, services, etc. The Religious Affairs Committee works within its competence to rehabilitate followers of destructive religious movements. The information and education and rehabilitation centre “Akniet”, established in 2014, specialises in outreach work with radicalised persons. In addition, targeted rehabilitation work is carried out in correctional facilities among persons convicted of involvement in terrorist and extremist activities. There is positive experience of working on the return of the country’s citizens from the zones of terrorist activity within the framework of the special operations “Shusan” and “Rusafa”. This experience was appreciated by the world powers, including the USA.
Preventive work with representatives of “women’s jamaghats” can be mentioned as an important field of activity. Social support is provided as part of this work. In addition, training courses are organised for women and support is provided for employment and adaptation to living conditions.
The important work of the educational internet portal Kazislam.kz is also worth mentioning. The portal provides daily information on the religion of Islam, Kazakhstan’s state policy on religion and the prevention of extremism and terrorism in society.
During the years of independence, educational institutions of religious direction were opened in the country, such as the University “Nur-Mubarak”, 9 madrasa colleges, the Institute for the Professional Development of Imams under the SDMK, the Almaty Orthodox Theological Seminary and the Higher Spiritual Seminary “Mary – Mother of the Church” and others. Currently there are only 13 spiritual education institutions with a total of 3,381 students.
This is undoubtedly a good basis for training competent religious personnel. At the same time, it is alarming that some citizens of Kazakhstan, who have a good educational base, go to study in foreign theological educational institutions without basic religious knowledge. Of course, among foreign religious institutions most are certified, but one cannot deny that there are also dubious institutions where students can form radical views.
Today, conditions have been created in Kazakhstan to ensure access to higher religious education. For example, educational scholarships for students are awarded by the Ministry of Education and Science and by local executive bodies. Education in the field of religion is provided in the disciplines of “Islamic Studies”, “Religious Studies” and “Theology”. For the academic year 2019-2020, around 500 state education scholarships have been earmarked for these specialisations. In addition, there is an institute at Nur Mubarak University for the retraining of specialists in the prevention of extremism.
One of the important priorities of the state is to maintain interfaith harmony. Despite the absolute legal equality of all denominations of Kazakhstan, in reality in the middle of this configuration are the largest religions of Kazakhstan – Islam and Orthodoxy, which in their interaction and provide, in fact, inter-confessional stability in the country. On the basis of this stability as a fulcrum, relations between all denominations of Kazakhstan, including Islam and Orthodoxy, are built. Kazakhstan was one of the first subjects of international law to take responsibility and effectively promote dialogue between leaders of different world and traditional religions and denominations. The congresses of leaders of world and traditional religions, which have been held regularly since 2003, have become a platform for discussion of interreligious and interfaith dialogue in a highly constructive format.
As can be seen from the description of the Kazakh model of interconfessional harmony, the system of interconfessional relations in Kazakhstan is on the whole quite stable. At the same time, however, this stability must be consciously maintained and nurtured, as ongoing processes in the country and in the world do not always help to maintain stability; many of these processes have a destabilising effect.
A number of prominent foreign and domestic geopolitical experts emphasise that there is growing instability in the world; in their view, this instability is strategic and global in nature. This raises the legitimate question of how to maintain inter-confessional agreement under these new conditions.
Firstly, it means that the state and the religions must preserve their achievements in this area and not take hasty steps that could destroy interconfessional peace.
At the same time, secondly, it means that the Republic of Kazakhstan has the right to change various elements of its legislation in accordance with the changing socio-political situation in the country; this also applies to legislation in the state-confessional sphere.
Thirdly, a law must not become discriminatory and the rights of believers must not be violated. Therefore, amendments and additions should be weighted and justified. Therefore, the main issues facing the country are strengthening religious tolerance, monitoring the activities of religious organisations of an unconventional nature, proselytising activities of missionary religious organisations to take measures against the intrusion of extremism and terrorism, and shaping the positive development of inter-religious relations.
An effective means of combating religious extremism is religious education. A person who knows his religion well will never get involved with such an organisation. The legal education of the young generation is based on laws, but these laws do not always work. Therefore, the main task of the state organs is to bring about a stable immunity against religious organisations of a manifestly destructive character. They should develop civic awareness and knowledge of the laws. The media, especially in today’s conditions of electronic (social) networks, are called upon to help society form an atmosphere of mutual interest, dialogue, which is ultimately a necessary condition for its stable development.
Translated by B.R. SHERIYAZDANOV