Following a 15-hour church raid in late August, Kazakhstan's secret police (the KNB) placed two pastors and two members of Grace Presbyterian Church in Karaganda under investigation for high treason.

Senior pastor Igor Kim, his sister, and the church administrator—all Kazakhstani citizens—as well as Aleksei Kim, the pastor of a sister church, face sentences of up to 10 to 15 years, according to Forum 18, a news service that tracks religious-rights violations.

Government leaders in Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world, increasingly view adherents of minority religions as unpatriotic. Religion in the oil-rich republic is traditionally tied to race: Kazakhs are expected to be nominal Muslims; Russians are expected to be Orthodox.

Senushi Rukhbayeva, a Kazakh scholar and convert to evangelical Christianity who, like others in this article, asked that her real name not be used, said followers of other religions are viewed with suspicion. Kazakhs who discover she is an evangelical accuse her of repudiating her culture, she said.

Another Kazakh believer told CT, "There is [a lot of] Muslim propaganda addressing the nation through mass media, which makes me feel like our country from year to year is becoming more Muslim. Evangelical Christians will certainly suffer from that."

Political pressures have also converged to create a worsening situation for religious rights. The Beslan school siege and the 2004 and 2005 color revolutions, which toppled nearby regimes, reinforced government suspicions that earnest belief is dangerous.

Several churches in Kazakhstan have had offices raided and computers confiscated, said Jason Tappit, a regional field manager for East-West Ministries. But charges of treason represent a serious upping of the stakes. Tappit believes religious oppression may be rising to a new level, involving "a systematic pursuit of Christian organizations and churches."

The Karaganda church, which reports 3,000 members, is one of 250 Grace Presbyterian Church congregations in the country. Joe Candy, a missionary in Kazakhstan from the mid-1990s until recently, said Igor Kim is the de-facto leader of the country's Protestants.

Grace's leaders have denied any involvement in treason. "I've known [Igor Kim] for 10 years; it's unthinkable that he would be involved in anything inappropriate," Candy said. "He's always been an active proponent of the churches being an active part of society, being supportive of the government, praying for leaders, participating in community events."

Article continues below

Despite the government's unfair treatment of evangelicals, Rukhbayeva said she believes Kazakhstanis are more receptive than ever to Christianity's message. "People are more open to religion [than in early post-Soviet days]," she said.

Kazakhstan is currently bidding for chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body that, among other things, upholds human rights, freedom for national minorities, and democratization. In November 2006, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the U.S. government to reject Kazakhstan's bid because of blatant religious-rights violations.

But Forum 18's Felix Corley said Kazakhstan has not yet felt much heat from the broader international community. "They can crack down on religious minorities without any handicap," he said. "So they'll carry on doing it."

Related Elsewhere:

Forum 18 News Service coverage of Grace Church's problems in Kazakhstan includes "'The Secret Police's Persecution by Proxy,'" "Treason Charges Against Grace Church Leaders?," and "Church Subjected to 15-Hour Raid."

For more background, see the BBC's country profile and Forum 18's religious freedom survey.

Wikipedia has an extensive and accurate page on ethnic Koreans—like Igor Kim— in Kazakhstan.

Our previous articles on Central Asia include:

Bizzare-istan | Death of self-styled autocrat gives hope to isolated Christians. (March 23, 2007)
Equal-Opportunity Offender | Uzbek government crackdown on Muslims worries evangelicals. (January 18, 2007)
Uncertain Future | July 10 election could determine the church's status in this Muslim nation. (DATE)
Turkmenistan Tightens Religion Law | Violators of new law to be punished by fines or corrective labor. (Jan. 28, 2004)
Uzbekistan: Catch-240 | "Repressive regime requires Christians to register, but won't process their applications" (January 1, 2003)
Catch-240 | Uzbekistan's repressive regime requires Christians to register, but won't process their applications. (Dec. 31, 2002)
Crushed by a Soviet Relic | What you can do to help persecuted Christians in Turkmenistan. (Aug. 23, 2002)
Christians Fear Decade of Freedom Is Over | Central Asian countries experienced freedom, growth, repression, and now uncertainty. (Feb. 22, 2002)
Turkmen Authorities Seal Country's Last Open Baptist Church | Turkmenistan's secret police continue to raid and harass Christians in Ashgabad. (Feb. 26, 2001)
Kazakhstan: Central Asia's Great Awakening | A decade-old ethnic church blooms despite government suspicion. (July 14, 2000)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.