By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife at BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest
BISHKEK/BUDAPEST (BosNewsLife) -- Kyrgyzstan's controversial new Religion Law was adopted unanimously by the country's parliament Thursday, November 6, adding to concerns among small Christian groups and churches that they will be targeted by authorities.
Under the new legislation, at least 200 people are required to register a religious organization, a demand Christians fear could lead to the banning of worship services and the closure of several evangelical churches and pressure on other religious minorities in this mainly Muslim nation
The law, which still has to signed by President Kurmanbek Bakiev, also bans "proselytizing", and prohibits the conversion of Kyrgyz citizens to a different faith. Authors of the new bill said the old law "was too liberal and outdated."
"The new law will not so much tighten requirements to religious organizations in Kyrgyz as regulate their activity and relationship with the authorities," said the State Agency for Religious Affairs Director Kanybek Osmonaliyev in comments published by Russia's Interfax news agency Thursday, November 6.
"Up till now the activity of religious organizations has been being regulated by interim rules, which disregarded latest changes in society and the religious environment. The new law defines rights and duties of religious organizations, i.e. provides a legal foundation for their activity," he said.
It came as a disappointment for a coalition of Protestant churches who said in an open letter to President Bakiev and Parliamentary Speaker Aytibay Tagaev last month that the law would violate the Kyrgyz Constitution and international human rights standards. They urged the officials to recall the legislation Parliament and for public consultations saying the text may be "a Law on Limiting the Rights of Believers."
Earlier, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized the legislatstion. "With this law, Kazakhstan has demonstrated a disturbingly lax commitment to uphold international human rights standards," said Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer. â€œDespite Kazakh officialsâ€™ assurances at the OSCE meeting in Warsaw, this law neither simplifies the legal requirements for religious communities nor augments their freedom.â€
The law came after the US State Department already noted that the government "hampered or refused to register some Christian churches."
In addition, Christians have said that Muslim militants warned believers that continued prayer and worship services will result in their homes being torched. Rights watchers have suggested that secret police and authorities are also involved in intimidating Christians and other religious minorities.
In one recent published incident in June, the rector of Bishkekâ€™s Protestant United Theological Seminary, a New Zealander, was expelled from Kyrgyzstan for allegedly refusing to bow to demands from the National Security Service (NSS) secret police to show them confidential files on individual students.
The NSS also complained that use of the buildings by two local Protestant congregations was "illegal."
Elsewhere this year there have been problems over burial of deceased non-Muslims in Kyrgyzstan, especially in rural areas.
Following the death of a 14-year-old boy in Naryn Region in May, the head of the local administration, the police and a village mob reportedly prevented his burial in the village cemetery.
However Kyrgyzstan's government has said its policies are aimed at protecting the nation against "dangerous sects" and militants. Christians comprise some 20 percent of the country's over five million population.
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