Kazakh pastor, 31, spent Easter in jail

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (BP) -- A 31-year-old Baptist pastor in Kazakhstan found himself celebrating Easter from a prison cell after refusing to pay a fine for worshipping without state registration.

The trouble began for Denis Yenenko, a Council of Churches Baptist pastor, after authorities raided a small worship gathering in the town of Sergeyevka, according to Norway-based religious freedom monitor Forum 18.

All religious activity in Kazakhstan is illegal unless approved by the state, but members of the Council of Churches Baptist refuse to register with the government as a matter of principle.

According to Forum 18, a police inspector received a report of an “illegal meeting” and found Yenenko and several others “singing psalms” without state registration. A judge fined Yenenko and fellow Baptist Sergei Lantsov one month’s average wages. Like other Council of Churches Baptist members, Yenenko and Lantsov refused to pay the fine, believing it to be unjust.

After Yenenko’s legal appeal failed and he still refused to pay the fine, Judge Abai Bulatov handed Yenenko a six-day prison sentence on April 17.

Yenenko’s family found out he had been imprisoned when police called them several hours after the court hearing, Forum 18 reported. Police told them to bring clothes and food for him.

"He is not being punished for his faith," Judge Bulatov told Forum 18 on 22 April. "He didn't fulfil the court decision from last October -- court decisions must be fulfilled. He hasn't paid one kopek [penny]."

When Forum 18 pointed out to Judge Bulatov that Yenenko was originally fined for practicing his faith, the judge dismissed the objection, responding: “We all pray to one God.”

According to Forum 18, the first 10 weeks of 2014 alone saw 39 fines levied for exercising freedom of religion. Among those was 87-year-old Yegor Prokopenko, who leads a Council of Churches Baptist congregation eastern Kazakhstan. No stranger to suffering for his faith, Prokopenko was imprisoned a total of six and a half years for Christ when the Soviet Union controlled the country.

Baptist are not alone in being persecuted by the Kazakh government; in their efforts to exert state control over religion, authorities have also gone after other religious groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Ahmadi Muslims.

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, took Kazakh authorities to task for their policies after a visit to the capital Astana.

"A main problem concerning the administration of religious registration is that non-registered religious groups can hardly exercise any collective religious functions in Kazakhstan," Bielefeldt wrote in a statement, noting that some religious communities were not able to register or only achieved local registration. "Any of their activities, even the common performance of prayers and rituals in private homes, are deemed illegal and can incur serious administrative sanctions."

Bielefeldt also criticized the government’s punishing of missionary activities, noting the term is at times used so broadly that it could almost cover all forms of communicating about faith.

"According to international standards, freedom of religion or belief unequivocally includes the right to bear witness to one's conviction, to communicate within and across denominational boundaries and to try to persuade others non-coercively,” Bielefeldt said. “This also covers missionary activities."


Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston.

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