Why do US Christians Care about an Imprisoned Pastor in Kazakhstan?

It was announced last week that the government of Kazakhstan released Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev from prison, but only after he was convicted of “harming the health” of a parishioner and fined the equivalent of $10,000 USD. His lawyer is appealing his conviction and the fine. Despite the government’s disavowal of abuse and torture of prisoners, it has been evident since the pastor’s release that he was tortured. For the moment he is free and has returned to his home and his grateful family. (Read more at http://www.persecution.org/2014/02/18/kazakh-pastor-released-from-prison/ .)

Lovingly called “Pastor BK” by western fellow Christians who struggle to wrap their tongues around the pronunciation of a Kazakh name, the pastor is the visible face of an ongoing struggle for all Christians in Kazakhstan. Christianity, the religion of choice or heritage for about 12% of the population, is not targeted any more intensely in the law than Islam, the dominant religion, with about 60% of the population. A significant demographic of individuals claiming to be completely secular is a heritage of decades as a Soviet satellite nation.

On paper, the government is secular and completely even-handed in its dealings with all religions. The constitution of Kazakhstan states, “No one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of … attitude towards religion, convictions, or any other circumstances.” It also says, “The right to freedom of conscience must not specify or limit universal human and civil rights and responsibilities before the state.” (You can find a full copy of the constitution of Kazakhstan translated to English at http://www.kazakhstan.orexca.com/kazakhstan_constitution.shtml .) The wording of these statements sounds like the things we all interpret as granting full religious liberty. However, it would be a mistake to think that the words mean the same thing in Kazakhstan that we are accustomed to believe that they mean in the USA.

Ever since independence in 1995, there have been national laws governing religion. The most recent laws were passed in 2011, and their terms clarify the differences between a Kazakh interpretation of the Kazakh constitution and a US interpretation of the same words. The religion laws in Kazakhstan require every religious organization to be registered with the government. Registration includes the names of no less than 50 members and specifies the location where the members meet for purposes of worship, ceremony, ritual and education. If registration is approved, those members may meet in that location under restrictions for the time, the materials they use and the presence of children. Yes, children. Kazakh law states that a child may only attend religious worship if both parents approve, and the law further states that a religious leader is responsible to verify the approval of both parents if a child is present during worship. Furthermore, there are strict regulations governing the production, sale and possession of religious literature. The government tightly controls such materials. To possess the wrong edition of an approved Bible is an offense for which a very large fine can be assessed. (You can read more about these laws at http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1617.)

In the eyes of the completely secular government, all this regulation is intended for the public good. The government regards uncontrolled religion as a danger to the public, and it has created a bureaucratic maze with countless snares for the unwary. As a consequence, the number of registered Christian denominations in Kazakhstan has been reduced by almost 75% since the passage of the most recent version of the religion law. Since unregistered churches may not hold legal worship services anywhere, the members are all subject to arrest, imprisonment, fines, and as Pastor BK learned, torture.

Why should American Christians pay attention to what is happening in Kazakhstan? Obviously, every Christian shares the pain when any Christian is persecuted. Kazakhstan is regarded as #39 in 50 most dangerous countries for Christians around the world. Christians are admonished to pray with and for their persecuted brethren everywhere.

American Christians, however, have a reason beyond loving empathy to study what is happening in Kazakhstan and learn from it. Kazakhstan’s secular government acts on attitudes that closely resemble the attitude of the secular US government. For example, the intent of the Kazakh government program of church registration is to confine and limit the impact of Christianity in the culture. The government of the US has a similar view, expressed in statements during legal proceedings surrounding the Affordable Care Act; the US government believes that religion is something that happens in houses of worship, and it must be confined to those locations. Religious convictions, according to the US government, have no place in the world of business. Attempts to compel military chaplains to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples in complete disregard for the religious convictions of the chaplains likewise demonstrates that the US government believes religion is more of a nuisance than a power for good in the civil society.

It may seem like a real stretch to speculate that the US government might require churches to register as a protection to the public the way the Kazakh government does, but the scandal and chaos surrounding the behavior of the IRS relative to the certification of tax-exempt organizations seems to point to the possibility. After all, churches already must fill out forms and provide documentation to the government in order to qualify for tax-exempt status. Presumably, a church could exist and operate without that status, but few do. What prevents the government from declaring that an organization that has not registered as tax-exempt is not a church at all, even if it meets all the biblical standards for a church? What prevents the government from requiring the clergy of that organization to bless same-sex marriage ceremonies, regardless of their religious convictions, on the basis that if this were a real church, it would be registered? That outcome is a small step, but look at the vast number of small steps that have been taken since January 20, 2009, toward the suppression of religious language and ethical impact in the culture. Lots of small steps add up to a giant leap toward harsh restrictions and severe repression of all evidence of religious values in the culture.

What do you think?