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Članak, objavljeno: Pet, 27.07.07. 12:36
 

Washington Post about devotees in Kazahstan

 
 

Local Property Dispute Grows Into International Issue for Kazakhstan
by Peter Finn ("Washington Post," July 25, 2007)

Seleksia, Kazakhstan - The house where Maya Salakhutdinova lived is now a
shell of ruined walls with broken cinder blocks and splintered wood spilling
in a heap onto a narrow lane. Last month, her house and 11 others in this
village, a secluded enclave about an hour from Almaty, Kazakhstan"s
commercial capital, were bulldozed by court order.

All the destroyed homes belonged to members of a Hare Krishna community,
which has a temple in a converted farmhouse here, as well as 116 acres of
farmland. A bulldozing in November leveled 14 Hare Krishna homes.

"I was shocked," said Salakhutdinova, 43, a Kazakh who joined the Hare
Krishna movement 12 years ago. "The day before, I got a notice that I had to
leave, but with no date or time. I wasn"t prepared."

What began as a property dispute between the Hare Krishna community and the
local authorities has ballooned into an international controversy that
threatens Kazakhstan"s ambition to chair the 56-country Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

One of the fundamental principles of the organization, founded during the
Cold War to foster East-West dialogue, is religious freedom. The standoff
with the Hare Krishna movement threatens the image of a harmonious,
multidenominational country that this Central Asian nation has been
cultivating to press its goal at the organization"s headquarters in Vienna.

A week before last month"s action, the head of the Religious Affairs
Committee at the Kazakh Justice Ministry told an OSCE gathering in Romania
that his country had the "most liberal" religious laws in the "entire
post-Soviet area."

But a statement by the OSCE"s Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or
Belief after the first houses were demolished said, "It appears that
state-sponsored action has been focused upon members of the Hare Krishna
community in a manner that suggests they have been targeted on the basis of
their religious affiliation."

Privately, some Western diplomats say they are mystified why Kazakhstan
would tarnish its reputation just as it is seeking support from OSCE member
states for the prestige of chairing the organization. The energy-rich
country, which is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was already
having difficulty convincing some OSCE members of its democratic
credentials. In May, in a further blow to the country"s standing, Kazakhstan
issued an arrest warrant for its ambassador to the OSCE and Austria,
Nazarbayev"s former son-in-law, who was accused of kidnapping and assault.

Officials in the capital, Astana, say this is a legal matter that has
nothing to do with religious persecution. By their account, the Hare Krishna
devotees acquired the property illegally. The land, they say, was not
legally registered and the homes were purchased from people who did not hold
proper title. The Kazakh courts have ruled that the property belongs to the
local administration.

"We understand that this is a small but very important issue, and if we had
not understood that, we wouldn"t have been running around trying to solve
this," said Yeraly Tugzhanov, head of the Religious Affairs Committee.
"The most dangerous thing here -- and we should not let it happen -- is an
attempt to turn this issue into a political one. If now every believer in
Kazakhstan tries to solve his or her personal problems or property problems
through religious organizations, by attaching a religious meaning to it,
this will be ridiculous, it will be absurd."

Human rights advocates say the demolitions may be motivated both by
religious bias and by hidden economic interests. Property values in the
region have soared since the 1990s, and the area has become a choice
location for Almaty residents seeking to buy country homes. The U.S. State
Department noted in a report this year that a special commission convened to
resolve the situation was still deliberating when the homes were destroyed
in November.

"Many people in that village could be in the same situation as the Hare
Krishna because their property deeds are not perfect, but they are not
targeted. The target is the Hare Krishna," said Ninel Fokina, head of the
Almaty Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. "Someone gave an order to
get that community out."

Kazakhstan"s ombudsman, Bolat Baikadamov, said the destruction of homes is
commonplace across the Almaty region because of the illegal privatization of
land and houses. "Hundreds or maybe even thousands of houses were
demolished," he said.

Local officials, who Baikadamov said could provide lists of homes destroyed
within the locality, declined to comment. In Seleksia, there appeared to be
only one demolished house that was not currently owned by a Hare Krishna,
and that house had recently been sold by a member of the religious
community.

Fokina and the Hare Krishna community dispute that there has been any major
leveling of homes outside Seleksia. "There is an unofficial policy to push
out a non-mainstream, religious group," said Maxim Varfolomeev, a spokesman
for the Hare Krishna community in Seleksia.

The group numbers about 30 in the village, down from about 100 because
people who lost homes were forced to leave. "This is religious
discrimination," Varfolomeev said.

On a recent morning, more than a dozen devotees chanted mantras in what had
been the living room of the farmhouse. Kazakh officials said the early
morning prayers disturb non-Krishna neighbors, but the service was not
audible outside the farmhouse. Officials also said the Krishna devotees wash
their cows in a nearby pond where local children swim, an accusation denied
by members of the Krishna community.

"We have very good relations with our neighbors," Varfolomeev said.
In interviews in the village, no one expressed any objections to the
presence of the Krishna community. "They"re very quiet people," Chakin
Tolubev said. "To be honest, the problem is that [the authorities] just want
to get rid of them."

Tugzhanov, the Religious Affairs head, objects to such accusations. He said
the central government has offered the Krishna community several sites where
they could relocate. "All religious groups and organizations in Kazakhstan
are equal before the law and that is why we continue to work with them," he
said. "We have offered a number of alternatives, but they keep saying no."

He also said 16 Krishna homes in Seleksia have been legalized and will not
be touched. "If it had not been for this, you could say that we are
persecuting them for their religion," he said. "But this is a question of
the law and everyone being equal before the law."

Varfolomeev, the Hare Krishna spokesman, said none of the proposed
relocation sites compares to the pastoral setting where the community is
currently located, and so people insist on staying.

The community, he said, now fears that the authorities will destroy the
temple. That is a step that the government appears reluctant to take. It
would likely sink whatever remaining chance Kazakhstan has of chairing the
OSCE.

 
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