Kazakhstan is among the more liberal of the five republics of Central Asia, but anti-religious sentiment is still very strong, and general repression of religion has increased since the early 1990s. The leaders of Kazakhstan consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government, even though it is no longer an official policy. Most perceive all forms of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy to be linked to Western goals of destabilizing political power and therefore suspect.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Response to Persecution in Kazakhastan
Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan
Panel: Findings from Central Asia, with Rt. Rev. Borys Gudziak, Ukrainian Eparchial Bishop in France, Benelux, and Switzerland
Moderator: Kent Hill, World Vision
Speakers: Kathleen Collins, University of Minnesota
Karrie Koesel, University of Notre Dame
Fenggang Yang, Purdue University
Christians in Kazakhstan number about 26 percent of the population of 18.9 million, the highest concentration in Central Asia. Russian Orthodoxy is the dominant Christian tradition, but small groups of Catholics, Lutherans, and what are referred to as “non-traditional” or “new Christians”—Seventh Day Adventists, Korean Baptists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons, among others—are also present. Most of the remaining population is Muslim.
History of the Christian Community in Kazakhstan
Christianity spread to Central Asia about the same time as Islam, when followers of the Assyrian Christian Church and Nestorians arrived as missionaries in the seventh and eighth centuries. Russian Orthodoxy arrived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the growth of the Russian Empire. Catholics and Lutherans fleeing the Russian tsar resettled there as well, along with Catholics deported from Poland and Ukraine during World War II.
Christians in Central Asia have experienced religious repression for most of the past century. For about 70 years, the five republics of Central Asia—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan—were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, where they faced ongoing Communist Party attempts to eradicate religion. These policies included confiscation of church property, state control of education, the execution of clerics, and discrimination against believers at work, school, and in the party. Repression eased somewhat in the 1970s, but it was not until the Soviet collapse in 1991 that Christians experienced a real reprieve in the persecution.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
Kazakhstan is among the more liberal of the five republics of Central Asia, but anti-religious sentiment is still very strong, and general repression of religion has increased since the early 1990s. In 2011, the landscape for Kazakhstani religious communities became much more hostile after the government of Kazakhstan enacted its Religion Law. Most significantly, the law outlines strict registration requirements for religious communities and stipulates that local officials must approve the construction of worship places and supervise the religious education of children. The law also prohibits praying in the workplace. The leaders of Kazakhstan consider any activity outside of state control to be a challenge to their legitimacy and authority, and an atheist mentality still persists in the government, even though it is no longer an official policy. Additionally, most perceive all forms of Christianity apart from Russian Orthodoxy to be linked to Western goals of destabilizing political power and therefore suspect. Despite the “dialogue of religions” elaborated by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his government supports “anti-sect” organizations (i.e. anti-Protestant) and has bolstered state Islam in an informal alliance against missionary Christians.
Most repression of religion entails bureaucratic strangulation, such as obstacles to church registration, rather than direct persecution. However, citing ongoing concerns of religious extremism, as well as public health concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has engaged in frequent prosecutions that suppress religious activity. In 2021 the state brought administrative prosecutions against 124 individuals and 5 organizations for their peaceful exercise of freedom of religion or conscience. 120 of 130 total cases ended in convictions. Many of the 114 individuals convicted were charged with participating in worship meetings that lacked approval. In most cases, these individuals were penalized with fines equivalent to between three and four months average wages.
Dialogue between U.S. government representatives and Kazakhstani authorities offered hope for positive reforms of the 2011 Religion Law. However, the government of Kazakhstan has not fulfilled its commitments to reform the law in favor of increased freedom of religion. Amendments to the law in 2021 resulted in no substantial improvements, and on the whole may further restrict religious freedom. In 2022, the United States International Commission on Religious Freedom recommended that the State Department place Kazakhstan on its Special Watch List under the International Religious Freedom Act due to the government of Kazakhstan’s ongoing violations of religious freedom.
Christian Responses to Persecution
Christian groups in Kazakhstan have responded to persecution in a variety of ways, although none of their efforts have successfully stopped the regime’s increasing repression. In the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan—along with the other countries of Central Asia—enjoyed a religious revival. Hundreds of mission organizations arrived to revive the faith, bringing with them a steady stream of religious literature. Since this time, however, evangelism has largely been forced underground.
Survival is the first goal for most Christians in the post-Soviet realm, and some churches see the key to survival in legality. Hence, many Christians have circumscribed their typical activity to comply with the state, avoiding politics and appearing to accept a private role. The Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Central Asia, all older churches that existed during the Soviet era, have maintained a legal and politically quietist position since independence. Similarly, the Russian Orthodox Church has escaped negative attention from the state by avoiding outreach to the Kazakhstani population. Though the Catholic Church participates in some social justice work, this has been met with increasing resistance, and the general strategy is to confine religious activities to Sunday services, baptisms, and holiday celebrations.
In some instances, churches have attempted to build relationships with local government officials through community outreach. Until the past few years, more liberal regulations allowed missionary groups to enter Kazakhstan as NGOs pursuing development work such as economic assistance, humanitarian aid, and medical care. Evangelical Protestants in particular used this strategy to gain trust, build relationships with local communities, and at the same time spread Christianity. Since the mid-2000s, however, government media has increasingly portrayed such organizations as Western agents pushing an anti-Muslim agenda. Through restrictive visa requirements for travelers engaged in religious and missionary activities, as well as a rigorous registration and vetting process applied to both foreign and domestic missionaries, the government maintains near-total oversight of Christian outreach activities.
Despite the repression they face, most churches in Kazakhstan are reluctant to turn to international actors for help. In part this is due to fear of government retaliation and a cultural mistrust of strangers, but it is also hindered by a cultural rift between religious communities and civil society groups, which are generally very secular. However, at least some local Christian churches have accepted assistance from international actors, and this has generally helped ameliorate their situation, though such instances remain rare.
Christians in Kazakhstan have also engaged in inter-faith dialogue, usually sponsored by Western actors. In 2013 and 2014, the US Institute for Global Engagement organized several religious conferences in Kazakhstan to foster religious dialogue and contact, and bring religion into civil society. Representatives of registered Christian organizations from across the region participated. Additionally, a Protestant inter-denominational organization has been actively engaged in dialogue with international actors. In July 2021, Love Your Neighbor Community (LYNC), a U.S.-based nonprofit that advances faith-based reconciliation efforts, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of Kazakhstan. This development allowed LYNC, in collaboration with another U.S. NGO and government agencies of Kazakhstan, to host a large workshop in August 2021 promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. Around one hundred religious leaders representing multiple denominations and nine cities participated along with city government authorities.
The Russian Orthodox Church is an exception to the oppression faced by other Christian groups in Kazakhstan. Viewing Central Asia as the “canonical territory” of the Orthodox Church, it seeks to further monopolize Christianity in the region and drive out competitors. To achieve these goals, the Orthodox Church has established good relations with the regime in power and with the Muslim Spiritual Board, the state body that organizes and controls an Islamic hierarchy in the country. In large part, their strategies have been successful. The government appears to believe that fostering the spread of Orthodox churches is a means of countering Protestants’ growth, which they associate with pro-Western democratic movements. The result of this has been the return and restoration of many pre-Soviet-era Orthodox buildings, as well as anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant rhetoric in the media.
Many Christians in Kazakhstan have also chosen emigration, although motives for these moves are multi-causal. The vast majority of Russian émigrés, although they are nominally Orthodox Christian, have left for reasons other than religious oppression. Rising nationalism and changing language laws in the late 1980s triggered a wave of out-migration of ethnic Europeans (the majority of Christians) even before the Soviet collapse. Since 1989, the number of ethnic Christians in Kazakhstan has dropped from 46 percent of the population to 26.2 percent.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Kathleen Collins and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in June 2022.