A policeman is filmed during the Good Friday raid on New Life church in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Photo: Maxim Maximov / Youtube

Recent raids on Christians’ homes and churches in Kazakhstan are a “backward step”, following the positive strides made by the Kazakhstan President in recent years, according to a religious freedom expert in the country.

Kevin White, research fellow and country director at the Almaty-based Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, says long-standing President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s positive remarks about Protestant Christianity mean nothing if the country continues to pressurise Christians.

On 25 March, raids took place at five buildings belonging to Almaty’s New Life Pentecostal Church and the homes of six church leaders, as congregants gathered on Good Friday.

Then, on Easter Monday, a raid was carried out on the church office, during which all workers were forced to step outside and police seized financial documents, 54 computers and local currency amounting to around $280, according to Forum 18.

The organization reported that the raids were approved in January and that it was unclear why authorities had chosen to wait until Easter to carry them out. A criminal investigation against the church, which is accused of fraud but denies any wrongdoing, had begun almost a year earlier, in May 2015, but the church had not been informed.

The pastor, Maxim Maximov, has since fled the country with his wife, Larisa, after being fined $200,000 for an alleged administrative error relating to his distribution of Gideons New Testaments to Russia.

“He fled the country because of that,” said one local Christian, who wished to remain anonymous. “The government and criminal investigation are alleging financial crimes, but everybody assumes there’s no grounds for it; that that’s just what they’re using.”

But Forum 18 reported that the couple were already planning to move to the United States and had bought tickets before they knew about the investigation into the church.

On 25 March, Maximov wrote on his Facebook page: “I NEED YOUR HELP. THIS IS AN URGENT PRAYER REQUEST. Please pray for my family and all pastors of Almaty New Life Church as there are police searches at my and their homes. THIS IS WHAT’S GOING ON RIGHT NOW! There are serious persecution of Christians in Kazakhstan have begun!”

Larissa and Maxim Maximov. Photo: Maxim Maximov / Facebook

“Kazakhstan is promoting an image to the West of a free and tolerant society, and then situations like this completely undermine everything,” said White.

Only a year ago, President Nazerbayev appeared to praise the influence of Protestant Christianity on his country.

“During the last years, an increase of Protestant[s] has been noted,” he said in a March 2015 speech. “Protestantism puts successful, productive work, providence and virtuousness at the forefront. Protestants believe that honest work and earning pleases God. The world’s six countries that adhere to this religion have created 36% of the wealth on earth.”

Overall, White said that positive strides have been made for religious freedom in Kazakhstan. He pointed to the hosting of an interfaith forum in the modern capital, Astana. But he said the latest developments were “a shameful repudiation of Kazakhstan’s progress, a very discouraging setback”.

“Such religious intolerance is completely incompatible with Kazakhstan’s highly touted 2050 Plan and 100 Step Plan,” he said. “I’m convinced as a researcher that religious freedom is one of the best barometers to gauge the sincerity of governmental commitments to the development of democracy and free markets.”

A charity worker in Almaty, who wished to remain anonymous, said the pressure on Christians in Kazakhstan is increasing slowly, but subtly.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s ongoing,” he said. “It’s always here and there that something happens, but not all over and not all the time. I don’t know, maybe it’s to create fear. But it doesn’t seem like there’s always a big raid on every church.

“It’s been getting tighter since 2005, when they brought in the first law to tighten religious freedom. That was the beginning; the next law came in 2007and then in 2011 came the big law, with a lot of restrictions and new registration required for all religious groups. It’s getting tighter and tighter, but slowly.”

As for the New Life church, “everything goes on as it did before”, according to the aid worker.

“The church is not closed; people are going on like nothing happened,” he said. “Of course it was a traumatic experience and some people are more afraid, but they are getting used to it, especially this church, which already had a lot of problems because it’s really famous and they have a great impact. I think because they are so popular, they are probably a bigger target.”

After the raids at New Life church, there was a meeting of around 25 Protestant pastors, at which it was concluded that a “similar scenario” could occur at any church. During the meeting, the pastors discussed how they might protect themselves, their congregations and the Church in Kazakhstan in general.

At the meeting, one of the pastors, who did not wish to be named, said: “We have to be ready because the police could raid any of our churches at any time … So we have to be ready!”

Kazakhstan is No. 42 on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.

Learn more: World Watch Monitor’s 2015 summary of the types of problems faced by Christians and churches in Central Asia.