Boy praying in a Russian Orthodox Church in Astana, Kazakhstan, 2010. The church has been an outspoken supporter of the ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia

Kazakhstan’s decision to suspend operations at the headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a symptom of the country’s growing intolerance towards religious rights, and particularly Christianity, writes Casey Michel in The Diplomat.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had operated in Kazakhstan for 25 years with 18,000 followers, reacted by expressing concern that the country is going down the same path as neighbouring Russia, where the Supreme Court’s rejection of their appeal on Monday 17 July means that the Russian government could now seize the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ assets and property.

Michel states that Kazakhstan is trying to convince the world that it is committed to religious rights, by, for example, hosting the World Religious Congress, but claims this is “international spin”.

“Any claims toward putative freedoms of religion in Kazakhstan have clearly crumbled over the past few years,” said Michel. “Following notorious 2011 legislation that shuttered some two-thirds of ‘non-traditional’ religious groups in the country, Kazakhstan has only continued closing the noose around remaining ‘non-traditional’ religions — especially those of the Christian variety.”

In May, World Watch Monitor reported on Easter Sunday raids by police and members of the anti-terrorist team on a church of 20 Uyghurs, and a police raid on two Baptist Churches in the central city of Temirtau and the southern city of Taraz.

A 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) acknowledged that religious rights had deteriorated in Kazakhstan. In that report it made several recommendations to the US government, including urging Kazakhstan “to ensure its anti-extremist laws do not serve as a pretext for infringement on the right to peaceful religious observance and expression,” and urging the Kazakh government to agree to visits by rights organisations, and to work to secure the “immediate release of individuals imprisoned for their peaceful religious activities or affiliations”.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has been one of Russia’s closest allies, and the two neighboring countries are founding members of multiple military and trade agreements. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has led the country since its days under Soviet rule.

Although the percentage of Kazakhstan’s population made up of ethnic Russians has declined since its independence from the Soviet Union, it remains a significant 21 per cent. And 25 per cent of the population is estimated to be Russian Orthodox, making it the largest non-Muslim religion in the country. The Orthodox Church, which has increased in numbers and power under Russian President Putin, has been an outspoken supporter of the ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.