All nine ISKCON centers in Kazakhstan have successfully re-registered under a new religious law passed by the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan and approved by President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The ISKCON centers are located in Almaty, Almaty Oblast, Astana, Karaganada, Pavlodar, Ust, Kamengorst, Semi Palatinsk, Kustanai, and Aktobe.
The new “Law on Religious Activity and Religious Organizations” is enforced by the Agency For Religious Affairs For The Republic Of Kazakhstan and was introduced on October 24th, 2011. All religions were required to re-register by October 24th, 2012.
“There was no law in the history of Kazakhstan that was passed so quickly,” says B.B. Govinda Swami, Coordinator for the Society for Krishna Consciousness in central Asia.
Under the new law, devotees will be legally allowed to teach and preach Krishna consciousness in what the law calls a “Cult House,” meaning a temple, church or mosque or other official place of worship.
The new law is more restrictive than past legislation in that it now prohibits any activity outside a religious organization’s building. This includes public chanting, book distribution, and other public preaching programs.
However B.B. Govinda Swami sees it as a step forward for ISKCON Kazakhstan. “I feel that this is a natural development of growth and maturity in both the administrators of ISKCON in Kazakhstan and the administration of the Kazakh Republic,” says Swami.
When the new law passed, it was reported that 300 religious organizations were automatically shut down. However that number was misleading in that many of those groups were inactive or had been organized for short term purposes, such as to invite a preacher from another country. A handful of groups allegedly existed just to conduct commercial affairs, while other genuine organizations chose to not register considering it against their principles to do so—as in the case of some Baptist groups.
ISKCON Kazakhstan, however, diligently worked with lawyers and followed the exact protocol required by the committee.
During a round table in Almaty, Lamar Sharif, the new head of the Religious Council, cited ISKCON as being extremely cooperative and professional in the way that they conducted all steps of the registration process.
In the past, relations between ISKCON and the Kazakh government had been rocky. Much of the land owned by the Krishna community in Almaty Oblast was confiscated and two dozen devotees’ homes were demolished in 2006 by the local administration, who claimed the buildings had been modified illegally and that the society had failed to register its land properly. Relations have improved over the past few years, and it is hoped that since ISKCON has been allowed to register all of its communities, its members will now be able to practice their faith undisturbed.
“We are thankful to the Kazakhstan government that they have worked with us all through the process and have re-registered all our societies in Kazakhstan,” says B.B. Govinda Swami.
Now that they are re-registered, the next step for ISKCON Kazakhstan is to apply for a transfer of three hectares from their current fifteen hectare plot in the Karasai District of Almaty Oblast to be used for building a new temple. The remaining twelve acres are to be used for agricultural purposes.
ISKCON continues to grow organically in Kazakhstan, with six hundred initiated devotees and many thousands of congregation members.
The future effects of the new law remain to be seen. It is expected to take years of refining and amending code for it to be fully applied. For their part, although the new law will restrict public preaching activities, ISKCON devotees in Kazakhstan remain positive.
“We welcome it as a chance to use our abilities in a new, different, and more productive way to serve Prabhupada and his mission,” says B.B. Govinda Swami.