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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Religious Leaders Meeting in Almaty

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Religious leaders gathering in Kazakhstan for a two-day forum opening Tuesday are scheduled to discuss tolerance, even as concerns mount over the increasingly hostile treatment of religious minorities in the country.

Kazakh authorities have long been seen as being more tolerant of other religions than some autocratic governments in predominantly Muslim Central Asia, but in recent years they have tightened laws governing religious organizations, citing concerns about extremism.

The forum is expected to gather 42 delegations, 29 religious leaders, and guests such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee rights group, said it was part of a general, more authoritarian trend in Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev's policies.

"It's all about controlling people's minds. It's all links of one chain: The growing pressure on the mass media, opposition and independent religious groups," Fokina said.

Plans are in the works to further toughen religious control. A newly established religious affairs committee has been holding closed meetings with regional authorities across the country spreading a message that nontraditional religious groups should be kept in check, she said.

One such group, the Hare Krishnas, has been fighting possible expulsion for two years.

Courts have found the Hare Krishnas guilty of illegally acquiring land and summer houses outside the commercial capital, Almaty, ordering that the houses be destroyed and the land confiscated. The group sees the legal campaign as a government attempt to squeeze it out of the country.

Maxim Varfolomeyev, spokesman for the Hare Krishna community in Kazakhstan, said a public relations company that had held talks with government officials on its behalf relayed that it was on a black list of organizations seen as a threat to the country's national security "because it's quite organized and hard to penetrate and control."

Varfolomeyev said that the Hare Krishnas initially thought that the authorities' move against them was merely a land-grab of their 48-hectare plot, prime real estate in the rapidly growing city that is seeing a construction boom. Acquired in 1999, the farm outside Almaty has been a place where Hare Krishnas from other more tightly controlled Central Asian nations could come to openly practice their religion and mingle with their spiritual brothers and sisters.

"We've understood now that the [government's] intentions are more than serious. The land dispute is just a consequence. ... The policy is to create a monopoly of the two main religions and do away with minorities," said Varfolomeyev, speaking of the state-controlled Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, or SBMK, and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Orthodox church enjoys favorable conditions to keep happy the large ethnic Russian population and Moscow.

Kairat Tulesov of the religious affairs committee denied the existence of any black list of religious groups as well as government plans to toughen religious control.

"They are making it all up," he said, of Hare Krishnas and rights groups.

Tulesov said the Hare Krishnas' problem is about economic relations and law. "There is nothing political or religious about it."

"All religious groups peacefully and freely operate in Kazakhstan," he said.