September 21, 2011 / 12:06 PM / 6 years ago

Kazakh MPs back secular state to counter extremism

* New law supports liberal Islam, Orthodox Christianity

* Bans prayer rooms, controls foreign missionaries

ASTANA, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Kazakh lawmakers responded to the concerns of their veteran leader about growing religious extremism by voting on Wednesday to reinforce the division between religion and secular society.

Three weeks after President Nursultan Nazarbayev urged the compliant legislature to adopt tougher laws on religious activity and migration in the mainly Muslim Central Asian state, the lower house voted for a new law on religious activity.

The law, expected to be win swift approval by the Senate, stresses “the historic role of the Hanafi school of Islam and of the Christian Orthodox faith in the cultural and spiritual development of the Kazakh nation”.

It bans prayer rooms in all state institutions, only allowing religious ceremonies to take place out of office hours.

Muslims make up 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s 16.5-million population, and the vast majority are followers of the Hanafi school of law, considered to be the oldest and most liberal within the Sunni Muslim tradition.

Officials in Kazakhstan, the most prosperous of Central Asia’s nations, have voiced concern over the possible advent of radical Islam, which is on the rise in the overpopulated and impoverished Ferghana Valley shared by its former Soviet neighbours Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Last month’s official report that a group of extremists planning “acts of terror” had been detained in western Kazakhstan unsettled many in the state, which Nazarbayev has ruled for more than two decades promoting a motto of ethnic harmony and stability.

“Not a single religion can establish itself as official or compulsory. Thus, the emphasis is being laid on the secular nature of our state,” Kairat Lama Sharif, head of the Kazakh government’s Religions Agency, told deputies of the Mazhilis chamber when presenting the law.

“It is high time ... not to allow the spread of such extremes as immorality and radical religious ideas.”

Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s largest economy and No. 1 oil producer, has only recently witnessed outbursts of militant Islam experienced by other former Soviet states in the vast region bordering Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan last month temporarily blocked access to a number of foreign Internet sites after a court ruled they were propagating terrorism and inciting religious hatred.

According to the new law, foreign missionary activity will be impossible in Kazakhstan without official registration, to be issued by the Religions Agency and renewed annually.

A missionary can be expelled if the person poses “a real threat to the constitutional order and public peace”, it states.

Lama Sharif also echoed Nazarbayev’s criticism of the uncontrolled construction of mosques in Kazakhstan and said he wanted to discourage the practice of entrepreneurs funding the construction of mosques to name them after relatives. (Reporting By Raushan Nurshayeva; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Elizabeth Piper)

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