[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 11 December 2006, 14:41 GMT
Concern over Kazakh religious row
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Kazakhstan

From one angle it looks as if an earthquake has hit the village. From another, it is obvious that whatever the disaster, it picked its victims carefully.

Destroyed house
The destruction of the village did not make local headlines

In pristine snow by a shimmering lake, the ruins of 13 houses lie scattered amid the untouched cottages of their neighbours.

The iron fence around them is smashed. Just by its side, two Barbie dolls lie abandoned, their blue plastic eyes staring into the distance.

"This was the living room," Marina says, pointing at the pile of rubble.

She picks up her bundled-up three-year-old son and remembers how representatives of the local administration burst through a hole they made in the wall. Their unexpected visit, she says, was announced only by a loud rumble of a bulldozer.

We apply for land registration, and every time we are turned down. But then the authorities come and destroy our homes because we don't have the registration
Maxim Varfolameev
Krishna community spokesperson

"I had just put the baby to sleep, and heard the noise," Marina said. "I thought the road was being fixed, next thing I knew there was a hole in my wall and it all came crushing down. And I just starting screaming and crying, and the baby started crying".

Twelve other families lost their homes in a very similar way, as the local authorities of Karasai district destroyed part of the Hare Krishna settlement just outside Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty.

They also vowed to come back to take down the rest.

Economic boom

Local authorities say the decision had nothing to do with religion, but with the fact that the community is occupying the land illegally.

Palace of Peace and Harmony prior to the opening ceremony in Astana, 1/9/06
Not everyone is convinced by President Nazarbayev's pledges

But it is an argument no-one in the village seems to believe.

The self-sustained farm of 60 households is the only Hindu settlement in Central Asia and has existed for more than a decade.

Over the years, the festivals held on the farm had become famous among Hindus across the region.

With Kazakhstan's economy booming, the value of the land began to climb a few years ago.

Ever since then, the Hare Krishna followers say, the local government has begun to pressure them to leave.

The authorities say the community does not have proper land registration documents. But the followers say they have been continuously turned down while trying to register.

"It's a vicious cycle," said Maxim Varfolameev, the spokesman for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Kazakhstan.

"We apply for land registration, and every time we are turned down. But then the authorities come and destroy our homes because we don't have the registration."

Religious harmony

Whether this is about religion or about land, destruction of this community does not seem to fit the image Kazakhstan has been trying hard to project.

Rich in natural resources and Central Asia's emerging economic giant, Kazakhstan is ambitious about becoming a serious political player too.


Religious tolerance is one of the main themes President Nursultan Nazarbayev has chosen for promoting his country.

He has built a giant pyramid of peace in the country's capital, Astana, which recently hosted an inter-religious congress that was also initiated by the president.

"Just the fact that we have this congress, during which Iranian mullahs and Israeli rabbis come together, just the fact that we have 140 confessions living in peace, shows what kind of country we are," Mr Nazarbayev said in a recent interview with the BBC.

He also added that his government understood that religious harmony was crucial to the country's stability.

Mr Nazarbayev has never commented on the issue of the Hare Krishna commune, even though it was brought up during his recent meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.

And, in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the state, the destruction of the village never made headlines.

'Rising' harassment

Even so, not everyone in Kazakhstan believes President Nazarbayev.

"This talk about religious tolerance is pure bluff," says Ninel Fokina, the head of the Almaty branch of Helsinki Committee for the Human Rights.

Her organisation works with various religious minority groups, and she says that the number of complaints about official harassment is on the rise.

Also of concern, Ms Fokina says, are recent changes to legislation that have made it much more difficult for religious organisations to operate in Kazakhstan.

"The government is using this religious tolerance card to promote itself internationally, but in reality they are becoming more and more repressive towards non-traditional groups that are outside the mainstream religious movements," she says.

"If it's a small Christian group you belong to, or a non-traditional Muslim group, if you are Baptist or member of some Sufi brotherhood - then you will run into problems."

Over the years the Kazakh Hindus never managed to secure a permission to build a temple.

They have been using their farmhouse by the lake for prayer. Now they are afraid of losing that too. The commune is waiting for another round of evictions.

Theirs maybe an extreme case. But to religious minorities here it serves as an example that in Kazakhstan stability is not always guaranteed, and that religious harmony does not always stretch very far.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific