Religions: According to the CIA World Factbook: Muslim 70.2 percent,Christian 26.2 percent (mainly Russian Orthodox), other 0.2 percent, atheist 2.8 percent, unspecified 0.5 percent (2009 est.). According to the Library of Congress in 2006: Some 47 percent of Kazakhs are Muslim, primarily Sunni Muslims; 44 percent are Russian Orthodox, and 2 percent are Protestant. In 1994, it was estimated that 2 percent of the population were Protestant (mainly Baptist), with smaller numbers of Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Jewish believers. Reportedly, there is a Kazakh Jewish community in Mongolia.

Kazakhstan is officially a secular state. The government regulates the activity of religious organizations and licenses religious sects. Although Islam is the dominate religion, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, Catholicism and Protestantism are all practiced openly and freely. Leaders of different religions for the most part say they are free to practice their religions as the like although is some suspicion of Christian evangelical groups. Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev likes to offer Kazakhstan as a model of religious tolerance.

Islam, shamanism and animism have coexisted for a long time. Traditional pre-Islamic beliefs include cults of the sky and fir, ancestor worship, and belief in supernatural forces of good and evil, wood goblins and giants. Many Kazakhs to this day wear beads and talismans for protection against the evil eye. Kazakh shaman are called “bakhys”. They can be either men or women. Unlike traditional Siberian shaman who use a drums during their rituals, “bakhsy” use a bow and violin-like stringed instrument. Clan loyalty is often more important than religion.

The Kazakhs believe that Tuesdays and Fridays are inauspicious and they will not go out these days. They pay great attention to odd numbers, especially 7 and 9. The number 7 is the most respected number in their opinion. Number 7 has the most frequent appearance in the folk literary works of Kazakhs. For example, Kazakhs hold cradle and naming ceremonies on the 7th day after the baby is born. Intermarriage is forbidden within 7 generations, while two families who are connected by marriage should be 7 rivers apart from each other. \=/

Religion and Islam in Central Asia

The most important single cultural commonality among the nations of Central Asia is the practice of Sunni Islam, which is the professed religion of a very large majority of the peoples of the five nations and which has experienced a significant revival throughout the region in the 1990s. Propaganda from Russia and from the ruling regimes in the republics identifies Islamic political activity as a vague, monolithic threat to political stability everywhere in the region. However, the role of Islam in the five cultures is far from uniform, and its role in politics has been minimal everywhere except in Tajikistan.[Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

A number of pre-Islamic beliefs persist. Some have their roots in Zoroastrianism. Beliefs in demons and other spirits and worries about the evil eye were widespread in traditional society. Many people in the plains were Zoroastrians before they converted to Islam while those in the mountains and northern steppes followed horsemen shamanist-animist religions.

Among the dead religions that thrived for a while in Central Asia were Manicheism and Nestoriansim. Manicheism was introduced in the 5th century. For a while it was the official Uighur religion, and remained popular until the 13th century. Nestorianism was introduced in the 6th century, for a while it was practiced by many people in Herat and Samarkand, and was designated an official religion in the 13th century. It was pushed out by Mongol and Turkic invasions.

There are a few Jews, Roman Catholics and Baptists. In the Korean community there are a few Buddhists. Orthodox Christianity is alive among ethnic Russians.

Different Religions in Kazakhstan

Most Muslim in Kazakhstan, which make up 70 percent of the population, are of the Sunni Hanafi school. Other Islamic groups that account for less than 1 percent of the population include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya.Russian Orthodox Christians constitute approximately 26 percent of the population. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ^]

Other groups constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Christian Scientists, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, Bahais, Scientologists, and members of the Unification Church. ^

Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 Jews lived in the country. Leaders of the Jewish community reported no incidents of anti-Semitism by the government or in society. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Kazakhstan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

Kazakhstan Government Policy on Religion

By tradition the Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, and the Russians are Russian Orthodox. Some ethnic Kazakhs practice religions other than Islam but it unclear how many. Presumably this also true with Russians and Orthodox Christianity but to less of a degree. A Roman Catholic diocese was established in 1991. As elsewhere in the newly independent Central Asian states, the subject of Islam's role in everyday life, and especially in politics, is a delicate one in Kazakhstan.

The five religious groups the government considered “traditional” — acceptable — are Sunni Hanafi Islam (as represented by the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims, SAMK), Russian Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Judaism. An NGO working on religious issues reported that many individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress indicated they were believers.

Marlene Laruelle wrote in the Washington Post: “As in the other post-Soviet countries, the Kazakhstani authorities consider that some religions are “traditional” (meaning they have been present in Kazakhstan since decades or centuries) and some others are “non-traditional” (mostly new groups, often considered “sects”).” [Source:Marlene Laruelle, Washington Post, June 27, 2015. Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the George Washington University]

“In the non-traditional category, Kazakhstani authorities include both proselytizing Protestant movements (the Lutheran Church is usually the only Protestant denomination represented at the Congress, because it is a non-proselytizing Church focused on the religious needs of the German minority), and Islamic movements that do not recognize the religious authority of the muftiyat, the Spiritual Board that oversees all Islamic activities in the country.” Religious diversity excludes “movements that break Kazakhstan’s religious and political status quo: Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna, Ahmadi Muslims, Sufi groups, and so on.” New legislation on religion passed by the government’s Religious Affairs Agency in 2011 reduced drastically the number of recognized religions from 46 to 17, in the name of fighting against religious extremism.”

Islam in Kazakhstan

Kazakhs by tradition are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. They are regarded as only lukewarm Muslims. Islam has never been that important with the nomadic people and still isn't. This is due to their nomadic lifestyle, animist traditions, distance from the Muslim world, close contacts with Russians and Chinese and the suppression of Islam under Stalin and the Chinese Communists. Scholars have said the lack of strong Islamic sentiments is because of the Kazakh code of honor and law—the “adat”— which was most practical for the steppe than Islamic sharia law.

As part of the Central Asian population and the Turkic world, Kazakhs are conscious of the role Islam plays in their identity, and there is strong public pressure to increase the role that faith plays in society. At the same time, the roots of Islam in many segments of Kazakh society are not as deep as they are in neighboring countries. Many of the Kazakh nomads, for instance, did not become Muslims until the eighteenth or even the nineteenth century, and urban Russified Kazakhs, who by some counts constitute as much as 40 percent of the indigenous population, profess discomfort with some aspects of the religion even as they recognize it as part of their national heritage. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Kazakhs Muslims practice ground burials, have an Islamic wedding ceremony and celebrate Muslim holidays. But that is often as their faith goes. They d not regularly attend mosques, fast during Ramadan, pray five times a day Scholars have that this was because Islam was to rigid and restrictive and that their code of honor and law, the “adat”, was most practical for the steppe than Islamic sharia law. Attending a mosques was not possible for nomads so religious customs were taught with in the family

In May the SAMK established a Russian-speaking preaching group. Deputy Supreme Mufti Serikbay Oraz said the decision was made in response to Russian-speaking Muslims in the northern regions of the country who complained they could not understand the Kazakh-language preaching at local mosques. The two Russian-speaking preaching groups are comprised of five members each, including theologians and imams, who are fluent in Russian and have religious knowledge and secular education. The preaching groups support Russian-speaking imams around the country. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,U.S. Department of State, ^]

Kazakh Islam

Because the Muslims of Kazakhstan developed their religion in isolation from the rest of the Islamic world, there are significant differences from conventional Sunni and Shia practices. For example, the teachings of the Quran are much less central to the Kazakh version of Islam than in other parts of the Muslim world. Kazakhs are not regarded as very devout or conservative. They drink a lot and don’t regularly pray. In many communities you don’t see mosques or here muezzins. Kazakhstan doesn’t have powerful conservative Muslim groups and is not threatened by Muslim extremist groups as is the case in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Many Kazakhs did not covert to Islam until the 19th century and even after the did the maintained their traditional non-Muslim beliefs. Almost no Kazakh women cover their faces and many don’t even cover their hair. Soviet authorities attempted to encourage a controlled form of Islam as a unifying force in the Central Asian societies while at the same time stifling the expression of religious beliefs.

But, according to the atheist government of China, where Kazakhs also live: “Islam exercises a great influence upon their social life in all aspects. Their religious burdens used to be heavy. They had to deliver religious food grain and animal taxes in accordance with Islamic rules. If they wanted to invite mullahs for prayers on occasions of festivals, wedding, burial ceremonies or illnesses, they had to present given amounts of money or property.” [Source: |]

History of Islam in Kazakhstan

Islam first appeared in Kazakhstan in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Arab conquest of Central Asia. It became the predominate religion of the Kazakh people after the Kazakh khanate was established in the 15th century. Islam grew stronger under Russian rule because the czarist government encouraged the Kazakhs to become practicing Muslim as part of their effort t bring Kazakhstan under czarist control. Many mosques and madrassahs (religious schools) were built during this time.

During the Soviet era, few Kazakhs attended mosques and read the Koran. Mullahs were persecuted and sometimes executed. One of the few working mosques in Almaty had a small wooden minaret crowned with a tin crescent. At prayer time a muezzin climbed to the top and called the faithful to prayer.

There has been a religious revival in Kazakhstan since the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Already in 1991, some 170 mosques were operating, more than half of them newly built; at that time, and an estimated 230 Muslim communities were active in Kazakhstan The number of mosques and madrassahs increased from 46 in 1988 to 1,623 in 2002. Many of them have been built with money other Muslim countries, particularly Turkey, the rich Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

But the revival has been more low key than ones in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. One imam told National Geographic, “I wouldn’t like to see my daughter suffering under a veil.” Because so many trained imam and mullahs were killed off or repressed in the Soviet and so few new ones were trained, elderly men who could read Arabic fulfilled their duties after Kazakhstan independence.

Islam and the State in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has been able to avoid trouble with Muslim extremists. The government has passed tough laws that restricts religious activity not sanctioned by government. The senior Muslim cleric. the Grand Mufti, is picked by the government. An effort by local imam in 2002 to challenge the current Grand Mufti, Absattar Derbisali, largely on the grounds that he lacked religious credentials, was put down by government security y forces,

In 1990 Nazarbayev, then party first secretary of the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union, created a state basis for Islam by removing Kazakhstan from the authority of the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the Soviet-approved and politically oriented religious administration for all of Central Asia. Instead, Nazarbayev created a separate muftiate, or religious authority, for Kazakh Muslims. However, Nazarbayev's choice of Ratbek hadji Nysanbayev to be the first Kazakh mufti proved an unpopular one. Accusing him of financial irregularities, religious mispractice, and collaboration with the Soviet and Kazakhstani state security apparatus, a group of believers from the nationalist Alash political party attempted unsuccessfully to replace the mufti in December 1991. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

With an eye toward the Islamic governments of nearby Iran and Afghanistan, the writers of the 1993 constitution specifically forbade religious political parties. The 1995 constitution forbids organizations that seek to stimulate racial, political, or religious discord, and imposes strict governmental control on foreign religious organizations. As did its predecessor, the 1995 constitution stipulates that Kazakhstan is a secular state; thus, Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state whose constitution does not assign a special status to Islam. This position was based on the Nazarbayev government's foreign policy as much as on domestic considerations. Aware of the potential for investment from the Muslim countries of the Middle East, Nazarbayev visited Iran, Turkey, and Saudia Arabia; at the same time, however, he preferred to cast Kazakhstan as a bridge between the Muslim East and the Christian West. For example, he initially accepted only observer status in the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), all of whose member nations are predominantly Muslim. The president's first trip to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, which did not occur until 1994, was part of an itinerary that also included a visit to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

By the mid-1990s, Nazarbayev had begun occasionally to refer to Allah in his speeches, but he had not permitted any of the Islamic festivals to become public holidays, as they had elsewhere in Central Asia. However, certain pre-Islamic holidays such as the spring festival Navruz and the summer festival Kymyzuryndyk were reintroduced in 1995.

Christianity in Kazakhstan

Christians — mostly Russian Orthodox — make up 26.2 percent of the population. In the early 2000s, Russian Orthodox made up 44 percent of the population, and 2 percent were Protestant. In 1994, it was estimated that 2 percent of the population were Protestant (mainly Baptist), with smaller numbers of Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and Jewish believers. Other Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Christian Scientists. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State]

The Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant Christian denomination in Kazakhstan. By tradition Russians are Russian Orthodox. Some ethnic Kazakhs practice religions other than Islam but it unclear how many. The number of Russian Orthodox churches increased from 62 in 1988 to 225 in 2002.

A Roman Catholic diocese was established in 1991. Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in September 2001. Some have said that Catholics make up about 2 to 3 percent of the population.

Kazakhstan Hosts the Congress of World Religions

In June 2015, Kazakhstan hosted the Fifth Congress of World Religions highlighted by the presence of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This Congress was launched in 2003 by President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been housed in one of main buildings of the new capital city Astana: the Palace of Peace, built by the British architect Norman Foster. Over the years, the Congress has grown in importance and visibility, hosting almost 80 delegates representing about 30 countries. The Congress promotes a narrative on peace and culture of tolerance as a solution to violence exercised in the name of religion. [Source:Marlene Laruelle, Washington Post, June 27, 2015. Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at the George Washington University ==]

Marlene Laruelle wrote in the Washington Post: “The Congress is just one of the elements in Kazakhstan’s soft power toolkit, each of which performs both a domestic and an international function. For instance, the concept of “Eurasia,” which officially describes Kazakhstan as being at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, West and East, promotes both the country’s multivectoral policy of international relations, in which Kazakhstan balances its relations with Russia, China, the West and the Islamic world, and also its domestic policy of “interethnic concord” between the ethnic Kazakh majority and the still important Russian and Slavic minorities.” ==

The Congress “promotes the idea that Kazakhstan, like the international community to which it seeks to belong, supports mutual understanding and respect between religious communities. Kazakhstan’s initiative has thus been welcomed and supported by several international organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as the World Islamic League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). ==

“Kazakhstan has been promoting this concept of a “dialogue of civilizations” for decades. It “is a response to the notion of “clash”: many international, interregional and interreligious initiatives promoting a culture of dialogue took shape around that concept. The Kazakhstani authorities participate in this globalized trend by presenting the country at the crossroads of several “civilizations.” ==

“Kazakhstan is certainly contributing to the world’s broader trend of cultivating discussion among many different religious and cultural identities. The “dialogue of civilizations” may be a way to avoid addressing rising world inequalities and geopolitical misbalances, but if so, that’s a failure not of Kazakhstan but of the international community as a whole. Kazakhstan has been able to wield this soft power tool in branding itself as a responsible actor on the international scene, playing according to the main rules of the game, whatever those may be.” ==

Religious Laws in Kazakhstan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. Other laws, however, mandate restrictive registration requirements for religious organizations and missionaries; require government inspection of religious literature; and prohibit religious ceremonies in government buildings (including those belonging to the military or law enforcement) and in secular educational institutions. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,U.S. Department of State ^]

“The Committee for Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Culture and Sport (CRA, formerly the Religious Affairs Agency) is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religious freedom. The committee also studies and analyzes the activities and operation of religious groups and missionaries. It drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analyses of religious materials, and considers problems related to violations of the religion law. It cooperates with law enforcement to ban the operation of religious groups or individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious issues, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law. ^

“The law allows all people to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs, but with significant restrictions. It states that the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity. The law also states the government shall not interfere with parents’ rights to rear their children consistently with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights. It prohibits forced conversion of persons to any religion, forced participation in a religious group’s activities, or forced participation in religious rites. The law also prohibits coercive religious activities that harm the health or morale of citizens or residents, or that force them to end marriages or family relations. Unregistered missionary activity is prohibited, as are certain methods of proselytizing, including the use of charity, blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities. ^

“The law allows registration to be denied to religious groups based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an expert analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the Administrative Code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended or banned religious group can be fined between 92,600 tenge ($508) and 370,400 tenge ($2,031). ^

“In order to register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Communities may only be active within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. To register regionally, groups must have at least 500 members in each of two separate regions, while national registration requires at least 5,000 total members with sufficient representation in each of the country’s oblasts (regions). Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy. According to the CRA, there are approximately 3,400 registered religious organizations in the country, representing 18 major groups. Several other religious groups, including the Baptist Council of Churches and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, have either not sought or have been denied registration. The Church of Scientology is reported to be registered as a public association, rather than a religious organization, and continues to function. ^

Laws That Restrict Religion in Kazakhstan

According to the U.S. Department of State: The Administrative Code stipulates a three-month suspension for registered groups that hold religious gatherings in prohibited buildings, disseminate unregistered religious materials, systemically pursue activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered, construct religious facilities without a permit, or otherwise defy the constitution or laws. According to the Administrative Code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or fails to rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 555,600 tenge ($3,046) and the entity is subject to a fine of 926,000 tenge ($5,077) and its activities are banned. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Kazakhstan International Religious Freedom”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,U.S. Department of State ^]

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an extremist organization, ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. New amendments introduced during the year simplify court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist” and authorize officials to immediately terminate such groups and seize their property. Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies. ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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