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Ex-Soviet State, Krishnas Clash -- Kazakhstan Has Been Accused of Religious Persecution After Demolishing the Homes of Some Hare Krishnas

submitted by Richard Wyndham, by Peter Finn, Washington Post Service, Seleksia, Kazakhstan

Posted August 3, 2007

The house where Maya Salakhutdinova lived is now a shell of ruined walls with broken cinder blocks and splintered wood spilling in a heap onto a narrow lane. Last month, her house and 11 others in this village, a secluded enclave about an hour from Almaty, Kazakhstan's commercial capital, were bulldozed by court order.

All the destroyed homes belonged to members of a Hare Krishna community, which has a temple in a converted farmhouse here, as well as 116 acres of farmland. A bulldozing in November leveled 14 Hare Krishna homes.

''I was shocked,'' said Salakhutdinova, 43, a Kazakh who joined the Hare Krishna movement 12 years ago. ``The day before, I got a notice that I had to leave, but with no date or time. I wasn't prepared.''

What began as a property dispute between the Hare Krishna community and the local authorities has ballooned into an international controversy that threatens Kazakhstan's ambition to chair the 56-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

One of the fundamental principles of the organization, founded during the Cold War to foster East-West dialogue, is religious freedom. The standoff with the Hare Krishna movement threatens the image of a harmonious, multidenominational country that this Central Asian nation has been cultivating to press its goal at the organization's headquarters in Vienna. A week before last month's action, the head of the Religious Affairs Committee at the Kazakh Justice Ministry told an OSCE gathering in Romania that his country had the ''most liberal'' religious laws in the ``entire post-Soviet area.''

But a statement by the OSCE's Advisory Council on Freedom of Religion or Belief after the first houses were demolished said, ``It appears that state-sponsored action has been focused upon members of the Hare Krishna community in a manner that suggests they have been targeted on the basis of their religious affiliation.''

Privately, some Western diplomats say they are mystified why Kazakhstan would tarnish its reputation just as it is seeking support from OSCE member states for the prestige of chairing the organization. The energy-rich country, which is dominated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, was already having difficulty convincing some OSCE members of its democratic credentials.

In May, in a further blow to the country's standing, Kazakhstan issued an arrest warrant for its ambassador to the OSCE and Austria, Nazarbayev's former son-in-law, who was accused of kidnapping and assault.

Officials in the capital, Astana, say this is a legal matter that has nothing to do with religious persecution. By their account, the Hare Krishna devotees acquired the property illegally.

''We understand that this is a small but very important issue, and if we had not understood that, we wouldn't have been running around trying to solve this,'' said Yeraly Tugzhanov, head of the Religious Affairs Committee.

``The most dangerous thing here -- and we should not let it happen -- is an attempt to turn this issue into a political one. If now every believer in Kazakhstan tries to solve his or her personal problems or property problems through religious organizations, by attaching a religious meaning to it, this will be ridiculous.``

Miami Herald

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