By Bob Allen
An 87-year-old former Soviet-era prisoner of conscience and Baptist pastor has been fined for conducting religious activities without state permission in Kazakhstan.
Forum 18, an international news service that monitors religious freedom violations, says Yegor Prokopenko, pastor of an unregistered church in Zyryanovsk in eastern Kazakhstan, is the oldest of 35 individuals known to have been fined in the first 10 weeks of 2014 under the state’s policy of fining those who conduct religious activity without state permission.
Forum 18 says that while in the Soviet Union, Prokopenko served three-and-a-half years of a five-year sentence handed down in 1972 and a full three-year sentence handed down in 1982. His church belongs to an association called Council of Churches Baptists, which refuses to register as an act of civil disobedience.
Members of unregistered Baptist churches in Kazakhstan — along with other religious minorities including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims outside the mainstream tradition — frequently run into problems with a 2011 law requiring religious organizations to register with national, regional and/or local Ministry of Justice authorities.
Once considered one of the most liberal countries in post-Soviet Central Asia regarding religious freedom, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for the first time in 2013 designated Kazakhstan a Tier 2 country, those in which violations of religious freedom are on the rise but not yet to the threshold of the “particular concern” designation for the world’s worst offenders.
According to Forum 18, Prokopenko’s latest trouble began last November when police raided the congregation he leads in a private home during a Sunday worship attended by about 70 people, including children.
At his trial in February, court records indicate that Prokopenko argued that religious associations should be voluntary, and that requiring believers to create and register such groups violates rights and freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution.
A judge rejected his defense and fined Prokopenko the equivalent of two months’ wages for the average worker. Prokopenko receives a pension and lives on far less. It is not his first offense.
Asked why he would punish an 87-year-old man, Judge Anaurkhan Kalenov told Forum 18, “This is the law.”