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Towards “New Life” with Old Templates: Three Pastors of Protestant Church Convicted in Kazakhstan

In Kazakhstan, the state “defeated” a large protestant church “New Life”. Three pastors were found guilty on a series of charges based on the collection of alms.

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On July 29, the district court of Almaty delivered a judgment to the three pastors of protestant church “New Life”. The pastor and the head of church Maksim Maksimov was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. His wife and church attendant Larisa Maksimova and his deputy, pastor Sergei Zaikin – to four years.

They were charged with three articles of the Criminal Code: “Wilful grievous bodily harm”, “Illegal enterprise”, and “Creation or participation in illegal public and other associations”. The clergymen were convicted on the basis of statements made by nine ex-parishioners who thought they fell under the psychological and psychotherapeutic influence of the preachers, and for that reason they attended the church for years and made contributions.

The pastors avoided imprisonment just because they lived in the United States for some years. However, the court ordered to confiscate their property and property that belongs to the church.

Sergei Zaikin. Personal account on Facebook

“New Life” established in Kazakhstan in 1991 is one of the oldest protestant associations in the country and apparently the largest one. In addition to the church in Almaty, it has branches in the cities of the republic and abroad, its own Bible college, its own international television channel CNL and the like-named news agency.

However, according to the court decision, the establishment of the church in 1991 was equated to a criminal intention of grievous bodily harm and theft of other people’s property by fraud.

“Carrying out his criminal intent, founder Maksimov and active members of the religious association Maksimova and Zaikin, under the guise of charity, religious, missionary activity, conducted regular bogus divine services in the city of Almaty, during which they applied methods, ways and elements of psychological and psychotherapeutic influence,” the verdict reads.

Referring to the expert examinations, Judge Gulshakhar Chinibekova considered that all the sermons, musical accompaniment and meetings were part of the criminal plan of Pastor Maksim Maksimov and his companions to zombify the population in order to get profit. All six victims carefully calculated how much they contributed to the church in the form of donations and tithes for many years of church attendance – 19,119,876 tenge or about 49 thousand dollars.

At the same time, the victims do not deny that they contributed voluntarily, but under the influence of pastors and the general atmosphere of sermons. Investigators found “changes in personality structure” and “mental disorders” caused allegedly by attending the church.

At the same time, the New Life church currently has tens of thousands of followers in different countries of the world.

Voluntary but forced contributions

Pastor Maksim Maksimov wrote his attitude on his page on Facebook, where he emphasised some significant points.

Maksim Maksimov with his wife Larisa Maksimova. Personal page of M.Maksimov on Facebook

According to him, the very moment of the defendants’ accusing of “creating or participating in the activities of illegal public and other associations” speaks of the level of investigation and court, since from 1991 until now, the New Life church has been operating legally and has been registered officially.

He also notes that all the “victims” have the conclusions of the same experts, with examinations of events that happened 13-16 years ago, written alike.

“Imagine that an expert spoke with you and found out from a conversation that you were hypnotised 16 years ago and someone committed a crime over you when you were sitting in a church during a sermon. Is that enough for a judge? Where’s the face-to-face interrogation? Where are the witnesses to the crime? Where are the camera records? We record all the services,” Maksimov said.

Although three pastors were convicted also for “intentionally causing grievous bodily harm”, none of the victims sought medical help.

But most of all he is angry with the fact that voluntary donations to the church were deemed as “theft”. On the basis of such sentence, each parishioner, including parishioners of temples and mosques of traditional religions, may demand the return of their contributions saying they were misled.

It is significant that the first five victims appeared simultaneously in 2015, then were joined by others, although only six of them took part in the court. This caused the opening of a criminal case under the article “fraud”. However, searches in the churches of New Life and the houses of pastors were carried out by ten operational groups only on March 25, 2016 simultaneously.

A police press release read that ammunition and weapons were seized during the searches. However, no evidence of this was provided and subsequently weapons and ammunition did not appear on file.

Soon after the searches, some of the defendants in the criminal case among the church servants left the country. Departures outside Kazakhstan for the service were planned long before and tickets were purchased several months ago, however, due to the development of events, Maksimov and Zaikin were scared to return to the country.

A logical end of a series of problems

In July 2017, the pastor of the branch of the New Life Church in Ust-Kamenogorsk (East Kazakhstan) Vitaly Zatolokin was brought to administrative responsibility for the performance of religious songs at the recreation centre, where he gathered with his co-religionists.

In April 2018, the activities of the church in Shymkent (South Kazakhstan) were attempted to suspend for allegedly violating fire safety standards – no fire detectors were found in an abandoned warehouse owned by the church. But the court of appeal cancelled the imposed fine and the suspension of the local branch activities.

Since 2009, the New Life Church has been not only under the increased watch of the police and security services, but also under pressure. Believers complained that they were offered to file reports against their pastors and that the police were threatening parishioners – ethnic Kazakhs – for “betraying” their faith.

Several times the church has been attacked by unknowns. In 2011, in Almaty, during a youth conference, someone poured caustic chemical liquid twice with the intention of breaking up the event, and the second time it was poured into a ventilation pipe.

In November 2013, in Aktobe, the church building was thrown with bottles with dark liquid. The security forces repeatedly interrupted the services and suspended the church under formal pretexts in several cities.

The latest process against the three pastors was accompanied by a demonstration of many video recordings of services.

The lawyer of pastors, Aiman Umarova, made a brief comment to CABAR.asia about the trial:

They want to close the church down. What else can I say?

“They are scared that I will learn something and will report it. But what can I report? All know that they are prosecuted because of their religion, their New Life church. That’s the point,” Aiman Umarova described the first day of trial, when she found out she wasn’t given access to case materials, and investigators were hiding from the lawyer, and the court said they didn’t know anything about her participation in the trial.

A service in New Life church in Almaty. Photo: newlife.kz.church

The state and “non-traditional” religions: stable relations

New Life Church has become the major “success” of Kazakhstan security officials regarding non-traditional Christian movements in recent years. Moreover, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian centre, the largest religious organisation with branches all over Kazakhstan, has been under constant attacks.

However, this case makes it evident that they have a strong international support, as a result of which Kazakhstan security services have failed several times, and Akorda has had to back out.

On July 10, 2018, the court, which ruled in 2013 against the adherent of Jehovah’s Witnesses Andrei Korolev, made an official written apology for the harm caused by unlawfully bringing him to administrative responsibility. He was rehabilitated, and the fine he paid was returned to him. This happened after the UN Human Rights Committee recognised Kazakhstan as a violator of Korolev’s rights.

On the same grounds, on April 4, 2018, Jehovah’s Witness Teimur Akhmedov, previously sentenced to five years in prison, was pardoned with clearance and released from custody by decree of the President of Kazakhstan. This also happened after the decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN working group on arbitrary detention.

At least three more religious followers were also rehabilitated following the decisions of the UN Human Rights Committee. However, in all other cases, Kazakhstan refuses to implement the decisions of the human rights structures of the United Nations.

After a series of criminal cases, including charges of espionage, the state has managed to significantly reduce the activity of the large South Korean churches, Source of Life and Grace.

Believers from the Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists are systematically exposed to administrative and criminal prosecutions for their principled position not to interact with the state, including in matters of registration. Some of them have been forced to leave the country.

But officially Kazakhstan refuses to recognise the facts of prosecution on religious grounds. In an official response to the request, the Committee of Public Accord of the Ministry of Social Development (which controls, inter alia, religious life) denies that non-traditional movements are being prosecuted in Kazakhstan:

The law doesn’t divide religions into minor and major, traditional and non-traditional religious groups.  No religion can be proclaimed as a national or mandatory one. Therefore, state bodies in their practice don’t make concessions or privileges to one religion to the detriment of the interests of other religions.

It has been reported that in recent years, in general, the legislation of Kazakhstan “in the field of protection of the rights and freedoms of citizens” has undergone modifications and “is currently in line with generally recognised international standards set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Now New Life Church continues to operate as usual, and convicted pastors conduct online sermons. State-controlled media pay attention to this. The Facebook public “Enemies of the People of Kazakhstan 2.0”, which declared war on the opposition, civil activists and human rights defenders, listed Maksim Maksimov and his lawyer Aiman ​​Umarova among the enemies, calling the former a “swindler of faith” and the latter “the devil’s advocate”.

In the recent International Religious Freedom report 2018 by the US Department of State, Kazakhstan once again has been named as a country where religious minorities are prosecuted by the state:

Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities[…];criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register “non-traditional” religious groups.

Other organisations standing for the freedom of religion, such as the Norwegian Forum 18 and Dutch Open Door, have the same opinion.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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