The Washington D.C. based Institute on Religion and Public Policy – one of the world’s best respected advocates for freedom of religion and belief – has condemned the Kazakhstan government’s January 27 deportation of ISKCON leader Bhakti Bringha Govinda Swami.
Govinda Swami was held without explanation at the Almaty airport for twelve hours and denied entry into Kazakhstan, despite carrying a valid passport and visa. Airport Officials told him that he was on the entry blacklist and refused to explain the denial of entry, claiming it was a "state secret". It’s the latest sinister move in a constant barrage of harassment since the Kazakh government raided the Hare Krishna community outside Almaty in 2006.
“The Kazakh government seems to continually and erroneously view peaceful minority religions as a threat to security, and the country's abysmal record on religious freedom shows it,” said Institute President Joseph K. Grieboski. “We call on the government of Kazakhstan to allow Govinda Swami to enter the country and meet with his fellow Hare Krishnas, and allow the community as a whole to worship freely.”
The Institute has consistently engaged the government of Kazakhstan on its religious freedom abuses, and has called on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to rescind the country's scheduled 2010 chairmanship of the group.
Others have also attacked the move, delving further into the details of the deportation. According to Norway’s religious freedom news service Forum 18, Kazakh officials later claimed that the reason for Govinda Swami’s deportation was that he had been found guilty of “illegal missionary activity” by Aktobe Regional court in 2008.
Yet Forum 18 found that neither Aktobe Regional Court, Aktobe City Administrative Court or the City Civil Court had heard any case relating to Govinda Swami in 2008. On top of that, Govinda Swami had previously visited Kazakhstan since the alleged conviction, without being banned.
What’s more, it turns out that the supposed “illegal missionary activity” was simply a private talk Govinda Swami gave to devotees at their community. Defending the devotees, Yevgeni Zhovtis, head of the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, said: “According to Kazakhstan’s current Religion Law, propagation of a religion by an individual is only considered missionary activity if that religion does not already exist or is not registered in Kazakhstan. As I understand, Govinda Swami was preaching in a registered Hare Krishna community.”
Zhovtis also said it is “nonsense” to say that the Migration Police has the authority whether or not to allow a foreign citizen into Kazakhstan. “It can only be done on the basis of a court decision by the State Border Service, which is under the auspices of the National Security Committee (KNB) secret police," he told Forum 18.
Govinda Swami is currently challenging the Kazakhstan government’s decision, with lawyers for ISKCON now in the process of trying to get a written official declaration giving the cause of deportation.
Until then, the Kazakhstan government are certainly not backing off. Maksim Varfolomeev of the Almaty Hare Krishna community said that the authorities are now pressuring ISKCON to vacate its Almaty land by May 1. The authorities have long been seeking to close down the community and seize the land.
“Officials from the Religious Affairs Committee in Astana told us by phone we have a deadline of May 1 to leave,” Varfolomeev said. “They sounded very angry that we have not written to say that we are happy to accept the rubbish dump that has been offered to us in exchange for our land.”
He speculates that officials are desperate to have in writing a letter from the community renouncing any claims against officials and accepting the loss of their land. He said officials' promises in late December that they would help the community try to exchange the rubbish dump for a more suitable alternative site have now been abandoned. “They are now telling us they cannot even help us exchange the site. This completely contradicts their earlier statements.”