Why there is a Bias Against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan and How They Overcome It

Jehovah’s Witnesses admit they feel social stigma. CABAR.asia learns about the reasons for stigma and how the Christian organisation tries to change the attitude towards it in the society.

As of the first quarter 2024, Kazakhstan had 61 registered religious assemblies of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Total number of their active members, according to the website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, exceeds 17 thousand people, with nearly 20 thousand members in 229 assemblies.

Despite the legitimate nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, their activities take place amid negative background information. Thus, for example, the headings in Kazakhstan media in 2017-2024 were like, “Anathematised for disobedience – a story of ex-Jehovah’s witness,” “Jehovah’s witnesses become active in Kazakhstan after being banned in Russia,” “Most sinister pranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan,” “Jehovah’s Witnesses in Almaty suspected of paedophilia,” “Ex-Jehovah’s witnesses won over 2 million tenge by court for harm to mental health” (won from the Jehovah’s community itself), “Jehovah’s Witnesses storm apartments in Rudnoye.” Most of such publications are written in a condemnatory tone, and in rare cases, when the material was delivered reasonably, the reason for publication may be related to a negative event. Can we speak of stigmatisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan and if so, how do Jehovah’s witnesses try to overcome it? CABAR.asia asked this question to experts and the Christian Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan.

Is there a stigma and where does it come from?

Evgeny Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights, human rights activist, answered the question about stigma against Jehovah’s witnesses, “Of course, there is.” He emphasises three factors of such situation.

The first one is the attitude of the state, which considers the religious sphere ‘as suspicious, threatening and requiring control.’

“Despite the fact that our state is secular (and therefore neutral to diverse forms of public life), it emphasises religion as it is, from its viewpoint, a sphere that mobilises people,” the human rights activist said. “In this regard, it inherits from the soviet past, complemented by current terroristic threats. Therefore, we have a special Committee for Religious Affairs and a separate law on religious activity, and religious associations stand out in the Civil Code among other public associations, while religious literature is being censored (it cannot be disseminated without a theological examination).”

The second factor is competition between dominating, “state-approved” religions and minorities, as well as proselytism (the aspiration to proselyte others).

“It is expected that all Slavs are members of the ROC (Russian Orthodox Church), while all Muslims obey the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK). When many neo-Christian churches emerged and representatives of the titular ethnic group joined them, it was a tense situation. And dominating religions started to spur the state into action: as if saying ‘don’t give a free hand to our competitors. And it indirectly pushes against religious minorities,” Evgeny Zhovtis said.

In this context, according to Zhovtis, we have the ‘stereotypes – biases – stigmatisation – discrimination’ chain.

“Negative attitude towards Jehovah’s Witnesses comes from the Russian Federation, where they are banned, and it creates particular background information,” the human rights defender said. “And this information protects from stereotypes, which could become neutral ones, and leads to stigmatisation and discrimination via biases fuelled on the media.”

Russia’s impact as a factor of public opinion

Authors of the research “Views, values and beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan”, sociologists Aldiyar Auezbek and Serik Beisembaev see Russian impact on the reputation of Kazakhstan-based Jehovah’s Witnesses. In April 2017, the Supreme Court of Russia declared the religious organisation “Management Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia” extremist, and banned activities of all 395 offices of the Centre in the territory of the neighbouring state.

“It could be one of the reasons why Jehovah’s Witnesses are taken cautiously in the society of Kazakhstan,” Aldiyar Auezbek said. “Moreover, Kazakhstan passed laws similar to the ones of Russia many times, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have a concern about their possible ban in our country.”

According to Serik Beisembaev, all non-mainstream religious organisations face restrictions in Kazakhstan. Control became tighter with the passing of the law “On religious activity and religious associations” following terrorist attacks of 2011 in Kazakhstan. The law introduced mandatory registration of religious associations, rules of dissemination of religious literature, holding meetings and other kinds of activity.

“Since then, the law is regularly amended, which makes life tougher for religious organisations,” Serik Beisembaev said. “The situation around Jehovah’s Witnesses worsens by the fact that they are banned in Russia and the propaganda targets them as a sect. This narrative comes to us as we live in the Russian-speaking media scene and what happens at neighbours has a strong impact on us.”

What can be done about it?

At least, Jehovah’s Witnesses try to cope with it. Thus, a social research of opinions and values of Jehovah’s witnesses prepared for the Regional Religious Association “Christian Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses” looks as a tool for the dialogue with the state and experts. Special attention is focused on the stereotypes about Jehovah’s witnesses, which make them a target of public reprimand, e.g., about rejection of former coreligionists, refusal of blood transfusion, and others.

“Independent researches about Jehovah’s Witnesses not only help understand their lifestyle and values, but also open an opportunity for a meaningful dialogue with the state (relevant ministry) and the society,” said Aldiyar Auezbek.

“I don’t think that Witnesses use the research to convince the state that they are good,” said Serik Beisembaev.

The goal, according to him, may be raising public awareness of their community: research community, media, regular citizens. The state is yet another stakeholder.

According to Beisembaev, the policy of non-participation restricts Witnesses in their public activity, yet they actively interact with relevant state bodies via lawyers, and thus try to get feedback.

“Their communication refers rather to specific cases,” Beisembaev said. “As far as I know, Witnesses try to respond immediately after media publishes some negative materials about them. They also ask the state to explain some norms to avoid claims or legal proceedings.”

What Jehovah’s Witnesses think about it

The Christian Centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan agree that they feel social stigma.

“Unfortunately, it is so. The media often stigmatise Jehovah’s Witnesses, and call us erroneously ‘a sect’ or ‘a cult’,” Department of Community Information of the Centre said and complained that journalists rarely ask information from them. “Such discriminatory terms, which are actually incite hatred in most cases, are generally borrowed from the Soviet anti-religious propaganda.”

According to Witnesses, materials in the media can stigmatise both directly and indirectly. For example, video materials can use frightening words, background music and voice tone that escalate the atmosphere of danger.

“The media, strangely enough, sometimes use images and videos of other religious groups to illustrate our activities,” the Centre said.

If one of Jehovah’s Witnesses (or just a person who has attended their religious meetings) is a participant of any trial, his/her religious affiliation would be emphasised in news items, regardless of its relevance, they said. If a patient, who is a Witness, wants to exercise his/her right to make choices about the type of medical care, the hospital’s press release may focus on the patient’s religious affiliation.

“There were cases when the administration of educational institutions was asked to report how many ‘students involved in destructive religious movements’ studied in the institution. Jehovah’s Witnesses were also on the list of such destructive movements,” the Centre said.

Another example of stigmatisation made by them was a video and leaflets about the missionary activity disseminated in Almaty in autumn 2023.  The leaflets, according to them, were distributed close to religious buildings of Jehovah’s Witnesses among people who leave Sunday service.

These materials seem to caution against illegal missionary activity (the one that is carried out without state approval), yet they discredit any missionary work instead (legal and illegal missionary work is mixed there so that no one can discern it). No religious movements are named in them, yet the video ends by listing negative stereotypes implying Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What Jehovah’s Witnesses do to overcome the stigma

According to them, they make “special efforts to raise awareness of the public, authorities, human rights activists, scholars, and the media about them and about the peaceful and legal nature of their activities.”  To do this, the republican centre of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Almaty opened a department of community information in 2019.

As part of their outreach activity, they mention Doors Open Days in their reply to CABAR.asia, namely 16 events in 14 towns of Kazakhstan (all dated 2018-2019).

“Several thousand people attended them,” the Centre said. “The events gave an opportunity to state officials, journalists and scholars, as well as the public at large, to learn about the history and activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan.”

One more method to overcome stigma is to cooperate with religious scholars. According to Witnesses, they “provide specific information readily upon request of religious scholars and sociologists, who use it afterwards in their academic researches.” They cited the research paper by Artur Artemyev about Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kazakhstan, which was published in three issues and translated into English and Kazakh.