SELEKSIA, Kazakhstan — 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. The land, they say, was not legally registered and the homes were purchased from people who did not hold proper title. The Kazakh courts have ruled that the property belongs to the local administration.
“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, it will be absurd.”
Human rights advocates say the demolitions may be motivated both by religious bias and by hidden economic interests. Property values in the region have soared since the 1990s, and the area has become a choice location for Almaty residents seeking to buy country homes. The U.S. State Department noted in a report this year that a special commission convened to resolve the situation was still deliberating when the homes were destroyed in November.
“Many people in that village could be in the same situation as the Hare Krishna because their property deeds are not perfect, but they are not targeted. The target is the Hare Krishna,” said Ninel Fokina, head of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “Someone gave an order to get that community out.”
Kazakhstan’s ombudsman, Bolat Baikadamov, said the destruction of homes is commonplace across the Almaty region because of the illegal privatization of land and houses. “Hundreds or maybe even thousands of houses were demolished,” he said.
Local officials, who Baikadamov said could provide lists of homes destroyed within the locality, declined to comment. In Seleksia, there appeared to be only one demolished house that was not currently owned by a Hare Krishna, and that house had recently been sold by a member of the religious community.
Fokina and the Hare Krishna community dispute that there has been any major leveling of homes outside Seleksia. “There is an unofficial policy to push out a non-mainstream, religious group,” said Maxim Varfolomeev, a spokesman for the Hare Krishna community in Seleksia.
The group numbers about 30 in the village, down from about 100 because people who lost homes were forced to leave. “This is religious discrimination,” Varfolomeev said.
On a recent morning, more than a dozen devotees chanted mantras in what had been the living room of the farmhouse. Kazakh officials said the early morning prayers disturb non-Krishna neighbors, but the service was not audible outside the farmhouse. Officials also said the Krishna devotees wash their cows in a nearby pond where local children swim, an accusation denied by members of the Krishna community.
“We have very good relations with our neighbors,” Varfolomeev said.
In interviews in the village, no one expressed any objections to the presence of the Krishna community. “They’re very quiet people,” Chakin Tolubev said. “To be honest, the problem is that [the authorities] just want to get rid of them.”
Tugzhanov, the Religious Affairs head, objects to such accusations. He said the central government has offered the Krishna community several sites where they could relocate. “All religious groups and organizations in Kazakhstan are equal before the law and that is why we continue to work with them,” he said. “We have offered a number of alternatives, but they keep saying no.”
He also said 16 Krishna homes in Seleksia have been legalized and will not be touched. “If it had not been for this, you could say that we are persecuting them for their religion,” he said. “But this is a question of the law and everyone being equal before the law.”
Varfolomeev, the Hare Krishna spokesman, said none of the proposed relocation sites compares to the pastoral setting where the community is currently located, and so people insist on staying.
The community, he said, now fears that the authorities will destroy the temple. That is a step that the government appears reluctant to take. It would likely sink whatever remaining chance Kazakhstan has of chairing the OSCE.