October 26, 2011 / 8:03 AM / 7 years ago

Islamist group threatens Kazakhstan over religion law

* Kazakh leader says law to thwart radicalism, boost stability

* Hitherto unknown Islamist group says law must be repealed

* New law criticised by top Kazakh Muslim cleric

ALMATY, Oct 26 (Reuters) - A previously unknown Islamist group has threatened ex-Soviet Kazakhstan with violence unless it abolishes a new law that bans prayer rooms in state buildings in the mainly Muslim Central Asian nation, a U.S.-based online monitoring service said.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has run oil-rich Kazakhstan for 20 years, this month signed a new religion law which bans prayer rooms in state buildings and requires all missionaries to register with authorities every year.

The veteran leader and other senior Kazakh officials say the new law is aimed at stamping out Islamist militancy but it has been criticised by Kazakhstan’s top Muslim cleric and the West.

U.S.-based intelligence monitoring group SITE said a group calling itself Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) had issued an Arabic-subtitled video, dated Oct. 21. There was no independent confirmation of the authenticity of the video.

In the video four masked fighters with submachine guns and a grenade launcher are seen standing behind a fighter reading a speech in which he demands the Kazakh government abolish the law. He said the law bans prayers in state institutions and the wearing of headscarves.

The new Kazakh law on religious activity actually makes no mention of wearing headscarves.

“In the event you insist on your position then we will be forced to make a move against you,” said the fighter, whose face is also masked by a scarf.

“Know that the policy that you are following is the same that was applied in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; however, as you have seen, it only caused loss to those who exercised it,” he said in a reference to a string of “Arab Spring” revolutions that toppled long-serving dictators.

The threat from the hitherto unheard-of radical group appeared to be the first direct threat to Kazakh authorities after the adoption of the much-discussed law.

Nazarbayev, 71, has ruled Kazakhstan as a secular state since independence in 1991. Until this year, the country, whose 16.5 million population is 70 percent Muslim, had avoided the Islamist violence seen in other Central Asian states.

But a suicide bombing in May and the arrest in August of a group accused of a terrorist plot have raised concerns about growing militancy.

Nazarbayev said he believed the new law, signed on Oct. 13, would strengthen society’s religious tolerance.

“Peace and harmony in our multi-ethnic home are Kazakhstan’s most valuable patrimony,” he said at the time.

But the law has caused heated debate. Kazakhstan’s Supreme Mufti, Absattar Derbisali, has said the ban on prayer rooms in state buildings could anger pious Muslims and spur extremism.

Rights groups in the West and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have also raised concerns that the law could restrict religious freedom.

Among other measures to fight Islamist militancy, Kazakhstan has blocked access to scores of foreign Internet sites that it says propagate violence and incite religious hatred. (Reporting by Dmitry Solovyov, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)

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