Kazakh Hare Krishna Followers Fear Eviction

ALMATY [March 23, 2007] - Hare Krishna followers in Kazakhstan fear eviction from their homes in a case human rights monitors say raises questions about religious tolerance in the Central Asian state.

Police raided the Hare Krishna village near the financial capital Almaty in November and knocked down part of it.

Hare Krishna, whose followers practise vegetarianism and yoga, said it feared devotees would be forced out of their homes en masse after the Supreme Court delivers a final ruling on the case as soon as Tuesday.

"We have been told the problem has nothing to do with religion, that it's just a legal problem," said Maxim Varfolomeyev, a Hare Krishna spokesman, on Wednesday.

"But this campaign obviously has religions undertones. We will lose our legal right to stay there."

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said November's demolition raised serious questions about religious freedom in Kazakhstan.

Varfolomeyev said the authorities, which plan to build a kindergarten on the site of the Hare Krishna settlement, had offered them an alternative plot of land in a remote area.

"Our current farm is 47.7 hectares and they are offering an allotment of just two hectares," he said. "It's in a desert area where we cannot grow vegetables and feed our cattle."

The mainly Muslim country recognised Hare Krishna, a form of Hinduism, as an official religious movement in 2002. Problems started last year when the authorities accused it of illegal land ownership.

Hare Krishna says it has applied several times to register its homes but its applications have been turned down.

The case is an embarrassment to President Nursultan Nazarbayev who promotes his nation as a land of tolerance and stability in the otherwise volatile Central Asian region.

Forum 18, a religious freedom campaign group, said in a statement this week the problems faced by Hare Krishna were "compatible with officials acting from hopes of personally benefiting from (their) property."

Acts of religious intolerance are rare in Kazakhstan, a mostly Muslim nation that is also home to a large Orthodox Christian community.

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