By Ksenia Bondal
Evgenii Karimov of Almaty calls 114 for advice in August. [Ksenia Bondal]
ASTANA -- An Astana-based combination hotline and chat site (known as Hotline 114) is providing Kazakhstanis with answers to their questions about religion, as well as help if they have suffered from extremism.
Besides dialing 114 toll free, concerned citizens nationwide can reach out to a waiting counsellor at www.114.kz.
"A team of qualified experts work for the website," Yuliya Denisenko, director of the Astana-based Association of Centres for the Study of Religions, told Caravanserai. "The team includes two theologians, one psychologist, one psychotherapist and one religious studies scholar."
Help is available in Kazakh and Russian, she said, adding that the live online and phone consultations are available 10am to 7pm Monday through Friday.
Since 114 began operating in May, more than 3,000 individuals have visited the website and more than 160 phone calls have come in, she added.
"Most phone calls are complaints about violations of the Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations," she said.
The centre's specialists give religious and legal advice or cite resources for further help, she said, adding the specialists provide psychological support if needed.
Hotline 114 is a joint effort of the Religious Affairs and Civil Society Ministry and Denisenko's association.
The site operates thanks to funding from the Religious Affairs and Civil Society Ministry that is expected to last through 2020.
Hotline 114 could become a form of "first aid" for those who have suffered from extremists but do not know where to turn, said Anna Kudiyarova of Almaty, director of the country's Institute for Psychoanalysis.
"The people who come to our centre [her institute] aren't the ones who've joined cults but rather their relatives," she told Caravanserai. "It's painful for them when a daughter or sister turns from a happy, outgoing college student into someone who dresses all in black and talks to nobody. Or they had a friendly son, but he grew a beard and says it's time to throw out the family TV ... Cults cause marriages to break up and children to suffer."
"It's very handy when you have a simple 3-digit phone number that you can call when you've got difficult questions," Almaty resident Anna Prokopyeva told Caravanserai.
Kudiyarova urged a public awareness campaign to let more Kazakhstanis know about and use Hotline 114.
Kazakhstanis are striving to learn more about many subjects, including religion, Amanjol Urazbayev, director of the Astana-based NGO Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) of Kazakhstan, told Caravanserai.
However, all manner of cults and movements strive to fill the breach, he said, noting that such behaviour makes it critical for competent specialists to give advice to those in need.
"Hotline 114 not only informs but provides advice," he said. "Specialists ... can provide information to journalists and other interested citizens."
The CTC has its own avenues for interaction with the public. Plenty of warnings from the public reach the CTC via WhatsApp and the CTC website.
"Based on individual messages from Kazakhstanis, we can state that their intolerance of extremism is rising," he said. "Concerned citizens are coming to understand that by reporting crimes in the making, they're saving lives."
With the 'Islamic State' on the verge of defeat, Kazakhstanis who joined the group are likely to begin returning home, where they will face anti-terrorism measures.
Popular support in Central Asia for Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East and beyond is waning.