By Ksenia Bondal
ASTANA -- Interest in studying religion abroad is declining among Kazakhstani citizens, says the government.
Although the Religious Affairs and Civil Society Ministry and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan have no firm statistics, they are perceiving a reduction.
If it turns out to be true, authorities in Astana would generally welcome the news, given their inability to prevent radicalisation among Kazakhstani citizens who encounter extremist proselytisers abroad.
Some parents in Kazakhstan still try to send their children abroad, but outreach by the government is making Kazakhstanis think twice about the risks.
The story of Astana residents Gulnara N. and her spouse, who are raising 12- and 14-year-old sons, speaks to both sides of the issue.
Family life has become gloomier for Gulnara since her devout husband, Ali N., in April 2016 expressed his intention of sending their sons to Egypt for religious study.
"I am categorically against sending them abroad to study, especially in Egypt," she told Caravanserai. "How will this turn out for our boys?"
However, her spouse is taking a stand. He has even threatened to file for divorce if she does not agree to send the children to Egypt and to have a court take away her parental rights.
"I don't understand why people wish to send children abroad," she said. "Our country has ... free education in religious studies. We need to wait till they grow up."
Caravanserai recently reported about reasons why some Kazakhstanis seek religious education abroad.
Officials say fewer than 300 Kazakhstanis are receiving an Islamic education abroad. Most are studying in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Degree programmes in those schools last, on average, four or five years. Majors include Koranic studies, Sharia and Fiqh, intensive Arabic and others.
However, the number of Kazakhstanis going abroad for religious education is shrinking, Aliya Abeldinova, deputy chairwoman of the government's Committee for Religious Affairs (KDR), told Caravanserai, though she gave no specific figures.
The decrease stems from awareness raising conducted by the Religious Affairs and Civil Society Ministry, she said.
The ministry and other government agencies regularly explain to the public that studying religion abroad entails risks because extremist movements operate in various countries, she said.
Kazakhstani lawmakers are working on a bill to reduce the number of Kazakhstanis who may go abroad for a religious education.
In addition, the social and political situation in some Middle Eastern countries is deteriorating, said Abeldinova, citing that problem as another disincentive to studying abroad.
"It is very important that all who want can receive a basic religious education in [Kazakhstan] in accordance with programmes developed by the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society," Baktybai Beisenbayev of Almaty, DUMK's chief of religious education and training for personnel, told Caravanserai. "After the [basic] education, if the desire exists, they can continue studying abroad."
In Kazakhstan, future clerics receive an education in nine seminaries, and those seeking higher religious education can attend Almaty-based Egyptian University of Islamic Culture "Nur-Mubarak".
An Almaty-based Islamic institute provides advanced training for imams, and two schools in Akmola Province teach students to recite the Koran by heart.
To further encourage Kazakhstanis seeking religious education to stay home, Kazakhstan "does not give out scholarships to citizens obtaining religious education abroad", said Abeldinova.
DUMK, instead, has awarded scholarships to those who attend Kazakhstani religious institutions.
Graduate and undergraduate students at Egyptian University of Islamic Culture "Nur-Mubarak" received 198 government scholarships in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to Today.kz. Those attending Kazakhstani seminaries received 175 scholarships in the same period.