Kazakhstani officials investigate kindergartens violating religious education law

By Ksenia Bondal

Children and their parents visit an Almaty playground April 8. [Ksenia Bondal]

Children and their parents visit an Almaty playground April 8. [Ksenia Bondal]

ALMATY -- Kazakhstani officials have been alerted to several kindergartens in Atyrau Province that appear to be violating legislation banning religious teachings in early education.

At least five kindergartens in the province are breaking Kazakhstan's law "On Religious Activity and Religious Organisations", Kayrolla Koshkaliyev, head of the Atyrau Province Religious Affairs Administration, told Caravanserai.

"These kindergartens reject our state programme on public education," he said, citing his own sources.

"They eliminate lessons on singing, drawing and making objects out of clay. They ignore our national traditions. [Instead] they teach Koran recitation."

Investigating the case

Koshkaliyev began investigating the case in January and talked to residents in Atyrau City who, he said, confirmed the fears expressed by the Religious Affairs Administration.

A local journalist told Koshkaliyev that one such kindergarten was operating on his street. The fathers who bring their children to the school have beards and wear short pants, while the mothers are covered up in conservative Muslim clothing.

"The teachers are exactly the same kind of people," said Koshkaliyev. "They wear nothing but religious clothes."

Unfortunately, all government agencies in Kazakhstan -- including the provincial educational agency -- lack the authority to inspect kindergartens, he said.

Koshkaliyev called the situation "very dangerous".

"These children will graduate from these schools later and there is a risk of them absorbing non-traditional religious views," he said.

On January 30, Koshkaliyev wrote to the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs to express his concerns.

"I've started to receive phone calls from the [provincial] prosecutor's office and the [provincial] police department," he said. "They're interested in all my information."

The authorities asked Koshkaliyev if he was afraid to make such statements. "I told them that I am not afraid and am even happy that it has gotten the attention of the authorities," he said. "I can't keep silent."

Meanwhile, Koshkaliyev's agency is figuring out how many privately run kindergartens operate in Atyrau Province.

Licensing kindergartens in Kazakhstan

When Caravanserai sought comment from the Ministry of Religious and Civil Society Affairs, an official there said that the kindergarten issue lies under the jurisdiction of the Education and Science Ministry.

The loophole that exists today -- the total absence of inspections of kindergartens -- dates back to a presidential directive of April 17, 2011, Education and Science Ministry spokesman Arman Junusov told Caravanserai.

At the time, President Nursultan Nazarbayev was seeking to encourage the development of Kazakhstani businesses by removing red tape, he said. As a result, Kazakhstani kindergartens are exempt from licensing requirements.

"According to the National Education Database, Kazakhstan has 9,828 [kindergartens]. More than 30% of them -- 3,058 -- are privately run," Junusov said.

Kindergartens can be big business, with both parents and the government paying per child.

Every month, the government pays kindergartens 35,000 KZT ($110) per child enrolled, regardless of whether the kindergarten is public or private. The parents pay the rest, about 15,000 KZT ($47), per month, Koshkaliyev said.

"The state itself is paying for the work of [offending] kindergartens, which could be developing extremist characteristics in children," he said.

Reform is no simple matter.

A public discussion is required to reinstate the previous ability of the government to regulate kindergartens and other children's facilities, Junusov said.

Protecting children's rights

Work with children is too sensitive a matter to be left unwatched, Talgat Kaliyev, an Almaty-based political analyst, told Caravanserai.

Children and adolescents need the protection of their rights more than anyone else does, he said.

"Because of their lack of life experience, knowledge and ability to think critically, they are vulnerable to any form of manipulation or informational influence," he said. "That's why licensing this kind of activity seems justified to me."

Members of non-traditional movements are competing for hearts and minds, and their assets are followers, he said, adding that it is probably easier to raise children to embrace those movements' views rather than trying to radicalise adults.

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