The spread of religious extremism threatens stability in mainly Muslim Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said on Thursday, urging parliament to adopt tougher laws on migration and religious activity. Oil-producing Kazakhstan, Central Asia's largest and most successful economy, has only recently witnessed outbursts of militant Islam experienced by other former Soviet states in the vast region bordering Afghanistan.

In a rare official admission, Kazakh prosecutors in the western Atyrau region said on Wednesday a group of extremists planning "acts of terror" had been detained.

"The parliament has to consider adopting a law on religious activity," Nazarbayev told a session of parliament, which is composed solely of deputies of his ruling Nur Otan Party.

"The talk is not about banning the freedom of conscience. No. It is about protecting the state from religious extremism."

Muslims make up 70 percent of Kazakhstan's 16.5-million population, and Nazarbayev said Kazakhstan had to tighten control over its borders. He did not mention any specific countries which may pose a threat.

"Whoever wants may come here, whoever wants may open a mosque and name it after his father. No one knows what these mosques are really doing, no one has approved (their opening)," he said. "But, as a state, we should put our home in order."

Radical Islam, fuelled by widespread poverty, is on the rise in the fertile but overpopulated Ferghana Valley where former Soviet Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan share borders.

Official repression further inflames popular discontent in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while ethnic riots in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010 temporarily displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Nazarbayev, whose steppe nation is a major exporter of grain and flour, said he shared concerns by the United Nations that food shortages in the surrounding region could increase the risk of illegal migration, epidemics and "other conflicts".

A 71-year-old former steelworker who in Soviet days rose to prominence through the Communist Party, Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for more than two decades and says preserving stability in his multi-ethnic nation is his main achievement.

He has put in place rapid market reforms and attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment, mainly in the energy and metals sectors.

But at the same time human rights groups and the West have criticised Kazakhstan's record on democracy, pointing to rigid state control of the media and little tolerance of dissent. (Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)

Reuters,01 Sep 2011 07:07