Using religion in Kazakhstan to find common bonds, ground

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Israel’s chief rabbis joined the pope, leading Sunni religious imam in Kazakhstan to urge for peaceful resolution of conflicts, international cooperation in facing climate change.

 KAZAKHSTAN PRESIDENT Kassym-Jomart Tokayev greets Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the congress. (photo credit: Nazarbayev Center)
KAZAKHSTAN PRESIDENT Kassym-Jomart Tokayev greets Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at the congress.
(photo credit: Nazarbayev Center)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan – In a sight not often seen, rabbis and imams, Catholic priests and Buddhist monks, Protestant ministers and Taoist daoshis, or priests, mingled together, in Kazakhstan’s young capital city of Astana last week.

They, along with civil activists from around the world, gathered at the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions held on September 14-15 to promote a unifying role for religious leaders in today’s divided world.

Presenting a united front against extremism in their final declaration, the leading religious figures called on world political leaders to “abandon aggressive and destructive rhetoric which leads to the destabilization of the world,” and asked them to cease conflicts and bloodshed.

“Extremism, radicalism, terrorism and all other forms of violence and wars, whatever their motivations and goals, have nothing to do with authentic religion and must be rejected in the strongest possible terms.”

Religious leaders

“Extremism, radicalism, terrorism and all other forms of violence and wars, whatever their motivations and goals, have nothing to do with authentic religion and must be rejected in the strongest possible terms,” they said in their final statement. “We strongly urge national governments and authorized international organizations to provide comprehensive assistance to all religious groups and ethnic communities that have been subjected to infringement of rights and violence by extremists and terrorists and as a result of wars and military conflicts.”

They urged religious leaders and prominent political figures to develop dialogues in “the name of friendship, solidarity and peaceful coexistence.”

 THE CLOSING session of the congress. (credit: Nazarbayev Center) THE CLOSING session of the congress. (credit: Nazarbayev Center)

The final declaration was scheduled to be distributed during the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, which is taking place this week in New York.

The origin of a religious, political dialogue in Kazakhstan

The congress, which, since its establishment in 2003 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been held every three years in the capital, has served as a gathering for global religious and political leaders to discuss their role in creating an atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance.

Nazarbayev initiated the congress in direct response to the rise in religious tensions and extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. He felt a critical need to create the opportunity for religious leaders to work together to prevent religion from being used to divide people, communities and nations.

This year the discussions included the role of leaders of world and traditional religions in the spiritual and social development of humanity in the post-pandemic period and in the struggle to combat climate change.

Participation in the congress, organized by the Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue, has grown from 17 delegations from 23 countries at the first congress to over 100 participants from 50 countries this year, including representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and other religions.

Who participated this year in Kazakhstan?

Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev participated in the event, as did several high-ranking religious leaders, including Israeli chief rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, Pope Francis, Egyptian Islamic scholar and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, considered the highest authority for Islamic jurisprudence, and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, all of whom spoke at the opening of the congress.

“We have collectively condemned both ‘power politics’ and ‘hate speech,’ which contribute to the mutual alienation of nations, the erosion of states and the degradation of international relations,” said Tokayev in his remarks at the closing of the congress.

“Today, as never before, it is vital to put to good use the peacemaking potential of religions, to unite the efforts of spiritual authorities in search of long-term stability,” he continued. 

“All faiths are based on humanistic ideals, recognition of the supreme value of human life, and the aspiration for peace and creation. These fundamental principles must be reflected not only in the spiritual sphere, but also in the socioeconomic development of states and international politics.”

He noted that one of the most important topics of discussion of this year’s congress was overcoming inequalities of all kinds since they are a source of national upheaval and global crises, and said it was urgent to search for ways to strike a balance between economic growth and spiritual and moral progress.

“I am convinced that religious leaders can and must insist on simultaneous and complementary spiritual and technological development,” he said.

Plenary sessions were held on the role of religions in strengthening spiritual and moral values in the modern world; the contribution of religious leaders and politicians in promoting global interreligious dialogue and peace, countering extremism, radicalism and terrorism; and – for the first time – a special session focused on the role of women’s contribution to the well-being and sustainable development of contemporary society, and the role of religious communities in supporting women’s social status.

Some participants applauded the inclusion of such a special session on women but also said they hoped that, at the next meeting in three years, there would be more equal representation, with more women religious leaders present at the central roundtable.

WHILE THE official sessions served as a forum to convey and share information on the role and contribution of religion to dialogue and action against extremism, perhaps the greater importance of such a gathering was the opportunity afforded to religious leaders to meet at a personal level outside the formal sessions, noted Lau, who met privately with both the pope and Tayeb.

Lau said there were some planned meetings with other Muslim leaders, but declined to give details or say whether those meeting would actually take place.

That more extreme religious leaders were not taking part in the discussion should not be seen as a failure of the forum, he said.

“This is not just a ‘performance,’” he said. “I can say without a doubt that the Muslim leaders who are here also have significant influence on many people. That there are other religious people [who are not here] with [a different kind of] influence on people does not mean that we have to give up.”

Religious leaders at the conferences have expressed their agreement that the world was created by God for all humanity to share, he said, and they are continuing to bring more religious leaders to the forum who push this message forward, he added.

Reflecting that message on the situation in Israel, Lau said that while he does not deny there are conflicts and tensions also among Jews, he believes there are more things connecting rather than dividing people.

“I always try to emphasize the positive, without sweeping the negative under the carpet,” he said.

Lau said he extended invitations to visit Israel to both Tokayev and the pope, and while the pope noted his physical difficulties would likely make such a visit impossible, Tokayev did not decline the invitation.

“This conference is an opportunity like no other to meet leading personalities,” Lau said. “If we can come out from here with a very clear statement that serves to connect between people and notes the fact that if you believe in one religion, that does not mean you have to hurt someone from another religion, then hopefully we will have succeeded with our objective.”

During the Soviet Communist regime, Kazakhstan’s expansive and desolate steppe grassland was used as the location for part of the Soviet Union’s gruesome gulag forced labor camp system, where millions of people died through starvation and torture between 1930 and 1960, including ethnic Germans and Russian dissidents.

Since gaining its independence after the downfall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Muslim-majority Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a role model for unity, dialogue and tolerance with religious freedom among its 100 different ethnic groups and 18 religious denominations.

Tokayev emphasized that as a crossroad of cultures with a long history of sacred places for many religions, Kazakhstan sees the spirit of tolerance and openness, and the principle of unity, as its fundamental patrimony to the world.

Who are the Jews of Kazakhstan?

ACCORDING TO the World Jewish Congress, some 3,300 Jews live in Kazakhstan, most of whom are Russian-speaking and identify with Russian culture. It identified approximately 2,000 as Bukharan and Tat, or Mountain Jews. The former capital, Almaty, is the main Jewish center, with smaller Jewish communities scattered in other cities.

Numbering about 150 people, the Jewish community in the new capital, Astana (until recently known as Nur-Sultan) – mostly ethnic Russians and some members of the international diplomatic corps – is minuscule, noted Chabad Rabbi Shmuel Karnaukh, originally from Odessa, who serves the community.

Coincidently, Chabad’s Beit Rachel synagogue – named after the mother of Kazakhstani-Israeli businessman and philanthropist Alexander Machkevitch, who funded it – celebrated its 18th anniversary during the convening of the congress of religious leaders.

The son of parents who escaped from Belarus and Lithuania in 1941, Machkevitch is a leading figure in the Jewish community, and seems to embody the spirit of religious pluralism the country promotes. He has helped support the construction not only of numerous synagogues in the country, but also of churches and mosques.

How one practices their faith and religion is inconsequential to him, he said.

“Now we have built a Jewish life here. We have built seven or eight synagogues. I really enjoy the opportunity to give to people the opportunity to find the way to talk to Hashem,” he said. “And, of course, because it is a Muslim country and there are many Christians here also... we help them, [too]. I help them build Christian churches and build mosques, because people who believe in God follow exactly the same rules, the same... moral platform.”

Indeed, he said, having so many leaders and representatives of different religions congregate in Astana for the congress allows the country to showcase the model of dialogue and respect that exists in Kazakhstan.

“We can have a dialogue which shows all people around the world that there is only one way to respect each other, to love each other, to help each other and to be together,” he said. “I believe all discussions and dialogues and meetings are always useful. The religious leaders are now stating and showing that there are no conflicts between religions.”

American Orthodox rabbi and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding Rabbi Marc Schneier, who is active in Jewish-Muslim dialogue and attended the congress, said people “are thirsting” for such a message of unity from their religious leaders.

He also noted the importance of the pope’s declaration against proselytizing, in his opening statement at the congress.

“Proselytizing was a cardinal tenet of Christianity, and for the pope to publicly call for an end to proselytizing... he is saying that there is no absolute truth when it comes to religion,” said Schneier, rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York. “That is a radical statement, and that was really a formula put forth today in this forum as to how we can bring about peace, reduce conflict and confrontation.

“So imagine if, in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox can take the position that... this is our belief system [but], nevertheless, we will choose not to impose our belief system, our way of life, on others. That is what the pope just said here, and it is remarkable.”

Israeli Ambassador to Kazakhstan Edwin Yabo Glusman noted that unlike diplomatic meetings, which often end in agreements for practical steps, the importance of a meeting of religious leaders is in its transmission of the message mutual respect among religions.

“The very fact of this meeting is very important: the fact that Israel chief rabbis, the senior Sunni religious leader, and the pope are all at the same place in this meeting is very important,” he said.

He noted that though a lot of attention has been given to the establishment of the Abraham Accords, Israel has enjoyed 30 years of very important diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian Muslim countries, such as Azerbaijan.

“They are Muslim Sunni countries, but... you see the variety of population in this area, and you find Christians from all denominations, Jews and others. So these countries are very important, and can work as a bridge to other countries or attempts [to connect with] others,” he said. “They have a... ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy that is not for one side over another. They have good relations with all countries, and that is good for Israel.”

Kazakhstan Ambassador to Israel Satybaldy Burshakov said that although it is not a political platform, the gathering of religious leaders at the conference – taking place at a time of turbulence and many conflicts, where religion is often used to support actions – and their joint plea to the world community for peace and peaceful resolution of conflicts hold great significance.

“This is a very hard time for this dialogue, and that is why religious leaders are here in Kazakhstan in this platform... in order to send this appeal to the political leaders,” he said.

Azza Karam, from Egypt, who serves as the secretary-general of Religions for Peace and is a professor of religion and development at Vrije University in Amsterdam, said she hopes the meeting will normalize the engagement and visibility of religious leaders from different faiths coming together.

“Religious leaders must work together, and we must work with women and youth. That is the mission I stand for, and I am hoping that by meeting together, they give a little bit of credibility to that mission and they [religious leaders] can hear it,” she said. “In a sense, these meetings create more of an obligation [for them to do something] and gently or not so gently enthuse people to work together. At least that is the hope.”

With the memories of the Holocaust and the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims, Jews and Muslims in Croatia feel a sense of duty and compulsion to work together to foster mutual understanding, respect and trust, said Mufti of Croatia Aziz Hasanovic. Religious leaders of both faiths attend ceremonies and events of each other’s communities, he said.

“Through these events, we support each other and strengthen our mutual [cooperation] in front of members of our communities, in order that they recognize the relevance of the message we spread,” he said.

“Jewish communities are our closest partners in understanding and promoting the awareness of Holocaust and also genocide in Srebrenica. We have very good relations. and are a good example of what is possible when there is dialogue.”

But they don’t like to use the term “coexistence,” he said. Rather, they just say “life.”

“We are living together,” said Hasanovic. “That is something we from Croatia promote and would like to share with the whole world.”

The writer was a guest of the Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Intercivilization Dialogue.