Religious leaders discuss faith, peace in Jerusalem

The event was an offshoot of the Congress of World and Traditional Religions first held in 2003 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

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

Spiritual leaders of all faiths can be an influential force for harmony, mutual understanding, respect and peace, but they can also be the inciters of intolerance, hatred and conflict.

This is the understanding that emerged yesterday as spiritual leaders and other representatives and lay leaders of different faiths gathered at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel to share their views and to reaffirm their belief that, despite the obstacles, peace is possible.

The event was an offshoot of the Congress of World and Traditional Religions first held in 2003 in Astana Kazakhstan, during the administration of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the first elected president of the Republic of Kazakhstan after it gained  independence.

The congress is held every three years, with increasingly large attendance. At the previous conference in Astana in September 2022, attended by Israeli Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, there were than 100 delegations from more than  80 countries, plus 355 foreign journalists, said Kazakhstan’s Ambassador at Large Bulat Sarsenbayev. He has served in both Israel and Jordan, and is heavily involved in the planning and implementation of the congress, as is Kazakhstan’s current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.


Why did Kazakhstan take this role upon itself?

A cynic might say that it was a means whereby Nazarbayev sought to make Kazakhstan relevant, and it also helped Kazakhstan to draw closer to the West and to develop significant trade relations. Like many of the republics of Central Asia, Kazakhstan is rich in natural resources.According to Sarsenbayev, Kazakhstan has always been noted for its tolerance of and respect for the other. There are more than 130 ethnic groups practicing 18 different religions, he said. He reminded his listeners that, in ancient times, Kazakhstan had been famous for its silk road, used by many traders, who would spend considerable time in the country before moving on.

The Congress Secretariat, said Sarsenbayev, comprises religious leaders from 20 countries, who are already planning the 2025 Congress. “We have different approaches to start with, but we come to an agreement in the end, because all religions have similar human values,” he said.

Every speaker continued along a common thread, strung with words such as dialogue, understanding, harmony, fraternity, human values, social justice, moderation, tolerance – and peace, the ultimate aim. However, some also spoke of extremism, religious prejudice, hatred and new challenges that are emerging.

In the latter case, Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz, who is a member of the Chief Rabbinate, warned that one of the greatest of the new challenges is artificial intelligence. While acknowledging that it can do a lot of good, he also gave examples of the harm it can cause. Artificial Intelligence is changing the world, and must be controlled ethically, he insisted, urging rabbis, bishops and priests to speak out on the subject.

Weisz was at the congress in Astana last year, and said it was very impressive, with people of so many different faiths happily mingling together. There were representatives of faiths he’d never heard of, he said.As far as extremism and intolerance go, Theophilos III, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem, regretted that, although Jerusalem is characterized as the City of Peace, it is more often the city of conflict, in which Christians suffer persecution from Jewish extremists.

Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Baha’i speakers were careful to leave politics out of their remarks. Jewish speakers were not as cautious. For instance, Rabbi Yitzhak Elefant, who is Chief Rabbi of Dimona, after talking about what King David the psalmist wrote about peace, moved fast forward to the present time and said: “We must understand that the Lord promised this land to the Jewish People. Once we all accept that, we can live together in peace. True peace will bring true partnership,”

This was the kind of unilateral thinking that other speakers considered to be blocking the path of progress toward peace. More than one speaker opined that dialogue is mainly monologue, in which one side presents his or her viewpoint, but doesn’t listen to the other.

Israel was one of the first countries to instantly recognize Kazakhstan when it declared its independence in mid-December, 1991. The two countries established diplomatic relations in April, 1992. Israel opened an embassy in Kazakhstan in 1992 and Kazakhstan opened an embassy in Israel in 1996.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Kazakhstan in 2016. The first president of Israel to visit Kazakhstan was Chaim Herzog, in 1993. Shimon Peres went there first as foreign minister in 1995, then as deputy prime minister in 2002 and as president in 2009. Peres had a close relationship with Nazarbayev, who visited Israel in 1995, 2000 and 2013.  Together, the two laid the foundations for bilateral cooperation.