Geography and politics combined to make Kazakhstan the diverse, polyglot nation it is today. The spread of its varied landscape from Asia to Europe attracted both nomads and farmers, and punitive or paranoid Soviet policies snatched whole ethnic groups from their homelands and cast them across the steppe.
The Kazakhstan that emerged over the years is a mosaic of languages, ethnicities, nations and religions, and has sought since independence to ensure harmony among the peoples that call it home.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev felt the need to promote greater understanding among global religions and bring religious leaders together under one roof. In 2003, he convened the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which has since become a prominent triennial platform for interfaith dialogue.
“Today, the ancient Kazakh land has the great honor of inviting leaders and high-ranking representatives of world and traditional religions from all over the globe for dialogue between civilizations and religions,” Nazarbayev said at the first Congress. There, religious leaders, sitting side by side, pledged to jointly address common threats and to start a peaceful discourse based on mutual trust, harmony and unity.
The participants of the Congress made a joint statement condemning extremism, terrorism, violence and other malefactions that hide behind religion.They also voted to hold the Congress on a regular basis and decided to create its working body – the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Kazakhstan, having initiated the summit, was recognized by participants as a state that sought, and by and large achieved, social and religious harmony and unity.
Kazakhstan’s global interfaith initiative stems from its domestic experience as a hub of different confessions. Absattar Derbisali, the former supreme mufti and chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan, said, “As you know, Kazakhstan is a model of interreligious harmony and consent. More than 80 percent of the population is connected with the culture of Islam and the rest belong to other faiths. All of them, regardless of religious affiliation, show sincere respect and tolerance for other faiths. So the atmosphere of creation, tolerance and harmony is established in our blessed land.”
Today’s Kazakhstan is a product of the strong spiritual heritage of different ethnic groups and a wealth of religious beliefs. The creation of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan in March 1995 was a momentous decision for the young country. The assembly plays an important role in maintaining the country’s unique model of interethnic and interreligious harmony and ensuring that every citizen, regardless of ethnicity or religion, has and enjoys the human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the country’s Constitution. It is strategically important in avoiding conflict between different ethnicities and religious beliefs in the country.
“As a result of various historical processes, Kazakhstan … is a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multiconfessional state. Finding itself at the axis of civilizations, Kazakhstan plays a prominent role in bringing together East and West, Europe and Asia, uniting people from diverse cultures and religions. It is nnot for nothing that Kazakhstan is called the ‘crossroads of civilizations,’” said Metropolit an Mefodi, former head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Astana and Almaty. “Today, thanks to the care taken by the government, more than 3,000 religious organizations representing over 40 confessions operate in the country. Not every country can speak of such diversity. Mosques, churches and monasteries are being built or reconstructed at the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.”
The government strives to provide all necessary conditions for the development of cultures, languages and traditions of all ethnic groups living in the country. Currently, more than 800 ethno-cultural associations, 28 of them on the national scale, operate in Kazakhstan. The Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and Orthodox Christmas are national holidays in Kazakhstan. Currently, 384 missionaries from more than 20 foreign countries are working in Kazakhstan. In 1990, there were only 12.
Archbishop Alexi of Astana and Almaty, the former head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan, said “President Nazarbayev deeply understands how important it is for a multi-ethnic state, which is also multi-faith, to build respect and mutual trust between the representatives of all religions and of all nationalities. … He likes to say, just like our Kazakh eagle has two wings, our Kazakh society has two spiritual pillars – Islam and the Orthodox Church. The President finds time to meet with me and with the clergy of other faiths.”
Kazakhstan, having found a harmonious path of development, has considerable moral authority to raise issues of peace, harmony, mutual understanding and cooperation among the countries, peoples and faiths at the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In effect, the Congress is a broader attempt at increasing understanding between peoples, a continuation of domestic politics into the outside world.
With every Congress, the number of participants grows. Addressing the President at the fourth Congress in 2012, Yona Metzger, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, expressed his gratitude for the event, thanking Nazarbayev for consistently bringing together religious leaders whose countries might not have open diplomatic relations. “Here, sitting at the same table, we can listen to each other to learn the views of others, to hear speeches that will bring us closer to each other.”
Salman Al-Hussaini Al-Haldvi, president of the Indian Muslim organization Jamaat-u-Shabab-e-Islam, said, “As an Asian country, and at the same time neighbouring Europe, Kazakhstan soaked up the good qualities of both continents, and has a culture and lifestyle of both hemispheres. … Holding the Congress here is a good omen. It is a platform to bring together believers and to find ways for suffering humanity.”
Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said, “During the meetings held at the Congress, we had opportunities to listen to each other, to destroy hostile stereotypes and learn more about the variety of ways in which we can accomplish divinely inspired action in our pluralistic society, and by which we learned to read our holy books from the point of view of religious reality.”
According to participants, the Congress, at its most basic level, calls for peace, justice, purity, patience and respect for all of humanity. However, terrorism, murder and trafficking in human beings, weapons and drugs under the guise of religion is still prevalent. The most recent example is the rise of the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The use of “Islamic” in their name, a slap in the face to peaceful Muslims around the world, contributes to Islamophobia and the misunderstanding of the religion of 1.57 billion people.
During the latest meeting of the Congress Secretariat in September 2014, the working group acknowledged the politicization of Islam. Yerzhan Mayamerov, Kazakhstan’s supreme mufti, declared that “all the leaders meeting here today have emphasized that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. That has even been underscored by representatives of Christian religions.”
In the era of globalization, any threat becomes much bigger than the sphere of influence of any one country, one religious leader or one head of state. And if the source of a threat is purposefully organized from the outside, no one state can destroy it at the root. In this situation, only reliable, trustworthy leaders who are followed by their people can instil confidence and can speak the truth. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which unites such authoritative leaders under one roof, is exactly the kind of institution designed to promote global peace.
President Nazarbayev emphasized the importance of such leadership, saying “Spiritual leaders, clergies of various faiths, have always been and still remain the champions of higher moral values at all times. That is why in these difficult times, religious leaders are entrusted with a special hope. Today, more than ever, there is a demand for the moral and humanist imperatives of religion. It is you, religious leaders, who can become guides for a revival of spirituality – the main condition for the harmonious development of the world. This is the higher objective of our Congress.”
Dina Aikenova, a doctoral candidate in political science from the L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University, added, “World history has specific examples and mistakes that teach us that mutual dialogue and cooperation magnify countries and peoples, while mistrust and hate destroy fragile peace. … Nowadays, in times of scientific and technical progress, it is time for achieving goals not only by force but via constructive dialogue. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions Leaders in Astana, the young capital of Kazakhstan, is one of the few world arenas to discuss hot topics and to find their solutions.”
The efforts of different states must be united in the struggle against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons, drug trafficking and its consequences and environmental destructions, among the list of far-reaching global ills.
The upcoming Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in June 2015 will again provide an opportunity for spiritual leaders from around the world to work together for the promotion of harmony and tolerance internationally.