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Kazakhstan: Nazarbaev Courted By Rabbis To Spearhead Jewish-Islamic Dialogue

  • Antoine Blua

Participants in a conference of rabbis recently asked Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to spearhead a global Jewish-Muslim dialogue. A closer look at relations between the Kazakh leader and the Jewish community shows that the move is not as surprising as it may first appear.

Prague, 30 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Eurasian Jewish Congress was created earlier this year to encompass the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, along with Japan, China, and the Pacific island countries.

Some 2.3 million Jews -- active in 1,500 organizations -- are estimated to live in the region, most of them in the former Soviet Union.

According to Israel's "Ha'aretz" daily newspaper, the Eurasian Jewish Congress, which brings together 28 countries, changes the balance in the Jewish world, which had previously included only Israel and American Jewry.

The establishment of a global dialogue between Jewish and Muslim communities is at the top of the congress's agenda. The objective is to show that despite the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Judaism and Islam are not at war.

The Eurasian Jewish Congress last week set up a rabbinical conference in Kazakhstan to discuss the organization of such a dialogue and to officially ask Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to head the initiative. Nazarbaev agreed.

Aleksandr Mashkevich, chairman of the Eurasian Jewish Congress, spoke to journalists last week in the capital, Astana. "Today, at the newly organized Eurasian Council of Rabbis, including rabbis from 28 countries, the most authoritative rabbis from all over the world asked Nursultan Abishevich Nazarbaev to head the world's Jewish-Muslim dialogue," Mashkevich said.

According to Mashkevich -- a billionaire businessman who is considered close to the Kazakh president -- all participating rabbis agreed that Nazarbaev enjoys what he called a "unique combination," i.e., he is respected both in the Muslim world and among Jewish organizations. "When Mr. Aba Dunner, secretary-general of the Conference of European Rabbis, offered this to President Nazarbaev, he said that President Nazarbaev is very influential in the Islamic countries. [He added] that he has very good relations with leaders of Islamic countries and [that] they trust him. At the same time, he has authority among the world's Jewish people. The world Jewish community trusts him," Mashkevich said.

The World Jewish Congress, an international federation of Jewish communities and organizations based in New York and Jerusalem, recently recognized Kazakhstan as an example of a Muslim country in which many religious and ethnic communities coexist peacefully.

Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem, told RFE/RL that Nazarbaev has good relations with Kazakhstan's Jewish community, which he says is permitted to worship freely. For this reason, he said it is not unusual for Nazarbaev to be offered a prominent role in the Jewish-Muslim dialogue initiative.

Beker stressed that relations between Jews and Muslims are generally positive in the other Central Asian countries, too. "Jewish communities are living in [Central Asian] countries which are practically Muslim. This is a reality, which we don't have in the Middle East. There are very close day-to-day relations between the communities. And there are meetings also between the religious leaders of these communities. We regard the Eurasian congress as a bridge which can bring us together today -- Jewish communities and communities from the Islamic world," Beker said.

Beker noted that about 18,000 Jews are registered in Uzbekistan, 15,000 in Kazakhstan, 3,500 in Kyrgyzstan, 1,500 in Tajikistan, and 700 in Turkmenistan. He said some 12,000 Jews from Kazakhstan emigrated and are currently living in Israel.

Beker said he believes the secular states of Central Asia can serve as a bridge between the world's Muslim and Jewish communities.

Herb Keinon, the diplomatic correspondent for the "Jerusalem Post" who attended the rabbinical conference, told RFE/RL that Kazakhstan might also serve as an effective channel of communication between Israel and Iran, which is believed to have a 30,000-strong Jewish population. "Israel, of course, does not have relations with Iran, but it definitely has some interests in Iran, one of which is the well-being of the Jewish community there. The question has always been how to communicate with Iran: Who do you send messages to through Iran and vice versa. And I think what developed to a certain extent is that Kazakhstan might be one channel of communication to Iran because Kazakhstan does have ties with Iran. It's close to Iran," Keinon said.

Keinon said Nazarbaev assured the rabbinical delegation that he will continue to raise with Iranian leaders the issue of Jewish prisoners incarcerated in Iran. He also noted that Israel turned to Kazakhstan a few months ago for help in obtaining information from Iran on a missing Israeli Air Force pilot, Captain Ron Arad, who crashed in Lebanon in 1986 during a combat mission. "I know that a few months ago, Israel passed on some information about the missing airman Ron Arad, who Israel believes may be being held in Iran, to the Kazakhstanis, hoping that then they would pass it on to the Iranians. Through these kinds of avenues, Israel is trying to look out for what it considers its interests in Iran," Keinon said.

Kazakhstan also has acted on behalf of 10 Iranian Jews convicted of espionage in 1999. Three of them were pardoned by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami last week. In 1999, Israel's chief rabbi, Yisroel Lau, had asked Nazarbaev for help in the case, saying, "We know that you have influence on the leaders of Iran, and we are aware of your personal friendship with President Khatami and with the heads of the Iranian religious establishment."

Felix Corley, however, doubts whether the Jewish-Muslim dialogue initiative is going to bring more tolerance in the world. Corley is the editor of Keston News Service, which covers religious-freedom issues in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe.

He told RFE/RL that it may instead be a signal that the Jewish community is favored by the Kazakh government and that local officials are not likely to harass the Jewish community. "The Jewish community is obviously drawing attention to the fact that it is possible to have a country with a large Muslim population which tolerates religious minorities, both Jewish and non-Jewish. And I think the Jewish community has decided for tactical reasons that it wants to highlight a country, and it has picked on Kazakhstan, partly correctly. But if that glosses over moves to crack down on religious freedom, then that would be a matter of concern to people who wished to see the country develop as a place of religious tolerance," Corley said.

According to Corley, it is not fair to call Kazakhstan, where people with Muslim backgrounds make up only half the population, a Muslim country. Furthermore, he added, it would be stretching things to say that Nazarbaev is a great advocate of religious freedom. "It's very difficult to tell what this means. I suspect that it's a way for President Nazarbaev to gain favor in the United States, where there's a large community of very active Jews who watch the situation of their own community in other countries of the world," Corley said.

Corley noted that Nazarbaev seeks the assistance of Jews in advancing his country's interests in the United States and has taken steps in the past to build bridges to the Jewish community in the United States.

Nazarbaev, for instance, personally apologized to the Hasidic community in 1999 for the arrest and exile in Soviet Kazakhstan of Levy Yitzhak Schneerson, the father of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Nazarbaev also handed over Schneerson's KGB file to the Hasidic community. (Merkhat Sharipzhanov of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)