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Kazakhstan: Astana Convenes Religious Dialogue Congress

  • Don Hill

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev this week convened an ambitious congress, a "Dialogue of Confessions," in the capital Astana. His government's Information Agency says proudly that 17 world faiths and denominations are taking part in the discussions.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- By all appearances, Nursultan Nazarbaev, president of independent Kazakhstan since 1991, is on a campaign to woo the world at home and abroad.

In the campaign's latest move, he convened this week in the capital Astana an international, interfaith congress he has named a "Dialogue of Confessions." He appointed himself chairman of the congress.

Opening the sessions, he proposed repeating the event on a regular basis. "I am addressing you, representatives of the world's religions and confessions with a proposal. Let us hold a dialogue of religions on a regular basis."

The conference's elaborate website lists participants from 17 world faiths and denominations. It says the goal of the conference is, in the statement's words: "to develop interconfessional dialogue [and] consolidate peace and confidence."

Participants in the gathering appear to have a range of views as to its meaning. Kazakhstan's Roman Catholic Archbishop Tomash Peta wrote, "The Astana meeting is of great importance [in forming] a bridge between East and West." Rabbi Elkhanan Kogan of Almaty said, "The deep meaning of the forum is antiterrorism."

Coincidental with the congress, Nazarbaev announced plans to create a multi-faith temple in Astana -- what he called a "house of all confessions."

"Preparations for this forum made me think about construction of a cathedral of nations in our capital. There will be a mosque, a church, a synagogue, and a Buddhist temple. Also Kazakhstan's Assembly of Peoples will be situated here, as well as all the ethnic cultural centers," Nazarbaev said.

Kazinform, the Kazakh Information Agency, said construction will start "in the near future."

Kazakhstan is an interesting place to hold such an interfaith conference. Although 80 percent of ethnic Kazakhs consider themselves nominally Muslim, many also describe themselves as nonbelievers. Russian Orthodoxy is the second faith. Roman Catholics are growing in numbers, and several evangelical Christian denominations have been proselytizing eagerly since the early 1990s

Nazarbaev was the country's leading communist at the time of the Soviet breakup and became independent Kazakhstan's first president in 1991. By the mid-1990s, he had consolidated his political control of the nation. Accusations of autocracy, electoral manipulation, and corruption have tarnished his international image since.

Still, by the standards of Central Asia, Nazarbaev's Kazakhstan is relatively tolerant. The U.S. Department of State, in its 2002 International Religious Freedom Report, says that in Kazakhstan relationships among religions are generally amicable and contribute to religious freedom.

The Religious Freedom Report says also that the government's concern over security threats from religious extremists have led it to encourage local officials to limit religious practices of some nontraditional groups.

An independent journalist in Kazakhstan, Yuliana Zhikhor, writing yesterday for the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, said that Kazakh police mounted a strong-arm clean-up campaign in preparation for this week's conference.

She wrote that over 10 days beginning on 3 September, Kazakh police found about 250 people in violation of immigration rules -- a few from China and Turkey but most migrant workers from Uzbekistan and other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States. She quoted a student from Pakistan, in Astana for a friend's wedding, as saying that during his brief visit, police continuously checked his papers on the street. One policeman called him a Wahhabi, a member of a fundamentalist Islamic sect, and advised him to shave his beard.

The congress's organizers say it has its roots in the visit of Pope John Paul II to Kazakhstan two years ago. The congress's agenda calls for the participants to close today by approving a conference report.

(RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier assisted with this report.)