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Kazakhstan: World Religious Leaders Meet For Forum

Metropolitan Filaret (left), the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus, meets with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev today in Astana ( PRAGUE, September 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A world religion forum is being held in the Kazakh capital, Astana, to discuss tolerance and religious freedom, bringing together laymen, churchmen, and clerics from 45 national delegations.

The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions taking place in Astana can be seen as a boost to Kazakhstan's image as a modern and tolerant state, capable of hosting culturally diverse spiritual leaders from many nations and systems of belief.

Before the congress got under way, presidential spokesman Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammad made a pointed reference to the impression Kazakhstan wants the world to draw from this event. He said holding the congress is possible thanks to Kazakhstan's political stability and religious openness.

Hare Krishna members told Forum 18 that local officials had described the group as a "terrorist" organization that aims to create a situation similar to Chechnya.

Mainstream Faiths Attend

The event is a colorful one, taking place in Astana's new Palace of Peace and Accord under tight security. It brings together representatives of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and other faiths.

In the September 12 opening session, the Bishop of Croydon in Britain, Nicholas Baines, pointed out the resurgence of religious belief in the modern scientific age.

"Twenty years ago, many people were promising the end of religion; the enlightenment project had worked its 'magic' and all 'superstitious nonsense' would naturally be forgotten as scientific rationalism took over the world," he said. "Well, such prophets of religious doom are now both confused and rather angry."

Rather than dying out, the bishop said, religion is recognized as one of the most important factors in human society. But he expressed regret that the greater prominence of religion has led it to be linked simplistically to current conflicts in the world.

This theme of religion and conflict was taken up by a number of speakers, one of them being Rabbi Jonah Metzger, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel. He noted that many terror groups claim to be acting for Islam.

"Al-Qaeda, [Osama] bin Laden, Hamas, Hizballah, and other groups that are absolutely terrorists declare that their terror is underpinned by religious grounds, and the question to Islamic leaders is 'why don't they stop this? Why they don't come out against it,'" he said.

Conflict In Religion's Name

One of the Congress's guests of honor, Sheikh Mansur al-Minhali, a special representative of the General Agency for Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, described the role of the congress as to dissociate religion from conflict.

"There are places where conflicts are waged in the name of religion and faith, wars are being inflamed under the pretext of religion, and all who want to do something hide behind religion and behind God, behind the quest for God," al-Minhali said. "In this lies the meaning of the [present] meeting of world and traditional leaders, that they correct this perception, and that they resist this tendency."

On this same theme, the president of the World Islamic University, Mahmud Ahmad Ghazi, said that for 14 centuries the Koran has been calling for a peaceful coexistence between people.

Speaking to the congress today, Kazakh President Nazarbaev urged the creation of an international center for the study of world cultures and religions. He said such a center could examine potential conflict areas involving religion, and he suggested Astana as the seat for the center.

Lesser-Known Faiths Face Problems

But not everything is quite as smooth in Kazakhstan as the Nazarbaev government could wish. While it is hosting religious leaders from around the world for discussions on religious freedom, Kazakhstan is being less than tolerant to several religious faiths on its own soil, notably the Hare Krishna, the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat revivalist group, and the Christian Baptist church.

A report carried by the Oslo-based Forum 18 organization for religious rights says the Hare Krishna are being harassed by the authorities, who are apparently trying to close down a commune near the commercial capital Almaty.

The group recently lost a Supreme Court appeal against a lower-court ruling confiscating two cottages that house the commune.

Hare Krishna members told Forum 18 that local officials had described the group as a "terrorist" organization that aims to create a situation similar to Chechnya.

The Baptists have been in trouble with the authorities over their policy of refusing to register their communities in any of the former Soviet republics.

Members of the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat revivalist group, a nonviolent movement set up in India in the 1920s, have been fined and placed under surveillance for what are called illegal missionary activities.