ASTANA – On April 24, the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK) held its anniversary meeting and representatives of more than 100 ethnic groups in the country attended it. The Astana Times interviewed Rabbi Yeshaya E. Cohen, head of the Jewish Center of Kazakhstan and chief rabbi of the Jewish Chabad Lubavitch congregation in the country. He is also the current chairman of the Euro-Asian Rabbinical Conference.
How do you find conditions for your congregation?
I will tell you a little secret. I am currently writing a book, the theme of which is “the golden roadmap of peace and reconciliation.” I have lived in Kazakhstan since 1994 and I am very delighted at how President Nursultan Nazarbayev and the government relate to all the different nationalities and different peoples here.
The results of such relations can be clearly seen. In fact, I am confident that many countries in the world should send representatives here and learn this.
How would you describe the efforts by the government to deal with religions here?
There is an issue that touches every citizen in any state: That is the question of security. Nobody wants to walk on the street, or take their children to kindergarten or school or go to the mall, and hear that there have been some bomb explosions. These are dangerous things, so how do we avoid them? Many people are trying to take religious passions, that thing which is most holy, most important, the thing that touches deep the soul of a person, faith and then they try to use it incorrectly.
Therefore the government faces the question of how to act when it comes to the issue of faith. One option is to say that fanatically held beliefs are dangerous, but therefore we can’t allow any religious activities. That is the same as saying, “Let us not use electricity,” or “Let’s not fly planes, because they are dangerous.” Even if you forbid people to believe in God, they will still do so.
However, there is another and better way. It starts by asking the question, “We know that religion has certain qualities and also dangers, so what will we do? There may be dangers but we cannot forbid anybody from believing, because it won’t work anyway and so let’s work together.” Here in Kazakhstan there is a good foundation for such thinking.
Imagine a bucket of honey, and around it there is a snake. Leaving the snake is dangerous. Breaking the bucket is a waste. So how do you keep the benefit and get rid of the danger? There were people who tried to break the bucket. For them, the honey is of no importance. They want to save their lives. But others say don’t do it, because we will lose so much. The best approach is to take away the danger and keep the bucket. We need the bucket.
That is what is happening in Kazakhstan. I think that any citizen of Kazakhstan can see the great respect that Kazakhstan gives to religion, starting from the average citizen all the way to the president who continuously upholds and strengthens the Kazakh traditions of solidarity, respect for others and respect for any person who is a believer. If anyone believes righteously in this country, then there is full support for it. I can see that when a person believes in God, the people of Kazakhstan respect it. But, on the other hand let’s not make this a danger.
What is your overall view of relations between various ethnic groups and religions in Kazakhstan?
An opportunity has been created in this country for all religious people to express themselves and they have all been given every opportunity to practice their faiths. But this is on the condition that the practice of their faith forbids the use of any terror.
There are many conferences that are based on interfaith relations in this country but this subject has very deep issues. When creating something, we should not confuse people by saying there is a new religion that includes all religions. I cannot explain all of this in one interview but I am writing a book about how freedom of religion and the principles of mutual toleration are upheld in Kazakhstan. I think the experience of Kazakhstan will really be of benefit for the entire world.
How to keep the bucket and get rid of the snake: In practice this can all seen here. The people are educated and raised in a manner that they respect each other. There are more than 100 nationalities here and everybody lives peacefully together. Firstly, this is thanks to the Kazakh people themselves, they were raised that way with their mother’s milk. However, of course, things could be different if this wasn’t the top priority on the agenda of the government and the president.
Everybody today has the possibility to be poisoned by bad influences. Giving the people the ability to use the honey but not letting the danger of the snake as well remains a pressing issue for us all. For me, the continuing success of President Nazarbayev’s policies was confirmed by the speech he gave on April 24 at the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan. I could see the same things that he talked about in 1994. There is a saying that politicians say one thing, do another and think something else. But I see, as a person who has lived in Kazakhstan for many years, with my own eyes, that everything President Nazarbayev says he has done for so many years already. Moreover, his commitment to upholding these good and wise policies is not becoming weaker, but getting stronger.
There is a risk that when you bring representatives of all religions together you can get confused and think that it is one big house. One entrance will be called a synagogue, another will be called a mosque and a third will be called something else. No, let everybody pray the way they pray so that people do not become confused that they are caught up in something new. But everybody has to be transparent. If you are honest about your intentions we will respect you, if you hide something then it becomes scary. Therefore, this transparency is very useful.
Many people are surprised because this is the only country where the government is directly involved in cross-religious dialogue. I have been to many interfaith conferences that are held by very serious organisations but the governments only support these activities and are not directly involved.
When people ask what the most important thing is, I say it is security. If there is no security, who can give the microphone to religious leaders who will be transparent and say they are against any sort of terrorism? Calling on everybody to peace and understanding, why not? So on the one hand, you have the government dealing with religion but it is still being kept separate. This is right: You have to respect religions but you also have to be careful that there isn’t some sort of snake trying to hide in them. It is something to wonder, something to see, and because I see it myself, I have started to write my book.
In 2001, you testified at a US Congress hearing about the need to repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment regarding Kazakhstan? Twelve years on and 22 years after the Soviet Union collapsed it is still there. What do you think about it today?
For a person who lives here in Kazakhstan, I see firsthand the hundreds of thousands whose lives were saved during World War II. Not only from the Soviet Union, but also from Poland and other countries across Europe, hundreds of thousands of people survived here. There was a time when all these people came here during and after the war and the Kazakh people shared their bread and support so that for God’s sake they did not die. And this was not only then, it is in the Kazakh people themselves, they are raised in such a way.
I think anybody who comes to Kazakhstan can notice it. Here in Kazakhstan there is an opportunity for anybody who is transparent and honest to practice their religion. For me it is really disappointing and a great shame that for this Kazakhstan in which I live, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment has not been repealed. And I don’t understand why not.
When I meet people, everybody agrees that it should be gone. The issue has been postponed but I am confident that it must be resolved. Today, Kazakhstan does not even need the law to be repealed because there are many ways around it, nothing stays the same. Thank God, Kazakhstan will continue to develop with or without the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. But I think the wonderful people of this country deserve its repeal, and President Nazarbayev deserves its repeal. So I will use any opportunity to ask the people who can really repeal the law in the United States Congress to do so, once and for all.
Do you have any other message for our readers?
I wish your readers well. When a person picks up a newspaper, he unconsciously finds things that are sad, not very nice things that happen. And I wish that there comes a time when your readers can read, or hear about things that are positive, specifically from your paper. Because then when people look for good news, there will not be any bad news to fill up the space for the good news. And I hope your readers soon read about the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik from the Astana Times as well.