The unique experience of Kazakhstan, which is home to representatives of 140 ethnic groups and 17 religions, has now become an example of unity, harmony, trust and mutual understanding for the rest of the world.
In his state-of-the-nation address, Strategy Kazakhstan 2050: A new policy of the established state, President Nursultan Nazarbayev noted that civil peace and international harmony are our greatest asset. Our peace and harmony and the dialogue of cultures and religions in our multicultural country are now rightly recognised as the global benchmark. Indeed, Kazakhstan has become a centre of global interfaith dialogue. It is important to note that the inter-religious and interfaith dialogue launched 10 years ago in Astana with the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has now become a legitimate objective. True stories of dialogue of civilisations is evidence that the representatives of the various religions must lead friendly and interested dialogue, in which the parties do not only talk but also listen to each other. Through this dialogue, different religions may speak their truths and bring mutual enrichment and creative, lively contact with other thoughts and beliefs.
In our world, the dialogue of religions is as relevant as ever. We must remember that the world is multifaceted, versatile and unique in its diversity. And it is, of course, impossible to know the position of any one culture, belief system or ideology. The world is not a monologue of one system, one religion or culture, and dialogue systems, religions, and cultures. The value of this dialogue is that, as a modern form of the interaction of world civilizations, it reflects the objective existence of the unity of our world – the unity of historical destiny, the unity of world economic relations as well as interdependence of political processes, science, technology, art and culture.
Not by chance has Kazakhstan’s head of state put forward the idea of holding this congress, which brings spiritual leaders and major religious organisations together around one table. Historically, religious leaders played an important role in strengthening their societies, and the current situation in the world is such that religious leaders must unite in order to strengthen cooperation for a more harmonious world.
Through the process of dialogue, traditional religions become more united and work to spread peace and strengthen freedom and human rights. They also promote international security, eroding the credibility of those who use religion as an excuse to commit crimes. It is also important that religious leaders act not only in their own names, but on behalf of the faithful. Thus, through the authority and the personal efforts of religious leaders among the people, peace and harmony and progressive and sustainable civilisations are achieved.
The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has become an essential contribution to the global process of dialogue between civilisations and cultures. Kazakhstan’s initiative in convening the interconfessional forum for multilateral dialogue and the application of collective solutions to reduce tensions in the world is universally recognised and widely supported by the international community. It has become an important response to the challenges of our time. The idea of convening of the first congress was supported by Secretary General of the Muslim World League Sheikh Al-Turki, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Alexiy II, Pope John Paul II, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel Jonah Metzger and many other religious leaders.
The first congress adopted a declaration in which interconfessional dialogue was described as one of the most important instruments of peace and understanding between peoples and nations, supporting the efforts of the international community to promote dialogue between civilisations. The congress received congratulatory messages from heads of major world powers and world organisations as well as senior officials of different churches, including Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Each of them blessed the meeting of religious leaders and wished them success in starting a dialogue.
Between participants of the forum there was an open exchange of views about the role of religion in the modern world and the universal nature of major moral values across all religions. Important issues were raised, ranging from the reasons behind religious grounds for conflicts and the need to improve inter-religious harmony and mutual respect to the ability to study the traditions of other nations. The success of the event was enshrined in the resolution of the first congress to hold the inter-religious forum at least once every three years.
Kazakhstan was given the great honour of organising and conducting the second congress of leaders of world and traditional religions, again in its capital, Astana. The second Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held in a new building built for that purpose: the Palace of Peace and Accord. The event was held under the overall theme: “Religion, society and international security.” It followed two directions: “Freedom of religion and respect for the followers of other religions,” and “The role of religious leaders in strengthening international security.” A total of 25 religious leaders and 14 honorary guests from 26 countries of Europe, America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East gathered in Astana for the congress. Honoured guests of the forum included such public figures as then-UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura, then-Director General of the UN Office in Geneva Sergey Ordzhonikidze, former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohammad and representatives of legislative bodies and nongovernmental organisations from different countries. The final document of the second congress was a declaration calling on representatives of all religions and ethnic groups to prevent conflicts based on cultural and religious differences. The significance of this document is that it fully and principally reflects the global need to replace the ideology of confrontation with a culture of peace.
One of the major initiatives announced at that congress was the idea of creating the International Centre of Cultures and Religions. Over its five years of activity, the centre has taken an active part in the preparation and hosting of the third and fourth congresses, as well as four meetings of the secretariat of the congress and its working groups. As the working body of the secretariat and the congress, the centre, together with representatives of world and traditional religions, participated in developing conceptual positions for religious forums, themes for congresses and the sessions within them, final documents and other endeavours. Today, the centre is involved in preparing for the celebratory events to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the convening of the First Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
The third congress, which was held in Astana in July 2009, has a special place in the chronicle of congresses because of the themes and formats of its work, the challenging issues discussed and the level of participation. Representatives of more than 77 delegations from 37 countries attended the third congress, as forum organisers had worked to increase the number of representatives of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. The status of forum was reflected in the presence of incumbent politicians, including President of Israel Shimon Peres as well as a number of ministers, senators and congressmen and internationally known public and academic figures. The significance and magnitude of the problems and issues proposed at the forum drew great international interest. Within the framework of the congress an additional workshop was held as part of a cooperation group of Mediterranean partners, participants of which were representatives of the diplomatic corps of foreign countries accredited in Kazakhstan.
The final document of the third congress was an appeal by congress participants to religious and political leaders, public figures, scientists, the media and the world community. One of the major initiatives of the third congress was a proposal to create a council of religious leaders to deepen dialogue, economic cooperation and cooperation with other international organisations and forums.
The International Centre of Cultures and Religions together with the working group and the secretariat of the congress drafted the founding document of the new council, “The Concept of the Council of Religious Leaders,” which, after consultation with leaders of world and traditional religions, which was adopted at the 10th meeting of the Secretariat in June 2011.
The fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions with the theme “Peace and harmony as the choice of mankind,” was one of the most important events held in Astana in 2012. On the eve of the opening of the congress a landmark event was held: the first meeting of the Council of Religious Leaders, which was attended by President Nazarbayev. 85 delegates from 40 countries attended the fourth congress, including representatives of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Representatives of states and nongovernmental and international organisations again came as special guests. One important initiative of the fourth congress was the creation of a website within the G-Global web portal dedicated to forming and strengthening global tolerance and trust.
This year, Kazakhstan and the religious leaders and activists who have participated in the work of the four Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will be honoured on the 10th anniversary of the Astana interfaith forum in September. Over the course of 10 years, thanks to the support of influential political and religious leaders, Kazakhstan has held four Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
These days, the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is actively preparing for the 12th meeting of the Secretariat of the Congress, as well as an international conference on the decade of the congresses to be held on September 25, 2013. Large-scale ceremonial events on the tenth anniversary of Astana inter-religious forum have been held in countries whose religious leaders have taken part in the forum’s work: the Vatican, Austria, India, Azerbaijan, Iran, Japan, the US and Russia. Events are planned in Switzerland and Israel. The motif of the events held abroad was strengthening Kazakhstan’s approach to international interfaith dialogue with new proposals and ideas.
Kazakhstan’s congresses of religious leaders have paved the way for a global space of peace and harmony. The forum of religious leaders held in Astana reflects the international community’s efforts to overcome the crisis of conflicts based on cultural and religious differences and build a tolerant, stable, peaceful, sustainable path for development.
Inter-religious harmony and peace are at the heart of the spiritual traditions of the people of Kazakhstan. As in the past, the unity of the multinational and polyconfessional people of Kazakhstan should be an important priority in the future. It is a priceless heritage and its spiritual wealth must be preserved, multiplied and passed on to future generations. Thanks to the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, we in Kazakhstan have a unique opportunity to tell the world that despite the differences in our many beliefs, nationalities and cultures, we support spiritual unity and believe deeply in the ideal of a life based on fairness, trust and tolerance.
The author is a professor and the director of the International Centre of Cultures and Religions.