We live, for good or bad, in an age of instant judgement. But whether an initiative has been necessary or successful often requires a significant amount of time to assess in our complex, changing world. Time allows considered judgement to be made on whether it still fits current needs and whether that need has grown.
It is against these criteria that President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s call early in 2003 for an international forum to foster religious understanding and respect should be judged. His appeal came against a background of worsening religious tensions following the 9/11 terrorist attack, the international response against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and, crucially, just before military action in Iraq.
By the time the first Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held in Astana in September 2003, the need to promote understanding between religions appeared even more necessary. Inflammatory talk about a clash of civilisations had become all too common. It was no surprise that the delegations from the 13 countries who attended that first event agreed the congress must become a regular forum.
Time has shown sadly the importance of their decision. We now know that those who believed that those early years of the new century would be the height of religious tensions have sadly had their concerns proven right. In the 12 years since the first congress was held, religious divisions and the consequences have worsened and spread to new parts of the world.
In the Middle East, in parts of Africa and Asia, we have seen how religious beliefs have been abused to justify barbarism and drive conflict. Thousands have died and millions have been forced to flee their homes. These same distortions have led in many other countries to terrorist outrages and growing prejudice and suspicions between those of different faiths and backgrounds.
It has not mattered that the differences between the great religions are far less than what unites them. This common ground includes, of course, the decent, generous, shared values that are the bedrock of our societies and our collective civilisation.
Instead, we have seen the differences between and within religions deliberately exaggerated and exploited to foster hatred. This is now threatening our safety, peace and stability across the world.
The sadness is that faith can be seen not as a positive but a negative influence on our societies. There is an urgent need to reclaim religion from those who distort its peaceful message and to counter those who use it to divide communities and countries.
This need explains why the appeal and influence of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has grown so strongly. The fifth forum, taking place this week in the specially built Palace of Peace and Harmony in Astana, will draw 112 delegations from 44 countries.
Among the distinguished figures attending will be UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Sauli Niinistö of Finland as well as senior leaders of all the world’s great religions. From relatively modest beginnings, it is now a major event on the international calendar.
There is a huge amount to discuss in Astana this week. Under the overarching theme of the role of religion in encouraging peace and development, the congress will examine, for example, how to build bridges between political and religious leaders and how to counter the dangerous appeal of extremism to younger generations.
Underlying all these discussions is the congress’s central purpose from its earliest days. Its primary goal has always been to help identify and underline the common ground between our great religions and to provide a platform to enable and encourage the widest possible dialogue to help shape solutions to global challenges.
These solutions must include, of course, providing opportunities for people – and particularly young people – to improve their lives. Poverty and hopelessness are the fertile ground in which the extremists sow their message of hate and division.
A world in which respect and understanding for the common values of our great faiths are strengthened is a world that is safer and better for us all. At a time where no country is safe from violence and extremism, we all have good reason to wish the congress well.