On June 10-11, Astana hosts the fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Three years ago, I had an opportunity to take part in the fourth forum attended by 85 delegations from 40 countries. That time, the participants of the congress were very impressed by the speech of President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev and His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill.
At the congress in 2012, there were a lot of discussions about the most pressing challenges of our time – terrorism and extremism under the flag of religion. His Holiness the Patriarch said: “Inhumane acts, whose victims are innocent civilians – is not only the result of the evil intentions of the bandits, which we condemn. This is the consequence of a religious vacuum, lack of a faithful picture of the religious tradition. The states fight terrorism, destroy hostile fanatics and it is right because society has the right to defend itself. Nevertheless, it is necessary to solve the problem at its root: to give people the opportunity to peacefully practice their ancestral faith, develop their national culture embodied through the dispensation of a family and participation in construction of social relations.”
Unfortunately, we see that over the years the danger has seriously increased. The absence of a traditional religious education leads to the development of aggression and display of the darkest human passions. The Middle East rages. We have a deep compassion for Christians and members of other religious movements of Syria and Iraq, where a horrific genocide takes place.
For centuries, Muslims and Christians peacefully coexisted in the Middle East. The history demonstrates that in traditional education, the presence of different religious communities promotes spiritual development of tolerance, lays good relations between Muslims, Christians and members of other religions living side by side in the same environment. In order to respect your neighbour, you should know him well. Unawareness and lack of communication provokes suspicion and speculation.
There are terrible figures, for example, in the Iraqi city of Mosul there were 45 Christian churches. Today there is not a single one. More than 400 Christian churches were destroyed in Syria over the past four years. If this continues in the Middle East, soon there will be no Christian presence in the region. The ancient Patriarchate of Antioch, which survived the most difficult times of the Middle Ages may cease to exist in the 21century. On a regular basis, we hear different information about massive killings of Christians in Nigeria, Pakistan and North Africa.
In such circumstances, the value of forums like the one in Astana cannot be overstated. It is noteworthy that the capital of Kazakhstan, the state that provides unique opportunities for the communities of many religions and cultures, becomes the venue for the religious summit once again.
Kazakhstan perceives this diversity, which is a source of endless divisions and internal strife in many countries, as its advantage and wealth.
“In my view, multiculturalism, ethnic and religious diversity are not challenges to society, but huge advantages. In the 21 century, tolerance becomes a key factor of development and growth of an innovative economy. We should not ignore the fact that over the last 30 years, countries that have different ethnic and cultural diversity achieved the greatest success. Today’s world needs a synthesis and development of such experience. In this regard, the congress could act as a leading interactive platform aimed at the ideological and spiritual construction of fair world order foundations in the 21 century,” President Nazarbayev said.
The central theme of the fourth congress was “Peace and harmony as the choice of mankind.” In its framework, a significant historical event, such as the first meeting of the Council of Religious Leaders took place. It was created on the initiative of President Nazarbayev and unanimously supported by the leaders of world and traditional religions. The council consists of 14 prominent religious leaders of the world. The aim of the council is to define priorities and mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation with other forums and international organisations, whose work is focused on the dialogue of cultures and economic interaction.
Also historically significant was the fact that the participants of the fourth congress visited the opening ceremony of the monument to the victims of hunger, visited the museum-memorial complex ALZHIR, where they prayed for the souls of the innocent people who were tortured there. A newly established Alley Rouhani Zharasym – Spiritual Harmony near the grand arch Mangilik El – Eternal nation in the capital became the memory of the congress.
The fifth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions will be devoted to the dialogue of religious leaders and politicians in the name of peace and development. We expect that the forum will be a significant milestone in bringing together all the healthy forces of the world community in combating the threat of terrorism, in opposition to the lack of spirituality and moral vices.
Christianity in Central Asia has historical roots. The first mention about the presence of Christians here, namely, in the city of Merv on the territory of today’s Turkmenistan belongs to the scholar Biruni. According to his report, there was a Christian community founded in the beginning of the third century. At the beginning of the fourth century, the Nestorian church archdiocese was based in the capital of the Sogd kingdom Samarkand.
The new Christian presence on the territory of Kazakhstan is connected with Russian settlements, which arise as a result Kazakhstan’s becoming part of the Russian Empire.
In 1854, on the territory of Zhetysu, in the place of one of the Kazakh settlements, was founded Fort Vernyi with the church on its territory. In 1866, the first churches and prayer houses were opened in Turkestan and Shymkent. Turkestan Eparchy was formed in 1871 with the centre in Vernyi. It consisted of 26 churches. The first priests arrived in Zhetysu from Russia on a voluntary basis.
At the beginning of the 20th century, 391,000 Orthodox Christians lived in Central Asia and 306 churches were acting here. Movement of Orthodox immigrants to Kazakhstan had several waves over the past two centuries. Among the immigrants were: military, Cossacks, artisans and farmers of the second half of the 19 century; peasants of Stolypin reforms; deported and exiled citizens of the atheistic Soviet Union and developers of the Virgin Lands of the post-war era. All of them found a shelter and salvation from starvation in the hospitality of Kazakh families.
However, it should be noted that those Orthodox workers, who arrived to the expanses of Zhetysu and Saryarka, often tried to find here not a temporary shelter, but a second home – a beloved fatherland, where strength, skills and talents were needed. The monuments of selfless work and inspiration of Orthodox settlers in Kazakhstan became a miracle of architecture. For example, St. Ascension Cathedral in Almaty, industrial plants, construction sites, universities and theatres.
In 2016, the Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan will celebrate its 50th anniversary since the repose of St. Sebastian of Karaganda, the saint whose name is dear to the entire Orthodox world. He was the one who most clearly expressed with his life the attitude of Russian immigrants to a new homeland.
Interfaith peace and harmony in society require tireless efforts of leaders and representatives of various religious faiths. In this regard, an outstanding role of the first President of independent Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, who consistently pursues a policy aimed at ensuring peaceful labour of citizens of all nationalities and religions for more than twenty years, should be highlighted.
“Traditional Islam and Christianity are the two wings of the Kazakhstan bird that is flying over the expanses of Central Asia,” the President said during his visit to the Cathedral of the Dormition (Moscow) on Christmas holiday in 2012.
The full revival of the Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan is reflected in the following figures: if in 1956 only 55 parishes were operating in Kazakhstan, at the beginning of 1999 there were 212 parishes and eight monasteries. Over the past decade, these positive statistics have improved further.
The Orthodox feast of Christmas (Jan. 7) became one of the officially recognised holidays in Kazakhstan.
In May 2003, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided to establish the Metropolitan District in Kazakhstan of a new special form of dioceses’ association in order to coordinate religious education, publishing, social and other public activities of dioceses in Kazakhstan.
Today, Christianity is the second largest religious direction in Kazakhstan. Almost all churches and chapels have Sunday schools, which educate both children and adults.
The Orthodox believers in Kazakhstan look at the future with optimism and hope. They are aware of the blessed land, their homeland that was abundantly covered with the blood of martyrs and confessors of the 20th century, where by God’s providence they were destined to carry out their mission.
We believe the activities of the congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana will certainly have a positive effect on the further development of the spiritual life of our citizens.
The author is the Metropolitan of Astana and Kazakhstan of the Russian Orthodox Church.