Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions: from idea to inclusive dialogue

The Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is a unique interfaith forum, convened every three years in Astana at the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. For 15 years, this forum has played an important role in the rapprochement of cultures and civilisations, in searching for answers to the key challenges of our time. “Religious Leaders for a Safe World” is the main topic of the Sixth Congress, which will be held Oct. 10-11 in the capital of Kazakhstan.


The idea of convening the Congress was put forward in 2003 against the backdrop of emerging crisis of the world order after the Cold War, unprecedented 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. These events have become consonant with a well-known hypothesis of Samuel Huntington about the inevitable clash of civilisations. There was a real threat that the theory of inter-civilisational conflict would become a rapidly growing trend in modern international relations. We needed a decisive counter action.

The human civilisation continues to face a protracted crisis of moral values. Apparently in the 21st Century the concept of modernisation, which previously entailed total westernisation and secularisation of societies, requires deep reconsideration, with an emphasis on respect for traditions of societies in different parts of the world. It turns out that religion has not lost its value in public and political life. Moreover, globalisation facilitates its revival.

But at the political level, the role of religion is often underestimated. Nowadays, even the UN Charter, which is the legal basis of international relations, is quite uncertain about the place of religion and religious leaders in achieving the primary goals of the organisation: strengthening peace and security, promoting international cooperation, ensuring sustainable development of states, protecting human rights.

Thus, at the turn of the century there was a dangerous global situation, directly affecting inter-religious relations in the world. Kazakhstan with its multinational and multi-confessional society, complex geopolitical environment, had not only to be involved, but also to take active steps.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the rapprochement between cultures, religions and peoples was facilitated by the historic visit of Pope John Paul II to Astana in September 2001, by a major part of the first Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Almaty in June 2002 and the International Conference of Peace and Reconciliation in February 2003. These developments led to a new initiative on convening the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

It would be a great fallacy to consider the Congress a priori celebratory event as it may seem from the TV screens and the pages of magazines. First of all, it was hard to convince the participants to come and sit at the same table. In September 2003, on the sidelines of the First Congress taking place in Astana, some delegates at private audience with the head of Kazakhstan made no secret of their complaints to other participants and openly expressed the boundaries of their tolerance. It should be noted that in fact the disagreements were of a purely political, inter-state nature and did not raise any interfaith issues. In this situation, the credibility of President Nazarbayev played a key role in the success of both plenary sessions and the adoption of the Joint Declaration.

Eventually, the participants came to a common understanding that it is vital to identify the place of religion outside the current and even long-term political conflicts. The culture of dialogue, as reflected in the documents of the Congress and the remarks of the participants, implies mutual respect of heads of denominations.

The essence of inter-religious dialogue was expressed by President Nazarbayev at the First Congress, “We do not need, and it is impossible to set any final goal. You cannot create a single religious space. It is impossible to fully overcome the existing differences, especially because sometimes they affect the foundations of the great religions. However, the constant dialogue is needed because, despite the existing differences, we still preserve the idea and process of finding a sort of ‘golden mean.’ And most importantly, dialogue creates a territory of peace and reconciliation, time of harmony and clarity.”

Dialogue participants

An important feature of the Astana inter-religious forum is a broad and representative composition of its participants. The Congress is attended by high-level followers of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Shinto, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism, representatives of religious and public organisations, and influential world politicians. The Congress has become not only a platform for inter-religious meetings, but also a dialogue between religious and political leaders. This transformation is of great importance for the real positive impact of religious leaders on the situation around the world.

In different years, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah II of Jordan, President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, President of Israel and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shimon Peres, Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir bin Mohamad, former Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chrétien, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill, Grand Imam of al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, General Secretary of the Muslim World League Abdallah At-Turki addressed the Congress.

Among the prominent participants of the forum are Secretary General of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought Ayatollah Sheikh Mohsen Araki, Cardinals of the Catholic Church Jozef Tomko and Jean-Louis Tauran, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople in the Orthodox Church, Chief Rabbis of Israel Yona Metzger, Shlomo Amar and Yitzhak Yosef, President of Jinja Honcho (the Japanese Association of Shinto Shrines) Tsunekiyo Tanaka, Chairman of the Institute for the Research of Indology and Inter-religious Dialogue, Member of the Council of Religious Leaders (India) Samir Shantilal Somaiya, Secretary General of the World Fellowship of Buddhists Phallop Thaiarry, Managing Director of Jinja Honcho (the Japanese Association of Shinto Shrines) Tanenori Terai, President of the Lutheran World Federation Munib Younan and many others.

Traditionally, the Congresses of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions were also attended by UNESCO Directors General Koïchiro Matsuura and Irina Bokova, OSCE Secretaries General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and Lamberto Zannier, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Iyad Amin Madani.

The First Congress was attended by religious leaders and honorary guests from 13 countries; the Fifth Congress in Astana was attended by over 80 delegations from 42 countries of the world.


Documents of the Congress

In fifteen years, the Congress has gained considerable documentary framework concerning cooperation between different religions. In this regard, the Declaration of the First Congress played a key role, since it highlighted main common grounds and identified shared values of leading world and traditional religions. For Kazakh diplomacy, harmonisation of the first confessional document was a good test for professionalism, because it was necessary to identify common problems for the entire human civilization from the perspective of the religious leaders. It was necessary to carefully take into account the specific features of each denomination, to avoid debate about interfaith differences, and most importantly – to formulate a joint vision of cooperation of different religions.

This very delicate work was launched in advance by the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For the elaboration of the document, we created a working group of representatives of major world and traditional religions participating in the Fifth Congress. After the text was submitted for the approval of the forum, its participants and personally President Nursultan Nazarbayev made a number of meaningful amendments. Thus, the Declaration has become a key starting point for interfaith dialogue in Astana.

“Variety of religious beliefs and confessions should bring not to mutual suspicion, discrimination and humiliation, but to mutual perception and harmony, demonstrating the originality of each religion and culture. Religions should work for the better cooperation, accepting the tolerance and mutual acceptance as essential instruments of peaceful co-existence of all peoples,” states the first document of the Congress. In other words, the religious leaders stated that there are no contradictions between religions, but there is a need for dialogue and cooperation for the benefit of the modern world.

At the Second Congress, the participants adopted the Principles of Inter-Religious Dialogue – a code of the participants of the Congress. “Dialogue shall be based upon honesty, tolerance, humility and mutual respect. … Dialogue shall assume equality of all partners and create the room for free expression of opinions, perspectives and beliefs, including the integrity of each culture, language and traditions. Dialogue shall not be aimed at the conversion to another faith, as well as to abuse or demonstrate the superiority of one religion over another,” state the Principles. Religious leaders emphasised the fundamental need for interfaith dialogue for future generations.

In another document, the Declaration of the Second Congress, the participants expressed their shared opinion that “the difficulties in inter-religious and intercultural relations are related both to a fundamental imbalance in international politics, economics, social, humanitarian and information resources, and to the manipulation of religion for political ends.”

The document of the Third Congress also contains a number of fundamental provisions concerning the role of all religions in the development of modern societies and countering threats to security. The Appeal of the Participants emphasised that “peaceful coexistence of people of different ethnic origins and religious affiliations is an important basis for human security.” And, “inter-religious dialogue helps to prevent stereotyping, prejudices and religious conflicts.” Spiritual leaders underlined the need “to protect the dignity of human beings and their fundamental rights, in particular those of freedom of conscience and of religion.” They condemned “all forms of extremism and terrorism, especially those perpetrated in the name of religion.”

The Appeal of the Fourth Congress contains a number of consolidated approaches to social development, morality, upbringing and education. Religious figures “are united in their recognition of the divine design for human beings and their dignity and inalienable rights.” And, “religion is one of the most important and influential means of addressing contemporary social issues as well as of achieving comprehensive peace and prosperity.” The participants expressed “readiness, along with political and public figures to appropriately address current spiritual, ethical and moral challenges including extremism and terrorism that use religion as a cover-up.”

It is emphasised that strengthening of the moral and spiritual framework of society and the revival of traditional family values are indispensable conditions for the sustainable development of the world. The general belief is expressed that “the constructive role of women in family and society must enjoy deep respect.” It is also noted that “young people from childhood should have the right to acquire fundamental knowledge of their own religion the same way as they study their native tongue, history and culture.” The document also notes that “a person who knows his or her own religion never treats any other religion with disrespect.”

The Declaration of the Fifth Congress brought the forum to a qualitatively new level, as it focused on the most pertinent political issues of the modern world. The document consists of a preamble and 16 paragraphs, including “five appeals” of President Nazarbayev presented at the opening of the forum. In particular, the participants undertook to facilitate dialogue of religious leaders and politicians, international organisations and civil society “to ensure stability and security, prevent and resolve conflicts.”

The Congress called on the parties involved in conflicts “to cease violence, declare a truce and through negotiations reach an agreement to end hostility, protect civilians, and find a peaceful resolution to all contradiction.” Religious leaders oppose strongly the use of force to resolve any political and religious disagreements. They called on political leaders of world powers “to stop the growing abyss of distrust in the world today, to end mutual sanctions and to use the mechanisms of the United Nations and other international organisations, to overcome the divisions and restore peace and security in accordance with international law.”

“The fight against extremism and terrorism has not turned into a war against religions and their followers,” the forum participants warned. According to the participants, the Congress intends to develop further interaction with the United Nations and other international organisations to foster global dialogue for peace and development. It encouraged media owners and publishers to cease using their media outlets, including web-based ones, as a tool to incite religious and sectarian divisions.

Over 15 years, besides the development and adoption of final documents of the Congress itself, the Congress Secretariat dealt with a considerable amount of documentation. It was mainly of procedural and organisational nature, and also reflected discussions of delegations between congresses. The Statement of the Participants of the International Conference Religions Against Terrorism held on May 31, 2016 in Astana has become a significant contribution of the Congress. This comprehensive document reflects a joint vision of religious figures, parliamentarians and experts on countering international terrorism.

Congress documents are unique due to the fact that religious figures themselves were directly involved in their development. When adopting documents of the Congress, religious leaders morally commit to make efforts for their implementation. All the main documents were duly circulated to the UN, OSCE and other international forums.


Institutionalising Dialogue

Another significant outcome of the 15 years of the Congress’s existence was its consistent institutional development. The Congress has become a sort of “inter-confessional Davos,” as today it is the most representative dialogue platform for all religions, international organizations, politicians and experts. It is distinguished by a diverse agenda, an unusual format of participants, as well as political flexibility.

As the number of participants increases and the agenda of issues discussed is developed, the programme of forums has also significantly expanded. Today, Astana congresses not only include plenary sessions, but also several parallel sectional meetings.

Following the Third Congress, the forum participants established the Council of Religious Leaders, which became one of the main institutions of the Astana inter-religious summit, its governing body. The Council consists of representatives of 14 religions. The Council is designed to deepen mutual understanding and cooperation between different faiths and strengthen the conceptual framework of the dialogue platform of the Congress. Moreover, the Council is authorized to take decisions on pivotal issues relating to the Congress, as well as on cooperation with other international organisations and forums.

Thanks to its unique format, the Congress drew considerable international attention. The Third Congress was held in 2009 with the technical assistance of the United Nations, as well as the broad involvement of the OSCE secretariat and institutions. Prior to Kazakhstan’s chairmanship in the OSCE, the annual Mediterranean Seminar of this pan-European organization was held in the framework of the Congress. As a follow-up to the idea of the Congress, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the period 2013-2022 as the International Decade for the Rapprochement of Cultures. The presentation of the forthcoming Sixth Congress was held in the UN Headquarters in May.

Parliamentary diplomacy plays an active role in the framework of the Congress, primarily in the work of the forum Secretariat. The importance of the parliamentary dimension in “spiritual diplomacy” was underlined at the conference Religions against Terrorism that welcomed parliamentarians from different countries, members of the Congress Secretariat and experts.

Since its inception, the Congress Secretariat has been the forum’s main working body. It meets annually and considers the implementation of decisions of the Congress, coordinates the agenda, and draft final documents of the forum. It also coordinates interaction between the Congress and other international dialogue bodies, such as the UN Alliance of Civilizations, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, and others. The President of Kazakhstan instructed to establish the International Centre of Cultures and Religions.

Congresses and sessions of the Secretariat are held in a building unique in its architecture, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Astana. Currently, the Secretariat is considering the initiative of President Nursultan Nazarbayev to establish the Astana International Award for interreligious dialogue, the Medal of Honour of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, and open the Museum of Peace and Reconciliation.

Over the past three years, world religions have fulfilled considerable preparatory work for the Sixth Congress. The Secretariat proposed Religious Leaders for a Safe World as a theme of the upcoming forum. Sessions of the Sixth Congress will be held in the following areas: Manifesto “The World. The 21st Century” as a concept of global security; Religions in a changing geopolitical landscape: new opportunities to unite humanity; Religion and globalisation: challenges and responses; Religious and political leaders overcoming extremism and terrorism. Thus, the forum agenda will be built around most pressing issues.

The global leader, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, offers the international community new untapped opportunities for improving the world order. Only goodwill, joint hard work of the participants can ensure the success of the overall process. Astana is committed to serve as a platform to this noble cause.


The author is Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan and Head of the Secretariat of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions

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