Kazakhstan at the Spotlight of a Constructive Dialogue between different Religions and Cultures: President Tokayev
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Senior Research Associate , VIF

Republic of Kazakhstan hosted the Seventh Congress of the Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions on 14-15 September 2022. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev formulated this initiative to promote dialogue and discussion among different religions, cultures, and civilizations in order to prevent and resolve conflicts. The seventh Congress took place at a time when the world is still recuperating from the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with the fallout from the Ukrainian crisis. The theme of this year's congress, "The Role of World Religious Leaders in Human Spiritual and Social Development in the Post-Pandemic Period," centred on finding answers to the current issues. The high level participation is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the VII Congress. While the first congress was attended by 17 delegations from the 23 countries, the VII Congress was attended by over 100 representatives from 50 nations of the world.

The most significant speakerof the congress was the Pope Francis, the head of Catholic Church. Other eminent participants included Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad At-Tayeb, Supreme Imam of Al-Azhar;Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate (deputy of Russian Patriarch Kirill); Yitzhak Yosef, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel; Theophilus III, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem; Miguel Angel Moratinos, UN Under Secretary General and High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations; David Lau, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel and Joe Bailey Wells, Bishop of Dorking, Special Representative of the Anglican Church among others. UN Secretary General António Guterres gave his remarks through a video message. The opening and closing ceremonies of the congress were both attended by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who also delivered his remarks.

How did the Concept of this Congress Emerge?

Kazakhstan is a multi-religious and secular state that provides religious freedom to all of its nearly 18 religious groups. It has a diversified population of 19.2 million people and has over 3,200 places of worship and approximately 4,000 religious organisations. Kazakhstan has a multiethnic society comprising of 70% Kazakh, 18% Russian, 3% Uzbek, 1.4% Ukrainian, 1.4% Uighur, 1.08% Tatar, 0.95% German, and 4% others (Census 2021). Though Islam is the most common religion (about 70%), people of all religions live in peace, protected by Kazakhstan's Constitution, which provides the right and freedom to practice any religion or believe. Over the years and with concerted efforts, Kazakhstan has developed into a major center for inter-religious interface, as President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev stated at the 74th UN General Assembly in 2019.

Against his background, the concept for the Congress initially emerged during Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Kazakhstan on September 22-25, 2001. Following the events of September 11, 2001, which thrust extremism and terrorism to the forefront of the international agenda, the head of the Catholic Church visited Kazakhstan. On his meeting with the then President Nazarabayev, both leaders had agreed that humanity is threatened by an inter-civilizational divide. Therefore, Kazakhstan conceptualised a conference of spiritual leaders at that time, which was backed by leading religious figures worldwide and governmental authorities. The six congresses that have followed have become one of the major international events in Kazakhstan's independent history, and have played an important role in world debate of inter-civilizational, inter-cultural and inter-religious discourses of peace and reconciliation.

Why is the Congress Significant?

To emphasise the significance of the Seventh Congress, Maulen Ashimbayev, Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Head of the Secretariat of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, stated that the congress is taking place at a critical time for the world community. "We are certain that the outlines of the new post-pandemic society, as well as the basic principles guiding its growth, should not be debated in the absence of religious and spiritual leaders." Only the efforts of politicians and enterprises are evidently insufficient to create a more balanced, peaceful, and ecologically friendly society. He further added that "It is the spiritual leaders and religious figures who can fill the worldview and spiritual vacuum with new meanings, unify the global community around a constructive agenda and can create the environment for an inclusive discourse for humanity's peace and prosperity. These and other concerns will be addressed during the VII Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders."

It is an undeniable fact that, when the world was experiencing a rigorous lockdown due to the pandemic, spirituality and religion helped public to maintain inner peace and calm. Even in India, the national Television channel (Doordarshan) began rebroadcasting religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata during the lockdowns, which enabled people to get a spiritual awakening and form positive views during this difficult period.

The relevance of religious leaders in politics cannot be underestimated since they have the ability to influence political decisions. But in order to achieve that, there must be unity among the many religions. In this sense, the Congress has given the heads of the various faiths an essential forum to engage in constructive discourse and come to a consensus on contemporary issues impacting mankind.

President Tokayev in his opening remarks underlined the necessity for unity among people in order to create a new system of international security. He also underscored the need of progressing philosophy of humanism and enduring spiritual principles as one of the main objectives of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. [1]

Outcome of the VII Congress of Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions

The congress emphasised the importance of shared values in spiritual and social growth of human beings. The religious leaders noted the significance of combating and overcoming intolerance and hate speech, xenophobia, discrimination, and disputes based on ethnic, religious, and cultural differences. Further, emphasis was laid on the importance of education and spirituality for personal and inter-religious development, as well as the role and rights of women in society.[2]

To confront the global concerns of the post-pandemic world, such as climate change, poverty and hunger, organised crime, terrorism, and narcotics, a common and humanitarian approach is necessary. The leaders also criticised the formation of hotspots of interstate and international conflict across the world, and voiced grave concerns about the rise in the number of migrants and refugees in need of humanitarian aid and protection as a result of these crises.[3]

The leaders also concurred that it is imperative for spiritual and political leaders to collaborate in order to overcome the difficulties facing the modern world. Additionally, they highlighted the prospect for the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions to take additional concrete actions to advance interreligious, intercultural, and inter-civilisational discussion in order to prevent violence and promote peace.[4]

Pope Francis delivered the keynote message to the VII Congress of World and Traditional Religious Leaders. He began his address by discussing the role of the famous Kazakh poet Abay. He said, "Abay left behind masterpieces steeped with religious conviction, which represent the finest thing that Kazakhstan has to offer to the world.” [5] The Pope also urged the people of the world to disseminate the massage of peace and tolerance.

The Head of Catholic Church further stressed that “there is an urgent need to cleanse our minds and to set aside the history books and the dialogues that have long fostered hatred of religion. Religion is not an issue, but rather something that encourages peaceful coexistence in society. Religion is required to satiate our need for serenity.”[6] Furthermore, the Pope emphasised the significance of caring for those in need. The epidemic has exposed all of our planet's injustices. Therefore, all must unite to counter those injustices and foster the equality.

In the closing ceremony of the Congress, Kazakh President Tokayev stated that “power politics’ and ‘hate speech,’ both of which contribute to the mutual alienation of countries, the disintegration of governments, and the deterioration of international relations, have been collectively denounced. It is crucial now more than ever to exploit religions' capacity for fostering peace and to coordinate the actions of spiritual leaders in the pursuit of long-term stability. All religions are founded on humanistic principles, the belief in the greatest value of human life, and the desire for world peace and environmental sustainability.[7] According to Kazakh President, these essential concepts must be mirrored not only in the spiritual realm but also in national socio-economic development and global politics. His reference to power politics was to the formation of a hotspot of tension that affects not just the countries participating, but also those who are not directly involved. He also considers the need of religious leaders working together to spread moral values that are deteriorating as a result of digitalization. The effective usage of digital channels was highlighted by President Tokayev as well.

The Congress of Leaders of the World and Traditional Religions issued a declaration aimed at improving inter-religious and intercultural ties. All participating leaders agreed that the consequences of global crises like as pandemics can only be combated via mutual cooperation. Other concerns addressed in the declaration includes quest for equality, women's rights and status in society, and education.

The concept of interfaith dialogue and discussions is critical for bringing harmony to society; nevertheless, all religions should be represented equally. Hinduism, being one of the world's largest religions, requires equal representation in the Congress of World Leaders and Traditional Religions. Although the Hindu faith was represented in the VII Congress, there is still a need for some high-level participation from India. Hinduism emphasises the peace and harmony of all religions. As Pope Francis began his remarks at the Congress by addressing the audience as "Dear Brothers and Sisters," one was reminded of Swami Vivekananda who had begun his address at the first World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 with "Sisters and Brothers of America." Swami Vivekananda’s speech was about how Hinduism has always fostered religious tolerance.

Buddhism was also seen having limited representation in the Congress. In 2015, the Vivekananda International Foundation launched the Global Hindu-Buddhist Dialogue on Conflict Avoidance and Environmental Concerns. Both religions have a similar outlook on the world and contemporary issues. As a result, their high-level participation can add to the significance to the VIII Congress of World and Traditional Religions, which will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan, in 2025.

Conclusion

As a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state, Kazakhstan has become a focal point for inter-religious, inter-cultural, and inter-civilizational discussion and interaction. Astana has played a major role in developing a critical forum for conflict avoidance through the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. This year's congress focussed on the role of religious leaders in promoting social and cultural values in the post-pandemic period, with leaders from many religions and faiths putting up suggestions to contribute to society's well-being. The next congress will be held in Astana in September 2025. Not immediately, but in the long run, interaction and discussion between various cultural, religious, and civilisational groups could contribute to the resolution of world conflicts. In this sense, Kazakhstan has an important role to play.

References

[1]Aibarshyn Akhmetkali “Tokayev Stresses Role of Religious Principles in Building New System of International Security at Congress of World and Traditional Religions, September 14, 2022. https://astanatimes.com/2022/09/tokayev-stresses-role-of-religious-principles-in-building-new-system-of-international-security-at-congress-of-world-and-traditional-religions/
[2] “Declaration of VII Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions” The Astana Times, September 15, 2022. https://astanatimes.com/2022/09/declaration-of-vii-congress-of-the-leaders-of-world-and-traditional-religions/
[3]Ibid.
[4]Ibid.
[5]“Pope in Kazakhstan: Religions 'key to building world peace and understanding”, Vatican News, https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2022-09/pope-religions-key-to-building-world-peace-and-understanding.html
[6]Ibid.
[7] “President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev participated in the closing ceremony of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions” Akorda Press, September 15, 2022. https://www.akorda.kz/en/president-kassym-jomart-tokayev-participated-in-the-closing-ceremony-of-the-vii-congress-of-leaders-of-world-and-traditional-religions-1585910

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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