By Aibek Nurbekov
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The congress was first convened on September 23-24, 2003, in Astana, at the initiative of President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev. Various events dedicated to this anniversary are being held in Kazakhstan and abroad. In an interview with Head of the Secretariat of the Congress and Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan’s Parliament Kairat Mami, we discussed the achievements as well as the goals and objectives of the inter-religious dialogue. How would you describe the significance of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions? The main and paramount objective is the promotion of global dialogue among traditional religions. There is an ever-growing need for this dialogue in the contemporary age due to the existence in everyday life in many countries of issues such as strained relations among representatives of various religions and cultures as well as the lingering global economic crisis, which is steadily eroding the pillars of the world’s social system. The leaders of western countries openly acknowledge the failure of their multiculturalism policies. All these factors are fuelling the rise of such destructive phenomena as extremism and terrorism in all of their manifestations as well as their ideological activity. That is why many international entities would want to make contributions to the promotion of dialogue among religions and civilisations, which can facilitate the growth of trust between various communities belonging to different cultures and religions. Such a dialogue could also help a culture of mutual understanding and respect take root in our societies. As regards the religions of the congress, their values have been tested by time and have laid the foundations of all cultures and civilisations. Here I would like to quote President Nazarbayev: “Where political means are doomed to failure, the word of God remains the only way for reconciliation and hope. The role of religious traditions that are based on highest moral standards in our reckless and sometimes chaotically changing world is of utmost importance.” The Palace of Peace and Harmony was built as the venue for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Yes, President Nazarbayev, while addressing the first congress, told of his intention to construct a palace that would accommodate a mosque, a church, a synagogue and a Buddhist temple. The Palace of Peace and Harmony was commissioned ahead of the second congress, which took place in Astana on September 12-13, 2006.
By the way, recently, when the country was celebrating Astana’s 15th anniversary, a documentary dedicated to the architecture of the capital city was aired on TV. In the film, the president touches upon his idea to build the palace, which is known nowadays among people as “the pyramid.” He said that people in their childhood want to grasp everything and their aspiration is as big as the foundation of a pyramid. As a pyramid grows, it becomes thinner and slimmer, the same way a person’s aspirations narrow as he grows, since he takes with him only those things that he actually needs. At the end of one’s life path, a person is left one-on-one with the endless sky, as at the tip of a pyramid. In the documentary, the president also recalls Akbar, the Mogol shahinshah, who in 1575 built the famous Ibadatkhana, where representatives of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other religions could gather and talk to each other. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions entered the global stage in Astana and here it embarked on its noble mission. If the Palace of Peace and Harmony is the symbol of Astana’s inter-religious forum, then the entire architecture of Astana gives some insight into the philosophy of our country’s development and the ideological directions of our nation. The Palace of Peace and Harmony nowadays is not only the venue for the Congress of Traditional Religions, but also a place for august domestic and international events. The palace also serves as the premises for the Assembly of Kazakhstan’s People and all the ethnic and cultural centres of the country. How is the 10th anniversary being celebrated? What sort of preparations have been made for the occasion? A chronicle of four congresses that have been held so far, a two-volume book about the fourth congress, two documentary films, a sizeable photo exhibition and various brochures have been prepared and produced in Kazakh, Russian and English. A website of the congress has opened within the G-Global web portal, which provides an opportunity to hold online forums. Since the beginning of the year, a number of delegations of the country, comprising members of parliament and representatives of our society, science and state agencies have visited the Holy See, Austria, Iran, Azerbaijan, Japan, Russia, India and the Unites States as well as other places. In these events, with the participation of eminent representatives of religions, nongovernmental organisations and politicians, the essence of President Nazarbayev’s idea on convening the interreligious congress was discussed and information about the goals and objectives of the Astana inter-religious dialogue was disseminated. We are planning to hold an international conference in Astana dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the congress as well as the next session of the congress secretariat. How would you assess the development of the congress over the past 10 years? The Astana inter-religious forum has gone through a certain formative stage. The institutionalisation of the congress is ongoing. Its secretariat, which was set up by the first congress, works on a regular basis. The International Centre of Cultures and Religions, which was also set up by the congress, is now functioning in Astana. During the fourth congress the Council of Religious Leaders, comprised of leaders of religious communities and eminent religious figures, held its first meeting. This council is a coordinating body of the congress and deals with deepening interaction and cooperation with other forums and international organisations that pursue the goals of promoting dialogue among cultures and religions.
Nowadays, the congress has gained recognition in the international community and among traditional religions. The contribution of the congress to promoting global dialogue among religions and cultures was mentioned in the resolutions of the United Nations’ General Assembly. With the aim of implementing the initiatives of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming 2010 as “International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.” How do religious leaders view the activities of the forum? Eminent representatives of traditional religions are grateful to President Nazarbayev for his far-sighted and noble initiative to convene the congress of religious leaders. For, as life demonstrates, despite the age of globalisation, nanotechnologies, unforeseen challenges and social disturbances, humanity seeks asylum and spiritual nourishment in religion. One recalls the words of the great Kazakh thinker Aba, who said “Humanity changes every day, but not the Almighty,” or the Latin proverb “O tempora, о mores” [“Oh, the times; oh, the mores”]. Indeed, times and people change; however, traditions and values that stem from religion are firm.
“Timely and far-sighted” is the assessment given by well-known representatives of religions to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s idea to bring traditional religions together. Speaking at the fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Abdullah Bin Abdel Mohsin Al-Turki, Secretary General of the World Muslim League, said “The appeal for the peaceful co-existence and peace by means of dialogue, which is the aim of our congress, is indeed a noble call with clear purpose ... the World Muslim League highly appreciates His Excellency the President of Kazakhstan for his outstanding efforts on a global scale in the field of dialogue and human relations.”
The Astana inter-religious forum is, year by year, gaining acclaim on the part of leaders of religious communities from near and far. Last year the Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Kirill, participated in the work of the congress for the first time. As the Patriarch says: “The atheistic model of human development crashed along with the ideologies of the 20th century. The history of that century vividly demonstrated that removing religion from society means removing both heart and morality ... Kazakhstan is a country where inter-religious relations are developing in harmony, where mutual ties between religious organisations and the state are built and maintained in quite a productive and constructive manner, and we all know that the wise policy of the President of Kazakhstan mostly determines the framework of this peaceful and pleasant interaction.” Speaking at the fourth congress, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar expressed deep gratitude to President Nazarbayev for his support of the followers of Judaism in Kazakhstan. According to Amar, President Nazarbayev “has created a new organisation, a United Nations of all religions. Owing to this initiative, here at one table come together people with different views, representing different religions, and talk to each other with open hearts and listen to each other.
We are thankful to you for your courage, for your wisdom and for everything you have done for humanity.” As a gesture of gratitude to Kazakhstan and its leader, eminent representatives of traditional religions opened an alley in Astana called Rukhani Zharasym (“Spiritual Harmony”) during the fourth congress and planted trees there. Why did Kazakhstan decide to embark upon this global undertaking? What has the congress given to the world and Kazakhstan? As regards the first part of the question, I would again like to quote our head of state. While speaking at the first congress, the president clearly defined the place of the country among the community of nations: “Throughout many centuries, the territory of the Great Steppe was notable for the integral and peaceful coexistence of many peoples that worshipped various religions - Tengrism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others. From ancient times to our age, this land through trade and cultural exchange has functioned as a specific link between Asia and Europe. This land even today is home to representatives of many peoples and faiths.” Let us have a look at what has been achieved through our forum during the 10 years since its inception. The congress has become one of the first summits seeking to promote dialogue among religions and civilisations. The congress has turned into an effective driving force behind the global penetration of spiritual values, preaching and rooting in the minds of people the sacred values of traditional religions.
In the deliberations of four congresses in Astana, leaders and prominent representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism and other religions have taken part. At the dialogue platform of the Congress, full-fledged and substantial dialogue on spiritual rapprochement of religious communities has taken place and joint appeals to the citizens, peoples and governments have been adopted. The congresses were instrumental in strengthening ties between representatives of different religions and faiths, which led to the growth among religious communities of trust and mutual understanding that are the main components of peacetul coexistence and harmony on our planet. Kazakhstan, while inspiring the world community to noble causes, has earned respect and sympathy in the hearts of people around the world because the congress is hosted by a new country that is being led to the future by the founder of the state, because the congress is hosted by a relatively young society that has achieved outstanding gains in its independent development and become a regional model of development, because the congress is convened by a country that purposefully prevents the marginalisation of any cultural or religious community at home.
This remarkable contribution to promoting inter-religious dialogue has earned respect and admiration for our country in the community of nations. Kazakhstan has become prominent within global structures for its noble undertakings and also as a country with a robustly developing economy and a society that is knit together on the basis of mutual understanding and mutual respect. I think the congress has also contributed to the greater understanding by our citizens of the contemporary world and its issues. How do you view the future of the Astana inter-religious dialogue? Speaking at the fourth congress, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said that the congresses “to a great extent prevented the world from falling into the abyss of the clash of civilisations.” Indeed, the four congresses that have been held so far have once again demonstrated the constructive potential of good will and noble undertakings. Spiritual leaders who participated in all the Astana inter-religious forums since the convening of the first congress have vividly shown that dialogue, mutual understanding and respect are strong forces on the planet that are capable of ensuring harmony and security, as well as the well-being and peaceful coexistence of all cultural and religious communities and nations. Against the backdrop of globalisation and contemporary challenges and threats, the Astana forum has been a pioneer in undertaking the task of promoting dialogue among religions and civilisations and has made a significant contribution to creating a culture of mutual understanding and respect in the world. The congress is determined to continue its search and work on ensuring sustainable peace and harmony among the followers of traditional religions, which is the only condition under which universal development and well-being can arise. On the whole, the 10-year evolution of the congress has proven that the Astana interreligious dialogue, which came into being owing to the far-sighted idea of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, is an important platform that has emerged on the global stage at the right time.