Author: Fabrizio Vielmini – 13/09/2022
Kazakhstan’s Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
The visit of the Pope underling the importance of the event as a global platform for Peace and Dialogue as well as a key diplomatic resource for the country’s international positioning.
Fabrizio Vielmini – Specialist in Russia and Central Asia, research associate at Vision & Global trends. International Institute for Global Analyses
On 14-15 September, Nur-Sultan, the capital of the Republic of Kazakhstan will host the 7th edition of the Congress of World and Traditional Religions Leaders. Every three years, the event bears worldwide significance as the largest gathering of representatives of the main spiritual traditions. This year, 110 delegations from 50 countries are expected. As a leading ecumenical platform for dialogue between and bridging of religions, the Congress holds as its declared mission to strengthen mutual understanding between civilizations and peoples and, by extension, contribute to international peace and security.
The main guest of this year’s edition will be the Head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis the first, who will be in Kazakhstan for three days. This is the second pastoral visit to Kazakhstan by a catholic Pontiff. First, exactly 20 years ago, came Pope Johan Paul II, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. After that, the Bush Administration declared a “war against terror”, which looked to many as a civilizational crusade against the Muslim world. Against such an appalling perspective, that visit released an important message against any “clash of civilizations”. As a mixed Muslim-Christian society, where representatives of Muslims, Christians Buddhists and dozens of other different confessions coexist peacefully, Kazakhstan was then considered by the Vatican as the best pulpit to denounce such a scenario. Exactly Johan Paul’s ground-break visit and words put the seeds of the idea of creating a general assembly of all faiths and establishing a dialogue between them. The Pontiff then spoke to young Muslims about the Unity of God for all the true religions. In the new century, he said, there should be no conflicts between peoples and that we must unite and forgive each other.
The new arrival of the Pope in Kazakhstan is taking place in even more difficult circumstances of global upheaval and is inspired by similar considerations. While Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians are in the midst of a fratricidal war, Kazakhstan becomes again an important platform to discuss and seek solutions to the vital issues where religion intervenes. Notably, for Rome, Nur-Sultan is the best place to speak to both Moscow and Kiev without being “enlisted” by their respective propaganda. Francis hoped to meet in Nur-Sultan with his Russian counterpart, Kirill, the head of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Kazakhstan would have been the ideal place for such an important meeting. Its land is neutral and here could be avoided the effect of the sanctions that several Western countries apply against Moscow’s Patriarch because he supports the “special military operation” conducted by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. A meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch was scheduled for the summer in Jerusalem, but, because of the difference of opinions on the ongoing war and reconciliation, had to be postponed. Francis will only interact with the Head of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk. Even if the summit of the two main representatives of Christianity will not take place at the event, the Congress and the presence of the Pope will have additional importance in softening the contradiction between religious institutions and drawing public attention to the tragedy taking now place in Ukraine, even if for a short time. Furthermore, for the first time in the Central Asian region, a Holy Mass will be held for tens of thousands of Catholic believers, including many pilgrims who are reaching in these hours the capital of Kazakhstan. Francis’ outdoor celebration is highly awaited by the small but vibrant community of Kazakhstani adherents of the Catholic faith. 70% of the 19 million inhabitants of Kazakhstan are Muslims, while 26% are Christians, mostly Orthodox. Catholics are currently assessed at about 120.000, heirs of various peoples, mainly Polish and German deportees from the Stalinist period and displaced during World War II. They are distributed in four dioceses (Astana-Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Karaganda and Atyrau) for a total of 70 parishes.
Catholics find in Kazakhstan a common home of peaceful co-existence along with more than 100 ethnic groups, with about 3.200 mosques, churches and about 4,200 religious associations, Therefore, the country stands as a kind of “hub” of spirituality in the heart of the Eurasian landmass.
In addition to the Pope, the congress is expected to be visited by senior representatives of Islam, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, etc. Notably, the Pope will meet the Supreme Imam of the Mosque-University of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the most prestigious figure in the Sunni Islamic world and the most important religious officer of Egypt. In December 2020, the Holy See and the Al-Azhar jointly produced a historic document, “On human fraternity in favour of peace and peaceful coexistence”, approved by the UN General Assembly. It will not be just a debate between Christianity and Islam, because on this basis, solid criteria will be offered for a constructive and non-formal dialogue between all religions. With regard to the latter, figures like the Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem, the Chief Rabbis of Israel, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, and Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, the official head of the Muslims of Russia, together with other heads of religious denominations and international organizations will be present in Nur-Sultan. In addition, a video message to Congress from UN Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to be aired.
All in all, taking into account the current international situation, the world-scale importance of the event is out of the discussion. Apart from the informal negotiations and dialogue of the leaders, ways to find a consensus that is more than ever so necessary for all, the Congress will adopt a Declaration with important provisions concerning the active involvement of men of religions in the process of achieving long-term stability and peace.
The Congress bear also of paramount importance to the main host, Kazakhstani President Kasym-Žomart Tokayev, the second post-Soviet head of state after his “eternal” predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been for thirty years the “leader of the nation” (Elbasy, a title that for a while was enshrined in the Constitution of the country). After New Year’s Eve, Kazakhstan briefly plunged into chaos, following social protests that degenerated into an attempted coup against president Tokayev. The situation was saved by a military intervention coordinated by Russia, for whom Kazakhstan remains its main ally in the former USSR together with Belarus. However, the Russian attack on Ukraine also wreaked havoc on the Russian-Kazakhstani relationship. Nur-Sultan now fears the presence of large ethnic Russian communities (20% of the population) concentrated in the north of the country, along the longest border in the world with Russia. A similar position excites the appetites of Russian nationalists, galvanized by the current war situation in the country, some of whom have spoken of a repetition of the Donbass scenario also in Kazakhstan. As a result, president Tokaev is nowadays confronted with a double existential dilemma. Internally he should assert his power vis-à-vis the representatives of Nazarbayev’s “ancient regime”. Externally, he should strengthen the foundations of the country’s international existence in front of Russia’s adventurism.
An event like the Congress and the visit of the Pope will provide a consistent political capital for the Kazakhstani president. It should be objectively recognized that Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping position, its authority at the international level and the positive image of a sovereign and peace-loving state have made it possible to create an effective platform for dialogue, the activities of which are aimed at maintaining inter-ethnic and inter-religious stability. How much of this potential is sufficient to normalize the current situation and reduce the destructive impact of global geopolitical crises will be shown during the 7th Congress’ debates.