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from issue no. 10 - 2003

The conference organized by President Nazarbayev

Trials of pax religiosa in Eurasia

At the end of September high-ranking delegates sent by 17 bodies and religious and denominational institutions from all over the world met to put fresh life into the watchwords of dialogue and of religious freedom. A conference in the heart of Eurasia, near to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, to that central Asian area that for the theorists of the clash between civilizations is the epicenter of all the upheavals of an ethnic-religious sort

by Gianni Valente

President Nursultan Nazarbayev with the heads of the religious delegations at the concluding  moment of the Astana conference, 
in the tent prepared near the Baiterek monument

President Nursultan Nazarbayev with the heads of the religious delegations at the concluding moment of the Astana conference, in the tent prepared near the Baiterek monument

The slanting and tepid light of an early autumn afternoon bathes the open space around the Baiterek, the monument-symbol of “Kazak renaissance” soaring toward the sky, when the delegates of seventeen religious denominations come out of the seventeen yurts, the tents of nomadic tradition set in a circle around the post-modern tower of Babel, where for a half an hour each group has prayed and thanked his God in his own way. All around, the building-sites of skyscrapers and of titanic constructions in glass and cement already give some idea of the modernistic shape of the future citadel of power, where the military commands and the ministries of Astana will be concentrated, the new capital of post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Against the background of this spreading urban landscape, the small clusters of religious delegations begin to blend in a colorful multi-religious and multi-ethnic cocktail. Shiite turbans next to purplish Episcopal skullcaps, Saudi kefiahs next to black rabbinic capes, eye-catching Buddhist robes beside the dark habits of monks from Assisi. Then the heads of delegations climb on the platform to stand round their generous host, Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbayev, for the farewell speeches. The Ashkenazi chief rabbi from Israel Jona Metsger, when his turn comes, performs an impromptu coup de théâtre and at the end of his little speech “blesses” the Kazak president by laying his hands on his forehead, the other religious leaders look on in puzzlement. But it’s not the moment for untimely jealousies. It is the moment for the balloons, for the uncaging of doves and for final farewells. In which you can see the Egyptian sheikh of the Islamic University of Al Azhar warmly shaking hand with the Israelis rabbis. Or the Pakistani Islamic leaders hugging the leader of the Hindu delegation. Or Metropolitan Mefodij, head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan, cordially saluted by the prelates in the Vatican delegation, despite the past arguments on “Catholic proselytism” in the canonical territories of Orthodoxy.
That was the end, in the early afternoon of Wednesday 24 September, of the “First Congress of world and national traditional religions”, organized in Astana by the concern for inter-religious harmony of the Kazak political leader, the “Gorbacevian” Nazarbayev. For two days high-ranking delegates sent by 17 bodies and religious and denominational institutions from all over the world have sat down at the large round table in the room of Sultanat Saraiy, among red hanging and turquoise columns, to give “fresh life” to the watchwords of dialogue and religious freedom, this in the heart of Eurasia, close to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Azerbaijan, to that central Asian area which for the theorists of the clash between civilizations is the epicenter of all the upheavals of an ethnic-religious sort that worry the globalized world.

the Catholic Archbishop of Astana Tomasz Peta along with Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist representatives

the Catholic Archbishop of Astana Tomasz Peta along with Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist representatives

Islamic preoccupations
The conference, right from the program statements of the organizers, was patterned on the day of Peace, convoked in Assisi by John Paul II on 24 January 2002, to reaffirm the positive contribution of different religious traditions to dialogue and harmony among peoples and nations. The three days in Astana also aimed to belie the post-11 September mental climate that sees the religious factor as the cheap fuel of new geopolitical conflicts. All the speeches of the different Islamic representatives seemed shaped by the pressing need to rid Islam of the black “Western” label that depicts it as the new empire of Evil, ideological matrix of holy wars and terrorist networks. Saudi Abdullah bin Abdul Mohsin Al Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, gave a magisterial lecture crammed with quotations from the Koran to demonstrate that «Islam confirms the authenticity of the sacred Books revealed before Mohammed», who «prohibits his followers from compelling other people to embrace the Islamic faith», challenging on the basis of verses from the Prophet the claims of those who describe the Moslem religion as one «that preaches violence, disregards human rights and oppresses women». He was echoed by Pakistani Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi, Vice-president of the International Islamic University, in an apologia of Islam aimed at showing that «a fundamental characteristic of Islamic civilization is the acceptance of pluralism of opinions and the variety of points of view». While Indian Muhammad Rabey Hasani Nadwi, President of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, stressed that «Islam in very exceptional cases does permit its followers to use force, only when no other softer option is left to curb the tyranny and when some innocent people are made the target of terror and injustice. If a few persons use force wrongly then it is an unIslamic action».

Many names, one sole God?
As well as the excusatio of Islam, some speeches set inter-religious dialogue in a theological and not just “political” context, tracing the existing plurality of rites and religious confessions to the divine providential design itself. «Even though God is one and the same for all, he is called in diverse fashion by different peoples. You call God by a certain name. He is One. Each religion is like a flower, and like every flower has its nectar. Like the bees we must gather the nectar from each religion, so as to make our honey tastier». So said Hindu leader Sri Sugunendra Theerta Swamiji in his speech read by Karamshi Somaiya, of the Indological Research Institute and Inter-Faith Dialogue. Followed on that track by Japanese Minoru Sonoda, head of Association of Shinto Temples, for whom «religions must beware of absolute claims. In their permanent relation with transcendence, they must also take account of their own relations with other religious beliefs». But the syncretist tendency of oriental traditions doesn’t constitute a novelty. More surprising was the theological justification of religious pluralism in the speech by Mohammad Seid Tantawi, Imam of the Egyptian University of Al Azhar, an authority acknowledged throughout Sunni Islam, who explained that «differences of religion don’t prevent the exchange of goods, within the limits decided by Allah. Religion isn’t sold or bought, each has his own. Allah, if such had been his desire, would have created all men of a single nation and of a single religion. And instead he has created us in different nations and religions».
In the rapid sequence of speeches and declarations, that of the president of the Vatican delegation, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, soberly restricted itself to delineating the «role of religions in the construction of peace», quoting amply from the Council Constitution Gaudium et spes and from the recent pontifical magisterium, from Paul VI («The new name for peace is development») to John Paul II («The Christian confessions and the large religions must collaborate among themselves so as to face up to the social and cultural causes of terrorism»). Recalling the old Latin saying «Si vis pacem para bellum», the Slovak cardinal remarked: «We today would say instead: “if you want peace, encourage justice”. Tensions, hate, wars, violence and terrorists activities are often the outcome of injustice». At the conclusion of his speech, rather than introducing controversial argumentative on the alleged “equivalence” of all religious paths, the cardinal from Rome proposed religious freedom as regulatory criterion in inter-confessional relations and between religions and civil contexts: «Every man has the right to choose his own religion and to practice it, both as individual and as member of a community… Religions have the duty to promote human rights. It is not possible to invoke religious traditions in order to limit the freedom of religion».
The limited propensity of Vatican delegates for formulas of a syncretist sort was probably also manifested during the drafting of the final Declaration given out by the Congress: a list of recommendations and assertions in which it is claimed among other things that «extremism and the terrorism in the name of religion have nothing to do with the genuine comprehension of religion». In the English version of the working draft, available from the organizing committee already before the Congress, perhaps because of inexact translation, an ambiguous phrase appeared which linked the hoped-for peaceful co-existence among different religious beliefs to the possibility of demonstrating «a unique nature of each religion and culture». In the final version, sweeping away any misunderstanding, it is made quite clear that «the diversity of religious beliefs and practices should not lead to mutual suspicion, discrimination and humiliation, but to a mutual acceptance and harmony, in demonstrating distinctive characteristics of each religion and culture». The final text of the declaration, also recognizes from its very beginning «the right of each human person to freely be convinced, choose, express and practice his/her religion». A commitment, also underwritten by authoritative spiritual guides from throughout the Moslem world, this at a symposium taking place in a country with an overriding Islamic majority.

There is glory for all
The Holy See honored the Congress of Astana with a high-profile delegation. Cardinal Tomko was accompanied on the flight to the Kazak capital by Archbishops Renato Raffaele Martino, now President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and of Peace and destined to receive the cardinal’s hat at the Consistory announced for next October 21) and Pierluigi Celata, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, together with Father Jozef Maj, of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, and Monsignor Julio Murat, of the Second Section of the Secretariat of State. An outstanding team for what the Sacred Palaces apparently viewed as more than the “usual” inter-religious conference. Above all because the invitation did not come from the “usual” body or religious movement, but from the founding-President of the new Kazakhstan.
In this country of the steppes, land of former deportees and former atomic rubbish dump of the Soviet empire, 130 nationalities and more than 40 different confessional groups co-exist, not too far from areas and regions infested by nests of fundamentalism. In this scenario Nazarbayev has made the politics of religious harmony a key point in his program of modernization, reinvigorating the local tradition of a tolerant Islam after decades of Soviet atheist propaganda. The pax religiosa interests him also as guarantee of the social stability required for planned political and economic development based on the exploitation of oil and other natural resources. A policy that in the name of tranquillitas ordinis aims to associate the religious leadership to the tolerant design of government, and in which all the confessions can take advantage of adequate space to develop their own institutions. As the Holy See saw for itself last May when the Catholic apostolic administrations present in Kazakhstan were elevated to diocese without problems from the political and legal points of view. A favorable contingency that could become consolidated in coming years, given that Nazarbayev seems to be fond of his image of political leader “friendly” to religions: he has already invited the leaders of world traditional religions to the Kazak capital for a second Congress in 2006. And he has announced the construction of a “Palace of the Nations” in the new area of Astana, «a symbol of the unity of the people of our country», in which «a mosque, a church, a synagogue and a Buddhist shrine» will stand side by side. All housed together under a roof built by the “humanist” president.

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