We call for dialogue, not hate

By Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev

Published on November 24, 2003 at
www.diplomatictraffic.com and on
November 26, 2003 at the Institute
of Religion and Public Policy's website


Extremists often use religion to
create hate and further their selfish
agendas which have nothing to do
with religion. But, all religions are
similar in that they denounce
terrorism and teach tolerance,
harmony and brotherhood.

That was the message delivered to the world by participants of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, who gathered in Astana at the initiative of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of a secular Muslim-majority Kazakhstan. At the end of the Congress, senior clerics from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism and other faiths adopted a declaration stating, "extremism, terrorism and other forms of violence in the name of religion have nothing to do with genuine understanding of religion, but are threat to human life and hence should be rejected."

"Inter-religious dialogue is one of the key means for social development and the promotion of the well-being of all peoples, fostering tolerance, mutual understanding and harmony among different cultures and religions," the religious leaders said after the closing joint prayer.

Far from the "clash of civilizations" many see as part of the world's future, this Congress was a strong response to all who spread intolerance, hate and terrorism. The Congress also showed the world the noble goals of inter-religious peace are very real and very achievable. There's convincing evidence of this in Kazakhstan, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others live in peace with each other and where freedom of religion is the crucial value of our society. Pope John Paul II called Kazakhstan "an example of harmony between men and women of different origins and beliefs."

Indeed, at the whim of often cruel fate in the past, Kazakhstan, however paradoxically that may sound, has truly become a center of unique diversity and tolerance.

During much of the 20th century, Kazakhstan was under the totalitarian domination of Soviet communism. The Soviets conducted cruel experiments with our land and our people. The forced settlement of the traditionally nomadic Kazakh people was followed by a widespread famine in the 1930s. Coupled with almost 500 nuclear tests during 40 years, this led to deprivation, death and emigration of millions of ethnic Kazakhs. In the 1940s, Stalin dumped hundreds of thousands of Germans, Chechens, Koreans and others in Kazakhstan as his regime deemed them untrustworthy in the face of the invading Nazis in the West and the Japanese in the East. Thousands of ethnic Russians and others were sent to Soviet concentration camps, part of the Gulag, in Kazakhstan. Many Soviet Jews were exiled to Kazakhstan for their religious beliefs. In the 1950s, more than a million ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians came to Kazakhstan to farm under the Virgin Lands program.

In those difficult years, the native Kazakhs gave all these people shelter and shared bread. Official Communist ideology, however, did not encourage people in their natural yearning for a religious life. Religious life was instead suppressed; ancient mosques, churches, and synagogues were used as shops, storage areas or even discos, rather than houses of worship.

Religious reawakening and freedom of conscience returned to Kazakhstan only after our independence. During the short 12 years, ancient mosques, churches and synagogues were restored and hundreds of new ones built across the country. In 2002, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) put a cornerstone into the new synagogue currently under construction in Astana. Today, there are some 3,000 religious congregations representing more than 40 religious denominations serving the needs of 100 different ethnic groups. Recently, President Nazarbayev announced plans to build a single center in Astana which will have houses of worship of many religions.

This history of mutual respect and harmony is the background which led President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan to convene the recent Astana Congress. The eager response of world's religious leaders to the call for the Congress is a reflection of the respect they carry for the President and his policies.

This is also the reason why many leaders from the United States and other countries have supported our endeavors to build bridges between religions and civilizations.

President George W. Bush, in his letter to President Nazarbayev, said, "For the United States, itself a multi-ethnic and religiously diverse nation, these meetings underscore the importance of working with our friends in Central Asia to advance the values of tolerance and respect that form the foundation of democracy."

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and Congressmen in a letter to President Nazarbayev called the Astana forum "Kazakhstan's worthy contribution to the promotion of peace and harmony during these difficult times." Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Conrad Burns (R-MT), representatives George Radanovich (R-CA), Joe Pitts (R-PA), Robert Wexler (D-FL), Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa), Edolphus Towns (D-NY) and others also thanked Kazakhstan "for taking consistent and concrete steps to bridge the growing divide between Muslims and Jews at a time when tension in the Middle East is at a fulcrum, and intolerance and anti-Semitism are rising worldwide."

The recent report to Congress by the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim worlds, led by Edward Djerejian, points out the need for dialogue between the Muslim and Western worlds is more important today than ever before.

Such a conclusion is obvious. Similarly obvious are difficulties in putting it into practice.

But the example of Kazakhstan, working well with the United States, the West, and the Muslim world and speaking for dialogue of religions and civilizations, gives us ground for optimism that tolerance and mutual understanding, not hate and violence, will prevail.

Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States