Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is why I am here in Astana, but there are benefits to be had from all the hard work, too.

I have been coming here for inter-faith work since 2003 and have met some really lovely people. Kazakh young people are optimistic and proud of their young country’s achievements, looking ahead to a peaceful and prosperous future. They are not selfish or cynical, but want to see their country serve the peace of the region and the world. To tired Europeans that probably sounds very quaint, but if you meet these wonderful people, you will know what I mean.

LyazzatI mentioned in an earlier post that I had walked around Astana with a good friend, Lyazzat. She has helped me enormously in the work of the Congress and its Secretariat in the past and has now become a good friend to me and my family. She stayed with us in Croydon for two months in summer 2007 while doing an English language course in London. Lyazzat is bright, has the ideal personality and skills for diplomatic work and epitomises young Kazakh commitment to more than self-realisation. She is a lovely person and a great ambassador for her country.

Zhanara AbdulovaEach Congress delegation is assigned a ‘liaison officer’ and I have always come up trumps with young, intelligent and sociable young people. This time we have been assigned a young woman called Zhanara Abdulova. Her first name means ‘sunbeam’! I asked her if I could put her photo on here and she agreed. She has been unfailingly helpful, patient and efficient and we couldn’t have wished for anyone nicer. Like Lyazzat, she is a great ambassador for her country and my colleagues and I will be sad to say goodbye to her.

This evening we went into Astana and had a cultural introduction to Kazakhstan. This involved music, dance and cultural artefacts in a series of yurts. All this was interesting enough as we sat in the sun and drank it all in, but I was also chatting at length with Jonathan Aitken who (I have just discovered) is publishing next month a biography of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. We went from there to a cultural centre for a reception put on by the President who also turned up, addressed us and then spent ages chatting to people.

Now it’s late, I’m going to bed and will just shove a few photos up to illustrate the cultural stuff.

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It is amazing how undramatic drama can be.

Astana pyramidThis morning we left the hotel in buses to begin the work of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The giant pyramid was only completed the day before the last Congress in September 2006 and it was set in wasteland behind the new presidential palace. Now it is surrounded by large buildings and vast landscaping. It all looks a bit strikingly odd, but you can’t deny the ambition that is seeing this city grow so fast.

We arrived at the conference centre in the pyramid to discover that we were to be addressed at some point by the President of Israeland Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shimon Peres. I learned that this had caused some tensions, but the President of Kazakhstan opened proceedings with a much more political speech than we have had in the past. But he noted the ‘importance of this Congress in its unique role in post-Soviet space’ – in other words, the context out of which Kazakhstan has come and from which it is trying to grow has to be understood before criticism is levelled about some of the weaknesses of the place.

Astana congress hall 2Nazarbayev toured the world’s trouble spots and elicited the challenges faced by the world community. He criticised the capitalist culture that had created the ‘illusion of wealth without labour’, identified the gap between rich and poor and drew attention to Kazakhstan’s brave initiative in unilaterally disposing of its inherited nuclear weapons. It was a wide-ranging speech aimed at stressing the non-negotiable importance of religion and spirituality to politics and economics. Unfortunately, the interpreting was not great and some non-Russian speakers were left with some gaps.

Astana congress hall 4But that’s when the trouble began. The first speech of general greeting issued from Sheikh Dr Abdullah bin Abdul Mohsin Al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League. Even Shimon Peres applauded him and thanked him for the positive nature of his speech. But when Peres was invited to speak the Iranian delegation walked out of the room. Most people didn’t notice that they had gone. When Peres finished, they returned to their places and remained while the Chief Rabbis of Israel contributed later in the proceedings. No Muslims applauded Peres – perhaps because he offered for Israel to meet Arab leaders at a place of their choice (Kazakhstan?) to discuss progress in relations.

My notes of subsequent speeches (two hours of them) do not make for edifying or enlightening reading. But the significant thing here has to be the considerable achievement by the Kazakhs in getting these people in the same room as each other and enabling them to listen to each other – despite the discomfort such listening provokes. At one point I wrote in my notebook: ‘Every speech covers the same ground – God made you, so be nice to each other.’ Perhaps a little unkind, but that is how it sounded.

Astana congress hall 5

Some speakers did a good job in locating this religious stuff into the wider world of poverty, HIV/Aids, economic struggle, education, media and the Millennium Development Goals. Particularly good were Sergei Ordzhonikidze (Under-Secretary General of the UN), Kjell Magne Bondevik (former Prime minister of Norway and, before entering politics, an ordained Lutheran pastor) and Dr Ishmael Noko (General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation) who pointed the Congress delegates firmly toward action, engagement with the grassroots and reform of the Congress culture for the future.

Astana photographersAfter lunch downstairs (followed by the inevitable ‘family photo’ – I took one of the media photographing us…), we went into the main plenary session in which delegates were asked to address the theme of ‘the role of religious leaders in building a world of tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation’. I am not sure most speakers got us beyond the usual platitudes and there is a clear discrepancy between the words used here and the realities we know about on the ground. It is easy for a speaker to call for a culture of mercy when we know Christians are persecuted in his own country, for example.

Astana congress hall 7But this is surely the point. It is in this context of open speech that the contradictions and hypocrisies are identified. After all, it is usually only when there is an interlocutor that we begin to spot our own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Bondevik was good here in urging religious/Christian groups not just to lobby politicians on their pet subjects, but to explain why they think the way they do – in other words, to explain the theological, philosophical and ethical basis for the position they hold and wish to urge upon the particular politicians. Good advice, I think.

(Bondevik also made the point conveniently forgotten by opponents of religion and often not emphasised by religious people that although there are examples in every religion/culture of conflict and tension, there are also long histories of support, mutual assistance, cooperation and reconciliation.)

There followed lots of speeches that contained lots of buzz words and yet some good points also emerged form under the verbiage. For example, (a) that the younger generation is impatient with inter-faith talking shops dominated by elderly men (Sam Kobia of the World Council of Churches); (b) there can no longer be a form of security that looks to ‘my own interest’ in defiance or ignorance of the security of my neighbour/enemy (William Ventley who also repeated the line that ‘no fence can be high enough to protect us from the needs of others…’) and (c) that Rowan Williams’s poetry is needed by the world.

Yes, that is what was said! Professor Dr Mohamed Taher (a very nice and good man), who teaches at the Islamic College in Tripoli, Libya, met the Archbishop of Canterbury three months ago in Tripoli and asked if he could translate five of the Archbishop’s poems. He now uses them in his teaching and concluded his speech today saying ‘all human beings need to hear what Dr Williams is saying’. Clearly, we have an Archbishop who must be free to reach into the wider world and not be solely preoccupied with keeping the Church happy.

My speech was aimed at challenging the language/words religious leaders use not only at congresses such as this one, but when they are back in their local communities. I’ll post the speech later when I have written out what I actually said.

So, that is the first day done. I’ll post separately on some of the funnier stuff. I’ll conclude this bit with the observation that it is easy to be cynical about the ‘inter-faith circus’; but the achievement here is not to be found in a single solution to all the world’s problems, but in the commitment of a large and complex group of people to sit together, listen uncomfortably and join in dialogue. We need to dispel the fantasy that if we cna only get the formula right, everything would fall into place and all problems be solved. In any relationship – especially, perhaps, when it is going well – the relationship has to be worked at: you can’t reach a point of completion, but it is always an ongoing work that demands contact, dialogue, persistence and presence – all of which are (surprisingly) characterised by this Congress.