The wifi was poor in Kazkahstan this week, so I was unable to post anything about the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. A packed programme and some substantial public and private conversations didn’t leave much time or mental space for writing anyway. But, what I intended to be the first post is this:

Sitting in the Pyramid at the heart of Astana, the astonishing capital city of Kazakhstan, it is hard to concentrate. There are fifty of us around the table, discussing a pile of issues related to faith and politics. Ironic, then, that although one of the panel sessions tomorrow is to address the role of women, only one woman sits at the top table. (We will also be addressing questions of ‘youth’ – without any young people! Extraordinary.)

Two things grabbed my attention: (a) male religious leaders spoke passionately about protecting the dignity and ‘family’ role of women without once letting a woman speak for herself, and (b) given the range and variety of headgear, we could have been at a hat competition. It is certainly colourful. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions brings together leaders and representatives of most of the world faiths: Christian (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran), Muslim (Iran, Saudi, India, Turkey, etc.), Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and so on. There are also a number of politicians from various parts of the world. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s also a colourful and somewhat random bag.

It is easy to sneer or take for granted a conference such as this. Where does all the talk get cashed out? What difference does it actually make on the ground? Who takes notice of religious leaders anyway – especially when they are elderly and fairly conservative? How do you get a common statement without it being a lowest common denominator expression of motherhood and apple pie?

Yet, a meeting of these people would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago. We take it for granted that religious leaders meet and speak together honestly. But, we easily forget that such conversations are relatively recent phenomena. To see the President of Kazakhstan sitting flanked by the Patriarch of Russia and the top man of the Muslim World League – who are flanked in turn by a Chief Rabbi from Israel and a Roman Catholic cardinal (I was a couple of places away…) – is still remarkable.

But, the questions still apply. It is well known that Kazakhstan’s international reputation for religious tolerance is currently threatened by the new Religious Law due to come into effect in October 2012. This new law is partly provoked by fears of extremism or terrorism, but is the wrong answer to the right question. It insists on a form of registration that would make it impossible for an Anglican Chaplaincy to be opened, for example. It also provides for any published materials to be vetted before distribution. It gets a bit more complicated than this, but you get theidea.

Look at the geography to understand the fear; but, extremists are not going to register under any restrictive law and this law will have two potential negative effects: (a) it won’t do what it is set up to do – control extremism – but will restrict the freedom of minority or small religious groups (especially Protestant groups such as Baptists and Lutherans), and (b) will compromise Kazakhstan’s hard-earned reputation for religious tolerance in a remarkably complex country.

Anyway, I am writing this during a Panel session on ‘multiculturalism’ while a Chinese speaker is passionately saying something very important, but without translation into English. There are other Panel sessions on ‘the role of women’ – which could get lively -, ‘youth’, and ‘sustainable development’ today and tomorrow. I did a plenary speech this morning (which I will post later) and will contribute to the session on ‘youth’ tomorrow. Before then I have to plant a tree (don’t ask) and have a big meal.

This conference can be frustrating – especially when speaker after speaker limits their speech to the blandly obvious (“it is good to talk…”) – but there are also some passionate, informed, challenging and controversial contributions. It isn’t boring.

However, as with most conferences, the real benefit comes from the networking and conversations in the margins. After all, it always comes down to relationships.

(Wifi is not available everywhere here and I can’t get pictures up yet. So, not much posting this week…)