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…)

I have only known Washington through the epic series The West Wing. We spent a year watching it from the first episode to the last. Having visited Washington DC for the first time today, I will now have to watch it all again.

What struck me when we arrived this morning was the scale and beauty of the place. You can tell this city was designed to be the capital: symmetry around a central axis, but the most stable triangle holding together the Capitol (legislature), the White House (executive presidency) and the Supreme Court (judiciary) – which can all be seen at once from just to the south of the Washington Memorial. Look west and your eye is taken to the huge reminder of the fragility of the Union, the Lincoln Memorial.

Paris shows the hand of a single mind: Haussmann. Berlin pivots on its axis (from Unter den Linden through the Brandenburger Tor). If Hitler had had his way, both Berlin and Linz would have become enormous memorials to hubris and a monstrous ego. The only other place I have seen that shows such singular design is Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Here, too, the man responsible for holding the country through the transition from Communism to free market Capitalism (and doing rather well out of it in more ways than one) has designed his capital on an axis that is breathtaking in its ambition.

Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from the beautiful Almaty in the south (prone to earthquakes and too close to expansionist China) and build on what had originally been the village of Aqmola (Kazakh for ‘White grave’ – not the best name for a new capital city) and later became Tselinograd. Since the capital moved north some ten or fifteen years ago the President’s ambitious building programme has gradually and determinedly been realised. It isn’t pretty, and it’s pretty confused in terms of its mixture of styles – but it is symmetrical and grand and imposing.

However, the link between Astana (which actually means ‘capital city’ – not exactly imaginative) and Washington DC – to my mind, at least – is the ubiquity of a search for or assertion of identity. Astana has essentially three styles of modern architecture: Islamic, Soviet and (what I call) ‘Dubai’. It is as if this young country – of which so many of it’s young people are hugely proud, building a new future – is trying to decide who it is: the nomadic horse people of Genghis Khan, a peaceful Islamic (though in a rather ‘keep it quiet and unobtrusive’ sort of way), or a modern, confident Islamic buffer state between the fanatics down south (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), the imperialists up north (Russia) and the expansionists to the right and down a bit (China). The architecture betrays the search for which origins will eventually define Kazakhstan’s identity: they will work out who they are and who they might become by where they decide they have come from.

What struck me about Washington was the emphasis on ‘greatness’, grandeur, self-justification (and I mean that neutrally, not pejoratively). And the ubiquity of conflict. Every memorial seems to speak of conflict won or lost. It seemed poignant to me as a visitor that the two most powerful memorials were those closest to the Lincoln Memorial – Korea and Vietnam – and both of those were lost. More to the point, tens of thousands of lives were lost – and it isn’t obvious to younger generations what the point of these wars was.

As I watched so many young people reflected in the stone and the engraved names of those lost and missing in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975, I was haunted by the enormity of the loss. Not only the Americans, but hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. It reminded me of when I visited the memorial to the fallen in the ten-year Soviet Afghan campaign (1979-89) in Astana and I saw the mothers still weeping at the sight of their sons’ names etched into the stone.

What was it all for?

I loved Washington. It is beautiful, confident, friendly (despite the snarly policewoman I asked for information – a mistake I won’t make again). The wide avenues are stunning. The vistas are breathtaking, the architecture pleasingly classical (mostly), the sense of space and pace relaxing. But I also found myself wondering what researchers will be making of it all in a thousand years. Will they be seeing the place as we do when we look at the ruins of Rome or Greece and wonder what happened?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Washington DC, USA

Here is the text of my speech to the III Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday 1 July 2009:

The role of religious leaders in building peace based on tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation

 The role of religious leaders in building peace based on tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation is to use words as if they were fragile glass or weapons that kill.

I don’t want to repeat things that have already been said during this Congress, but will come back to the matter of words and language later. But, I wish to begin by bringing the greetings of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Congress and to the President of Kazakhstan and his staff – with an expression of gratitude for the invitation to be here and for such generous hospitality. No opportunity for conversation between religious leaders can ever be wasted and the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions has the potential to create ever greater trust and affection between leaders from all over the globe.

The Archbishop has just returned from Istanbul where last week he convened the eighth meeting in the series of Building Bridges seminars focussing on discussion of the relationship between religion and science from Christian and Muslim perspectives. This has proved to be an excellent example of how religious leaders and scholars converse with each other in an intelligent, informed and respectful manner. And this is just one form of such dialogue in which relationships are built up and knowledge and understanding deepened.

Recently the Archbishop launched an initiative in London called ‘Presence and Engagement’. London is a vibrant, colourful and complicated city, bringing together people from every corner of the earth. The Church of England and other Christians are committed to serving in communities where the local population is no longer mainly Christian – being present and engaging openly and in love with people of other faiths. This is in no way a denial or watering down of Christian ministry, but a necessary response to and living out of the Christian gospel by those who claim to follow the Jesus we read about in the gospels.

At the launch of London Presence and Engagement the Archbishop spoke about the power of words and it is here that I wish to address our thinking in the context of our own congress here in Astana. For words matter enormously. And religious leaders are challenged to speak consistently, using language to articulate hope not only at forums such as this one, but also back home in the communities where our voice is heard and heeded. Empty words become a hypocrisy and that is not something religious leaders can embrace.

There are those who criticise events such as this for being ‘all talk, no action’. They say that this is just another example of where religious leaders talk about peace, but never get any further than merely talking. Well, I want to argue that talking is action. Talking together builds relationships of trust, exposes true motives and makes us responsible for what we do as a result of the conversations. The fact that we have spoken about the importance of talking together means that we can never pretend that the conversations never took place. That matters enormously.

During my speech at the Second Congress in September 2006 I said this:

It is vital that religious leaders come together, speak together, listen carefully to each other, and build relationships of mutual understanding and respect with each other. But it must not stop there. Once in a relationship with leaders of other religious traditions, it is imperative that honest and open conversation leads to action and the making of a difference. The challenge to the religious leader is to have the courage to stay with the conversation when the honesty is painful to bear and when the easy option would be to walk away. The promise is only that being a religious leader in such a context will be lonely, painful and personally costly. But it is also true that greatness in a leader is seen when the leader is big enough to stand in the middle, between people of two different worlds, and hold the two together… while being pulled apart by the exercise itself.

But there is a second element and it is simply that talking involves listening. And when it is religious leaders from different faiths and different parts of the world with their different cultures and histories who are thrown together, that act of listening can be difficult. It can be hard to listen to the perspective of someone whose position we find difficult to accept. But, we do listen because we are here together in the same shared space and cannot walk away. This encounter has the potential to change us – and through us to change those whom we lead and serve.

Perhaps it is this notion of ‘shared space’ that goes to the heart of our mutual concerns. After all, the planet is small, life is fragile and our faiths put upon us the responsibility to enable human beings, within their limited environment, to flourish as best they can. There is no other option open to us, despite the best efforts of some religious and non-religious people to create conflict wherever they can. No one who claims the voice of God can escape the obligation to serve the interests not only of his own community, but those interests that promote what has become known as ‘the common good’.

But, to go back to the power of words, we need to recognise that leaders in any sphere of life bear a very heavy responsibility for using words wisely and well. Words can inspire people to lay down their life for the sake of other people; but, they can also be used to conspire in destructiveness, cruelty and neglect of the poor, weak and vulnerable. Words can inspire, but they can also depress. They can give birth to new possibilities, but they can also kill the spirit as well as lead to the killing of bodies. Words can heal, but they can also very easily wound. Words – especially when allied to authority (especially religious authority) – can also either open up relationships or simply close them down, thus condemning us all to misery.

The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tell us vividly and frequently through the agony of loss that the people who claim to be God’s people must be the bearers of promise. When the world has closed down for many people who feel trapped in cycles of enmity, hatred or violence, it is the prophets – indeed, the poets – who craft the words that tease people’s imagination with the possibility of a new future, of new birth, of hope. When those in exile are taunted by their apparently victorious oppressors about the apparent futility of their faith, it is the poets who use words to paint pictures of hope, who conjure up images of newness and who keep alive the potential for a different future when such an idea simply looks and sounds absurd.

But such a poetic hope is not simply to be hijacked into defending the narrow interests of a few of ‘my own’ people. Rather, it is to be held out for all people and especially those who suffer whether through their own fault or that of others. Hope cannot be tamed or turned into a possession of those who happen to be most powerful at the moment. A Christian can do no other than lay down his own life and interests and rights if that is the cost that has to be paid for making reconciliation and peace even possible.

And this is why, I think, religious leaders have a vital role in ‘building peace based on tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation’. Not because these are nice or pleasant notions upon which all can agree, but because religious leaders have a massive responsibility to lead their communities towards hope – often, as was the case with the prophets of old, at enormous personal cost. Telling the truth and leading communities in right ways is never an easy option in a world which deems power as the greatest good.

However, religious leaders – as they are represented here in Astana – are only one part of the solution. The problem we have is how to cascade well-meant language down through our communities to every level of religious community and commitment. It is not enough for us to agree to statements at this level if this makes no difference to those who wish to fight or kill or impoverish those they consider to be either their enemy or just ‘different’. If we satisfy ourselves with friendly dialogue and the agreeing of a statement without working these ideas through our networks and communities – using the authority we have by virtue of the offices and roles we fulfil – then we have done worse than fail: we have merely played a religious game and our words will have been nothing other than an empty hypocrisy.

I am – as always – pleased that here in Kazakhstan in this Congress we are able to model relationships and dialogue based on tolerance (as a positive practice), mutual respect (which comes at cost) and cooperation (which demands action). I urge us all as religious leaders to take our words and language seriously, to become poets of hope for hopeless people and to remain dissatisfied until our own actions are effective in challenging, encouraging, persuading, changing and shaping behaviour throughout the communities for which we are responsible and accountable.

More could be said. But I want to strongly endorse the proposals made by Ishmael Noko in his speech earlier and ask that they be taken seriously in preparation for the next Congress in three years’ time.

Thank you.

33 hours without sleep is too long, but I can never sleep on aircraft. On the delayed second leg from Istanbul to Astana I sat next to a very interesting Kazakh woman who teaches English at Almaty University and we talked for a long time. By the time we got to our hotel the day had begun and I didn’t dare sleep in case I wouldn’t wake up for my meetings.

But I spent the afternoon with a Kazakh friend who stayed with us for two months in Croydon a couple of years ago. We walked miles through Astana – the best way to see any city. But step off the kerb and you take your life in your hands! Traffic is heavy and it isn’t obvious whose rights to move have priority. But the weather was amazing. Because Astana is surrounded by a thousand miles of empty steppe, the horizon is very flat and the sky very big – which means that you can see the bad weather coming hours before it hits.

I have never seen such a sudden storm hit a place. The winds were so strong that fountains were turned off, trees were bent double and we had  along coffee while we watched it pass. Not a great picture (taken through glass), but it gives a bit of an idea:

Astana 2 004

Back at the hotel I wrote my speech for tomorrow on The role of religious leaders in building peace based on tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation (which I will post later tomorrow once I have done it and know what I actually said…).

I then had a (for me, at least) really good interview with Jerome Taylor of the Independent who is here to cover the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. He had done his reading, knew his stuff, set the detail in a broad and informed hinterland and made the conversation at once enjoyable and informative for me. The main point for me was the importance of placing religious questions into the context set by wider geo-political and historico-cultural considerations: discussion of ‘religious’ questions makes no sense in isolation from the rest of the world.

It sounds obvious, but it is easily missed.

I left home at 8am on Monday morning, caught a delayed flight (with two colleagues) to Istanbul, missed the connection to Astana, got transferred to a later flight and got here just a couple of hours ago. Since then I have been dealing with administrative matters and now daren’t sleep for fear of skewering my constitution for the hard work of the next few days.

But here is the view from the 16th floor window of my hotel, overlooking a cityscape that didn’t exist when I first came here six years ago:

Astana 002

Astana pyramidAstana is the capital of Kazakhstan. In 2003 a Congress was initiated by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and tomorrow the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions begins in the remarkable Palace of Peace and Accord – which is a pyramid designed by Sir Norman Foster three years ago. I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at the first (2003) and second (2006) Congresses and am filling the same shoes this time, too. However, this time I have two colleagues with me, so won’t feel like ‘Jonny No-mates’ when faced with the hordes from the Vatican.

This Congress brings together a remarkable array of top religious leaders from all over the globe. We are talking about the two Chief Rabbis from Israel, top Muslims from everywhere, the Ecumenical Patriarch, top Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and lots of others. If the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury were here, you’d have hit interreligious jackpot!

It is easy to dismiss what I have sometimes rudely called the ‘inter-faith circus’ where the same people meet in lots of exotic places around the world and say how good it is to talk. But it actually is remarkable that the Kazakhs can pull together the people they do … who are then compelled to sit in the same space and listen to things that make them uncomfortable. The final declarations of events such as this can easily be dismissed as ‘motherhood and apple pie’ resolutions, but they do then exist as agreed statements by religious leaders and this builds up over time a body of consent.

The hard task, however, is how to get this stuff down to the grassroots. Religious leaders can agree all they like, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to changes in attitude or behaviour closer to the ground where religious communities actually live and struggle and fight for daily bread. This challenge is one that I will be reiterating in my speech in tomorrow’s opening plenary session.

And today? I am meeting a friend for lunch, doing some sightseeing this afternoon, meeting a journalist for an interview this evening and then sleeping for ages so I can be fresh for tomorrow’s start. I will comment as we go and will also tackle some of the political questions around this sort of initiative later on.

One of the best bits of living in London is the fact that you can never exhaust the place. In fact, you can never really ‘know’ it either. It is just too big and too interesting and too diverse.

We have a lot of people come to stay with us from all over the globe and showing them London usually involves the usual sites: Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, Big Ben, the Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, etc. But it all becomes familiar – as do the places one usually goes to along the routes one knows to be best or most direct. So, sometimes it is good to get an alternative view and see some of the odd bits through someone else’s eyes – and here is a less-than-ten-minute alternative tour of London:

I particularly liked the model of the city showing all the projected new developments. It reminded me of Hitler and Albert Speer surveying the model of the new Berlin. It also reminded me of the only current equivalent of a national leader planning and building a new city: Astana in Kazakhstan. There is a huge model in Astana (the capital city) and, as evry official is keen to tell you, it was all the idea of the President, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

You can plan where the buildings will go, but you can’t plan or control the life a city creates.

I know this sounds a bit like a bad sermon with a terrible leap of logic, but… it also reminds me of Jesus teaching in stories and images. If you teach using propositions which require assent or dissent, you can control what is being understood (or, at least, you can think so); but if you tell a story or use an image, you tease the imagination of the hearer and risk them distorting it, missing the main point, re-telling it wrongly, etc. Jesus clearly thought you should just get good news out there and not worry too much what people did with it. I agree.