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Nazarbayev Hosts Religious Leaders

Nicholas Baines, the Bishop of Bradford, has made several posts on his blog about the recent Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, which took place in Kazakhstan and where he represented the Archbishop of Canterbury. He writes:

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.

…It is easy to sneer or take for granted a conference such as this… 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…

I wrote about a previous Congress in Kazakhstan back in 2006; I was somewhat sceptical of all the praise that delegates heaped on President Nazarbayev, and I noted the restrictions on religious freedom in the country. Baines is himself not uncritical:

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 the idea.

Baines has given details of his address to the Congress here, and of what someone else said on his behalf at a panel event here.

Via Twitter, I asked Baines about recent Observer article by Nick Cohen excoriating Tony Blair for his links to Nazarbayev. Cohen had written:

As one astonished and disgusted former supporter put it: “If you want to know what price a great man will sell his legacy for, it’s $13m.” According to the Financial Times, that is the sum that President Nursultan Nazarbayev has paid for Blair’s services. His old gang is along for the ride and eager to see what an oil-rich dictatorship, which shoots strikers, burns the offices of opposition parties and kills their leaders, can offer.

…He won’t explain why he’s helping the Kazakh dictator present a better face to the west. Apparently, he has said that he is not personally profiting from appearing in a propaganda video praising the dictatorship’s “progress” and hymning its “extraordinary economic potential”.

Baines responded to me on Twitter:

Cohen anti-Blair whatever. There is more to it. Engagement better than shouting frm a distance in my view. I’ll post more anon.

Interfax has a number of related reports, including details of addresses by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and by Nazarbayev himself. According to the President:

“We see how pseudo-freedoms are being promoted in many societies. They are trying to present distorted views on the nature of human relations as the norm in today’s society. Motivation for fair work is replaced with a wish for fast income by any means. These anti-morals are being presented as some absolute value,” he said.

Nazarbayev believes the increase of moral crises in the world is indicated by “instances of aggressive campaigns against clergymen and attempts to remove religion from social processes.”

Personally, I would find it uncongenial to be lectured on “pseudo-freedoms” by a man who was last year re-elected with 95.5% of the vote, having been reluctantly persuaded to ignore constitutional term limits following a petition from “ordinary citizens” who wanted him to stay in power for a third decade.

Interfax also reports that the Congress also saw the creation of a “Council of Religions”.

Nazarbayev also has links with another inter-faith organisation: this is the World Public Forum, which was co-founded by a confidant of Vladimir Putin named Vladimir Yakunin. Ahead of last year’s election in Kazakhstan, Yakunin presented Nazarbayev with a “Dialogue of Civilizations” prize, and this is just one link between the WPF and Kazakhstan: former Chancellor of Austria Alfred Gusenbauer is a co-chairman of the WPF and, like Blair, a “consultant” to Nazarbayev, while the chairman of the WPF’s International Coordination Committee is the Austrian politician Walter Schwimmer. Back in February there was a “Celebratory Event to mark the 20th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between Kazakhstan and Austria”, at the Kazakh embassy in Vienna; Schwimmer was billed as the moderator, and the programme for the event highlighted his WPF position.