The Templeton Religion Trust funded and LYNC (Love Your Neighbor Community) hosted the inaugural series of roundtables on religious freedom in Shymkent, Ust-Kamenogorsk, and Aktobe on November 1st, 11th and 14th. Utilizing a top-down (including high-level central and regional government participants) and a bottom-up (including unregistered religious minorities) approach, LYNC experienced unprecedented government support even in the issuing of the invitations to minority groups. This was only possible due to the trust LYNC has built with officials across the years.
As the government wrestles with a very traditional, but changing, governance model, LYNC came alongside to offer grassroots support and poignant models for the discussion. Participants openly grappled on the topic of religion being a significant factor for the good (e.g., values) and sometimes for the bad (e.g.,extremism) without animosity but a true curiosity for collaboration. Certainly, many opportunities were presented as a result of this trip: a possible signing of an MOU between LYNC and Kazakhstan, formal education and training opportunities and future roundtables on business and religious freedom.
In 2013, LYNC’s president Wade Kusack, in partnership with IGE and IRF Roundtable, began building relationships and engaging the Kazakhstani government. At that time, Kazakhstan had positioned itself to combat religious extremism through the enactment of strict religious codes, including 2011 “The Law on Religious Activity and Religious Associations”, which drew a negative reaction from the international human rights experts. At this time, the government entered a protectionist period in which the interpretation of the laws resulted in religious oppression and in certain cities, religious persecution. In late 2018, after a new round of legal codes and the notice of the MOU signed by Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan signaled a warming and renewed commitment to dialogue on religious relationship building and to enact steps for religious collaboration against extremism.
In 2019, the U.S. State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom invited a Kazakhstan’ delegation. Wade Kusack organized a well-attended side event aimed specifically at Kazakhstan’s journey in religious freedom. The Kazakh government indicated their support by sending a representative from the Ministry of Information and Social Development to attend.
These deposits of trust and relationship over the course of years culminated in the November roundtables. Widespread support came in the form of encouragement and endorsement by the Kazakh ambassador to the U.S. and the Ministry of Information and Social Development. Additionally, the Ministry recognized participation of non-registered religious minorities by issuing invitations themselves to groups (Ahmadi Muslims, the Krishna society, and Scientologists) not usually recognized in the country.
As the saying goes, “The time? Now.” Now marks a time of cautious reform. LYNC is eager to partner with the leaders of Kazakhstan and bring forward a clear structure and strategy to create relationships across sectors ensure the country is more stable, more safe and a recognized leader in religious freedom. Looking forward, LYNC proposes a three-year project to equip the government to enable religious freedom and to equip citizens to exercise religious freedom responsibly using established international models and best practices. Through relationship building, dialogue and education, LYNC is prepared to come alongside Kazakhstan as it walks boldly into its future.
Co-Chair of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable in America, Greg Mitchell, presented the history and concept of the Roundtable, and provided an update on how twenty-one countries, to date, have begun Roundtables in the last twelve months.
The American IRF Roundtable is an informal group of individuals from non-governmental organizations who gather regularly to discuss IRF issues on a non-attribution basis with each other (bottom-up), and with the U.S. government (top-down). It is simply a safe space where participants gather, speak freely in sharing ideas and information, and propose joint advocacy and policy actions to address specific IRF issues and problems. Attendees can opt-in to various participant-led initiatives regarding the protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief worldwide.
2019 LYNC and the Kazakhstani government will co-host a final Roundtable in February 2020, in Kazakhstan’s capital, Nur-Sultan. This conference will invite top government and religious leaders from across the country to consider the inputs and lessons learned from the three November roundtables while preparing a draft MOU that can be signed between LYNC and the Kazakh government at the next U.S. State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.
The Kazakh DNA: Kurt & the Survival of the Prisoners at Akmola (ALZHIR)
The story is told during Soviet times of an unusual and culturally rich kindness and inclusivity shown by local Kazakh people toward those regarded as outsiders, and at times, even enemies. In the 1930s, the Kazakh people endured a historically notable famine which was not easily forgotten by those who survived. The Soviets forcibly deported over one million Germans and 200,000 Koreans to Central Asia, and primarily, to Kazakhstan. These individuals were transported to internment camps and small villages where morbid conditions included frigid winters, inadequate clothing and heat, severe food shortages and excessive work hours.
One Soviet internment camp, Akmola Camp, was created to housed women and children. Food was scarce, the guards’ insults unrelenting and the conditions nearly unbearable. Once, locals came close and taunted them. They hurled rocks at the female prisoners. Exhausted, one prison fell down on the rocks in the snow and noticed a scent. Picking up the “rock,” she quickly realized she was smelling milk and cheese – kurt, a dried Kazakh cheese made for herders and rich in fat and protein.
Generosity, ingenuity and determination to care for “the other” are simply the DNA of the Kazakh people. LYNC is coming alongside the Kazakh people to preserve, structure, and strategize beyond their foundation of multi-culturalism and inclusivity.
LYNC’s Three-Prong Approach
Since the project’s inception and through pre-roundtable conversations, LYNC has repeatedly encountered the Kazakhstan’ openness to dialogue and relationships as reflected in the story above. Our work is not groundbreaking in that there is no history or precedent; but rather, we are breaking ground in a new way. We believe the bedrock to furthering FoRB in Kazakhstan lies on instinctual cultural norms already present. In our project proposal, we noted:
In preparation for the roundtables culminating in the anticipated MOU signing in 2020, LYNC established three key cities to carry out the dialogue and trainings: Shymkent, Actobe, and UstKamenogorsk.
Together with our strategic partners – IGE, Brigham Young University and MFNN, we presented key models with tangible results from other regions in the world. Presentations and discussions centered on themes of tolerance, multi-faith relationship building and law described further below.
As aforementioned, Kazakhstan’s long history is rooted in multiculturalism and multi-ethnicism. More recently, with Stalin, came an influx of Koreans and Germans. Post-Soviet times ushered in various religious missions from across the world. The degree of multi-ethnic and multi-religion tolerance was evident in our findings at the roundtables.
The Shymkent roundtable on November 1st was widely reported on by the press. Roundtables hosts included the LYNC and the Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan’s (AROK) Alexander Klyushev. Of notable attendance was The Ministry of Information and Social Development’s Vice Minister, Marat Azilkhanov.
The American delegation—including IGE VP, James Chen, Pastor Bob Roberts and Imam Magid, and International Religious Freedom Roundtable Co-Chair, Greg Mitchell—presented the American experience and model of mutual engagement, and the 80 Kazakh citizens attending asked questions, discussing what aspects were relevant to their context. The local imams expressed their willingness to engage in post-roundtable dialogue. The local Evangelical pastors were invited to share a meal in the local mosque and were accepted with respectful listening by the majority leaders. LYNC believes that the presence of the pastors and the MFNN model is a readied next step in the city.
A couple years ago in Ust-Kamenogorsk, the local government initiated a dialogue between leaders of different religious communities, who came together to have their first discussion about the community. The leaders focused first on community service and eventually came together recreationally as well in a football night. They co-celebrate religious holidays and were recognized by the government for their community unity. The city’s religious community gatherings became a model in which the government sponsored in other Kazkah cities. Now, the gatherings are beginning to fade as there is no shared vision, structure or goals. Father Aleksey of ROC, summarized the presentations and discussion: “We saw three models of an ongoing dialogue. This is invaluable. These and other elements of experience mutually enrich and create opportunity for a wider partnership”. LYNC could be an essential part of equipping and strengthening this partnership.
The terrorist attack in the city of Aktobe, Kazakhstan was carried on May 17, 2011. The attack marked the opening of a violent summer in Kazakhstan’s west, during which multiple attacks claimed the lives of a combined 19 people. In 2016, there was a series of shootings on civilian and military targets in Aktobe. On June 5th, two attacks occurred at gun stores, while a third attack was aimed at a military unit. Multiple shootouts between terrorists and police occurred over the next few days. The shootings left 7 victims dead and 37 injured. Eighteen attackers were killed and nine were arrested.
One of the local imams, a participant in the roundtable, noticed that unlike the Northwest, the South of Kazakhstan has stronger religious traditions. In Aktobe, the radical groups are trying to influence the development of Islam which is relatively new for many people in the region. This is one of the reasons why LYNC’s agenda, which could force out the radical Islam agenda, is essencial to the region.
All indicators both in the roundtable discussions as well as through anonymous questionnaires submitted by participants reveal a willing attitude toward future educational training, meaningful and strategic dialogues across the sectors, and relationships (See appendix A for a questionnaire results). LYNC is committed to working with these communities to strengthen and expand the dialogue and provide international educational connections.
In the closing dinner of the roundtable in Shymkent, naib imam Baqtıbay Beysenbaev said “Wade and Aleksandr promised me some months ago that they would bring Imam Magid to Kazakhstan. Imam Magid is here. We can trust LYNC. They do what they say.” This public acknowledgement and declaration of trust represents the long memory of trust LYNC has built in the communities we serve. LYNC knows success and growth hinge on relationships. While circumstances may change, trust especially with key stakeholders in the host nation, is the foundation that withstands winds of change. Naib Imam Beysenbaev’s speech signaled a deepening of a relationship beyond a single event, or series of rountables.
With this established trust, LYNC sees clearly the path forward of providing structure and strategy to the budding relationships and dialogue we experienced this year. Looking ahead, to avoid negating the ground we have begun building on with the Kazakhs, the next step is a long-term commitment of five to seven years in which we support the Kazakhs in developing and owning their religious freedom approach.
Until now, the word “tolerance” in Kazakhstan has meant “we do not attack each other.” Through the development of a multi-faith relationships, meaningful ongoing dialogue across all sectors, and number of educational programs, LYNC foresees the sustainable expansion of religious freedom and the lowering the risks of violent extremism. If religious leaders merely tolerate one another, shoulder-to-shoulder, what is accomplished? If the leaders are able to engage and converse in unity, despite deep differences, mutual respect will result and eventually lead to mutual resilience. This level of unity and resilience is can only build communities.
Pairing this supposition with LYNC’s long-term engagement, LYNC expects the developed unique tools will become widely recognized and known and enable a certain degree of stability and confidence in the government to amend the current religious code. Further investment in Kazakhstan through LYNC’s program would strengthen security and combat terrorism, moving beyond “tolerance” and into true religious freedom.
Finalizing the MOU & A Roadmap Forward
In late February, LYNC will host the final and largest roundtable in Nur-Sultan. Representatives for the three cities will be in attendance as well as government ministers, religious heads and other high-ranking officials operating from the capital. The MOU draft will be circulated beforehand with the finalization discussions occurring during the roundtable. In anticipation of finalization, the MOU will be signed at the 2020 Ministerial in Washington, D.C.
Building upon the foundation of the roundtables, LYNC proposes three main areas of activity that should be reflected on the Roadmap:
● Relationships: Building multi-faith relations as based on the MFNN model.
● Dialogue: Developing dialogue through the creation of permanent round tables using international experience and expertise; the Kazakhstan roundables will then be included in the work of the international network.
● Education: Developing educational projects in the field of Religion and the Rule of Law, Religious Freedom and Business, as well as History of Religions to raise the level of awareness of the government officials and religious community leaders. To implement these projects, LYNC seeks cooperation with existing institutions and sites, as well as the creation of new ones, to garnish the following results:
● Relationship: Creation of a new site. The three year project will result in an independent network created to work on the development of multi-confessional relationships based on the MFNN philosophy.
● Dialogue. Use of existing sites. LYNC’s project will strengthen existing dialogue platforms such as existing “multi-faith clubs,” roundtables and more, creating a common vision, developing long-term plans and implementing elements that work effectively in other countries.
● Education. Use of existing sites. LYNC will create certification courses, seminars, research projects, and scientific conferences on the topics of Religion and the Rule of Law, Religious Freedom and Business, History of Religions at universities and educational centers.
Central Asian history marks a series of critical turning points including succeeding empires, religious minorities shifting to become the majority and eventually the inverse of minorities returning to the majority. Zoroastrianism and Shamanism, practiced thousands of years BC, and was replaced by Nestorian Christianity with a center in Samarkand and rapidly spread throughout the region. The inclusion of Central Asia in the Mongol Empire strengthened the influence of Buddhism, and the conquest of the region by Arabs led to the spread of Islam.
Through Central Asia has experienced many conquests, there is a notable absence of interreligious conflicts in its history. For millennia, this region has been a safe place and shelter for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and many others. After the 20th century famine, repressions and nearly complete eradication of religious thought during the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, like other post-Soviet countries in the region, is undergoing a period of formation and search for a new self-identification. The kind of religious palette of this land for the next hundred years is being laid out today.
Today, the openness and search for self-identification by the religious majority, as well as a request from religious minorities, creates a unique situation for implementation of what TRT calls “covenantal pluralism.” TRT defines “covenantal pluralism” as enabling cooperative, respectful, and constructive engagement across differences. More specifically, covenantal pluralism is the commitment to engage, respect and protect the other, without necessarily conceding equal veracity or moral equivalency to the beliefs and behaviors of others.
This is the heart of the ministry of Love Your Neighbor Community (LYNC) and its team in the United States and Kazakhstan. We look forward to continuing this good work in Kazakhstan.