September 2022 was a very busy month for LYNC, which co-organized two events — a certificate course, Religion and Rule of Law (RROL), funded by Templeton Religion Trust, and a conference called “Prospects for a New Central Asia: Religion’s Role in Forming a Stable and Democratic Society,” funded by Brigham Young University Center for Law and Religion Studies (BYU) as well as participated at the VII Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions organized and funded by the Kazakhstani government. All these LYNC activities aim to advance religious freedom and social cohesion by integrating Covenantal Pluralism into the social fabric.
The RROL certificate course, created in partnership with BYU, had 67 attendees, including government representatives, law enforcement, and religious community leaders. Most attendees were alums from the 2021 Multi-Faith Retreat and the 2022 Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy (CCRL) certificate course in Shymkent, both LYNC-related activities.
Immediately following the RROL certificate program, BYU held a conference with LYNC’s assistance focused on all five Central Asia countries. Both events were moderated by five duos of imams and pastors, demonstrating that respectful collaboration between two distinct religious groups has begun taking root in Kazakhstan.
Attendees commented on the “warm” and “natural” environment, as the imam-pastor duos seemed quite comfortable with each other. Several pastors and imams worked together in past bridge-building events, and many attendees were alums. “The discussions were deep,” LYNC’s Founder, Wade Kusack, commented. “BYU provided excellent speakers,” such as Clark Lombardi, Professor of Law, Director of Islamic Legal Studies, University of Washington School of Law; Elizabeth A. Clark, Associate Director, International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, BYU; Mr. Mark Hill, KC, Notre Dame University, London Law Program; local scholars Roman Podoprigora, Director of Public Law Research Institute, Professor of Law, Caspian University, and Evgeny Zhovtis, Director, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law and others.
After witnessing the success of enabling local pastors and imams to host events together, BYU requested that imam-pastor pairs host some of their events.
However, the challenge of any event, Kusack later noted, “is determining how to transfer the discussed ideas into practical tasks for religious communities and civil society, ” and he said it felt like a dream come true when after the RROL course, one of the imams told him that he is “carefully making notes” to teach his community later from what he had heard during the conference.
“Although we did not formally encourage it, the fact that they pick it [practical steps] up and say, ‘that’s exactly what we need. That’s exactly what we will teach our communities’ —it tells a lot,” Kusack said.
A week later, nearly 370 people gathered in the Palace of Independence for the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions (The Congress) in Astana. Seeking to highlight religion as a tool to help defuse tensions, the purpose of the Congress was to reintroduce the language of peace and reconciliation to a world “ravaged by conflict and suffering.”
The Congress began in 2003 in the wake of the tragic September 11 attacks on the United States and focused mainly on fostering “dialogue between civilizations and religions.”
It invites the most renowned and recognized clergy from around the world, including Pope Francis, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayeb, and Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League, addressed The Congress virtually. However, not including many smaller religions in the conversation has garnered criticism from those questioning Congress’s brand of balanced multilateralism.
Nevertheless, this year’s Congress broke the attendance record since its inception in 2003. Attending the VII Congress were 60 delegations—a 252.94% increase since the first one, which hosted 17 delegations. The 7th Congress also experienced a 117.39% increase in country participation, with 50 countries taking part versus 23 that attended the first Congress nearly 20 years ago.
One of the moderators joked, “Look, the whole Asia is here.”
President Qasym-Jomart Tokayev, who described Kazakhstan as a bridge between the West and East, announced, “Goodwill, relations, and dialogue—there are no other solutions for modern challenges. No problem could be solved without constructive dialogue and cooperation.”
Tokayev applauded the historical significance of Pope Francis and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb’s attendance at the Congress. The Congress, which highlighted religion as a solution to global turbulence rather than a cause, presented a unique platform where people sat at one roundtable who otherwise might not ever dialogue. For example, Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, sat behind one table with Mr. Mohammad Mehdi lmanipour, President of the Organization for Culture and Islamic Relations, under the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Among the honorable guests were the Grand Muftis of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, rare guests at international events, along with their colleagues from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan.
On the last day of the Congress, Kusack was one of five speakers explaining the strategy to advance religious freedom by presenting LYNC’s model on implementing Covenantal Pluralism in Kazakhstan’s society: multi-faith relationship building, cross-cultural religious literacy, and religion at the public square.
The presentation sparked much interest from the delegates, including Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan Akan Rakhmetullin, Rev. Yuriy Novgorodov, Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kazakhstan, and Ainura Kurmanaliyeva, a head of the Department of Religious and Cultural Studies at the Al-Farabi University.
In President Tokayev’s speech at the closing ceremony of the Congress, he stated, “Today, as never before, it is vital to put to good use the peacemaking potential of religions, to unite the efforts of spiritual authorities in search of long-term stability.”
Tokayev’s statements were met with excitement since LYNC is already collaborating with the Kazakhstani government and civil society on bringing together the efforts of the county stakeholders in order to make religion a part of the solution in the search for long-term stability.
Although the Congress demonstrated a high level of attendees from a broad spectrum of countries and concluded with a Declaration adopted by the majority of delegates, its lack of a framework and strategy to reach the established objectives could be a starting point for future development. The incorporation of a practical educational component would help develop a strategy for success.
LYNC has carefully utilized resources and partnerships to develop a framework to unify for the common good, bring cross-cultural religious literacy for law enforcement, government, and religious communities, and strengthen social cohesion in Kazakhstani society. As a result, LYNC is expanding and creating a model for how different religious communities and sectors of society can effectively cooperate.
One of the experiences Kusack referred to was LYNC’s recently created prototype in Shymkent during the Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy certificate course. With local imams and pastors representing and influencing the community, the model creates a balanced partnership owned by society and chosen by its people. The partnership creates a comfortable atmosphere different than stereotypical models. The community understands that it is not a situation where foreigners attempt to force their ideas, but local society’s ideas and thoughts are equally elevated and valued.
During the RROL certificate course Dr. Minhas Majeed Khan, an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, spearheaded an event for women of faith who attended both the RROL course and the conference.
Mihas strongly believes religious institutions have the potential to work towards democratic support. “Their places of worship can serve as a base for social interaction and enhance communication skills, which can help in advancing a strong civil society and democratic norms.”
She also noted that an important aspect of the workshop was the dialogue between various groups from diverse backgrounds. The programs aim to teach the feeling of peaceful coexistence through dialogue, which she said may contribute to world peace by bringing different faiths together and encouraging mutual understanding and cooperation among diverse communities.
Both the RROL and the Conference had a blend of government, religious communities, and law enforcement—top-down and bottom-up participation. The participants received certificates, observed presentations, asked questions, and debated many issues during the coffee breaks and formal sessions.
What has been declared by The Congress and President Tokayev can be realized in practice through the framework of Covenantal Pluralism demonstrated during the described above RROL and earlier this year CCRL certificate courses. Our hope is that within the next three years, LYNC and Kazakhstan will develop a strategy and implement The Congress’ declaration in Kazakhstan and beyond.