Last month, a group of regional imams, Evangelical and Catholic clergies, and government officials met together in a large hall in the southern province of Kazakhstan for a multi-faith retreat.
These participants, across various religious and cultural differences, had hoped to contribute to a more peaceful society by learning and discussing how they may better understand those with differing worldviews.
However, as attendees sat at round tables encouraging open dialogue, under tiny glass blue and clear pieces of art suspended from the ceiling, a concoction of prospective anticipation and tense apprehension blanketed the room.
Some knew that before one could even begin to consider the vernacular of another, there were some challenges they needed to work through.
Love Your Neighbor Community (LYNC), in partnership with Multi-Faith Neighbor Network (MFNN) and regional partners, hosted the multi-faith retreat in Turkistan, Kazakhstan. The event, which Templeton Religion Trust funded, brought imams and pastors together from five Kazakhstan’s regions.
The retreat was supposed to bring together clergy from both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, but unexpected issues showed how complicated cross-faith relations and the regional political landscape currently are.
The Uzbek government decided to cancel their delegation just a day before the event, despite initial enthusiasm for the purpose of the event. This came as a disappointment to US trainers and observers who had already prepared and traveled to attend.
Additionally, there were some concerns from the Kazakhstan Muslim Spiritual Board about attending the event. They mentioned that they were currently preparing for Ramadan and Nowruz, and also noted that there had been recent changes to the local LYNC leadership, which made them hesitant to participate.
These changes in leadership brought up an issue that has been present since Soviet times: the practice of trading personal interests for favors. People, regardless of their religious beliefs, have grown used to working with a select few individuals they trust to get things done. Therefore, implementing any changes that aim to reduce the personal leverage of a few individuals in order to promote accountability and expand opportunities across multiple sectors will require time and adjustment. This new approach of “trust without motive” is a novel concept for many people in post-Soviet regions, and it requires a leap of faith to consider it as a replacement for old established paradigms.
The Muslim Spiritual Board was unfamiliar with the new leaders who had not yet established relationships with the Board members. As a result, some of the Spiritual Board members felt hesitant about trusting these new leaders, which is a completely understandable reaction.
Yet the tension came to a climax when, near the start of the retreat, an imam shared a viral video of a Kazakh Christian behaving offensively toward Kazakhstan’s Muslims. The video upset the Muslim community, as they felt insulted by the video’s attitude and remarks. Many imams declined the invitation as a result.
Nevertheless, twenty-three participants met in the hall despite the challenges, investing even one ounce of faith to consider what new approaches they could add to their local context.
The Christian leaders responded maturely by apologizing for the incident and acknowledging the importance of including Christian ministers in similar retreats to better understand the Muslim community without compromising their own beliefs.
Similarly, the Muslims apologized for the distraction caused by the incident and expressed gratitude for the organizers’ efforts to foster open discussion.
Although it initially brought tension, the video led to a healthy conversation highlighting the importance of events like the retreat for building understanding and peace. One of the imams apologized for bringing up the video, which one may perceive as distracting. Yet also he expressed the imams were grateful to the organizers for giving them a place to talk freely.
Consequently, the unexpected turn of events made everyone more determined to work together.
LYNC’s efforts to promote “covenantal pluralism,” -a three-pronged approach consisting of multi-faith relationship building, religious literacy, and all-inclusive dialogue inspired collaborations among participants.
Pencils, paper, water bottles, and translation headsets covered the white tablecloths where participants sat. A large white sheet of paper sat in the middle of the table with three Sharpie markers intended to collectively record new ideas on how they might engage with cultural, social, and ethnic divides.
Interest and trust levels varied. Some listened with arms folded: others leaned forward with curiosity.
The discussions were constructive exercises in which those differing in cultural and religious views held a heartfelt commitment to their fellow citizens considered how they might work together toward common goals.
The conversations solidified the benefit of recurring retreats that connect clergy and build a sense of unity and shared values, including inviting church leadership from the controversial video to participate. Both Christians and Muslims agreed that the retreat model is a great platform to resolve such future issues.
Nevertheless, as a Grand Mufti advisor acknowledged, the event presented a valuable opportunity to forge personal connections with prominent Christian community leaders, such as those from the Kazakhstan Evangelical Alliance and Seventh-day Adventist Church, whom he had not previously met.
Over the past decade, LYNC has advanced Central Asian religious freedom, despite challenges. LYNC’s engagement framework measured religious freedom by government restrictions and social hostility. After reviewing the past year, LYNC has decided to focus on religious freedom, religious literacy, and character development.
LYNC will train more multi-faith trainers and equip government and religious community leaders to run roundtables and attend international network events to continue onward. Kazakhstan’s religious groups, civil society, and government leaders will own and use covenantal pluralism through these efforts.
Turkistan’s first LYNC training made an impact on the local government, which requested more involvement. The retreat’s relaxed and friendly atmosphere impressed Turkistan Vice Mayor Yerlan Kuzembaev. “It felt almost like a family gathering,” he said, urging LYNC to continue in Turkistan. LYNC president Wade Kusack, Micah Fries, Dr. Imam Talib M. Shareef, and experts from MFNN led the retreat.
Seven imams and nine Christian leaders from Astana, Almaty, Oskemen, Shymkent, and Turkistan attended the retreat. In addition, Yerzhan Nukezhanov, Chair of the Religious Affairs Committee, and Ambassador Bulat Sarsenbayev, Chairman of the Board of the N. Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Inter-Civilization Dialogue, which runs the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, were honored guests.
Dr. Yuliya Kharkova from Caspian University observed. She attended the training as the contact LYNC-Caspian MOU to provide feedback for future course development for the Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy (CCRL) program, ensuring program growth and improvement.
Three observers from the United States learned about Kazakh culture in Kazakhstan’s most culturally rich city. “Over the course of three days, I saw important relationships grow between the participants,” Pastor Lee Cordell said. “These connections have the potential to create lasting positive change in the Kazakhstan’ communities and beyond. In a display of multi-faith understanding and respect, I was invited to visit the local mosque along with my new friend, Dr. Imam Talib Shareef of The Nation’s Mosque in Washington, DC. This experience further emphasized the importance of openness and dialogue in fostering mutual understanding.”
Through careful listening, learning, and adjusting, LYNC’s partnership with Kazakhstan is gradually advancing religious freedom and strengthening social cohesion in Central Asia.
A collaboration with MFNN and regional partners, the Turkistan multi-faith retreat addressed challenges and strengthened relationships among religious leaders and officials. LYNC’s commitment to engaging with leaders in Central Asia reflects opportunities to promote multi-faith, multi-sectoral, and cross-national understanding and collaboration.
LYNC continues to address the enabling conditions for covenantal pluralism—religious freedom, religious literacy, and character development—by investing in targeted training and fostering personal relationships to contribute to a more cohesive and morally-just pluralistic society.
Recognizing the impact and potential of such gatherings, the next step is to bring pastors and imams from Kazakhstan to the United States for a multi-faith retreat focused on training for trainers. This initiative will further cultivate multi-faith understanding and equip leaders with the necessary tools to promote religious literacy and foster inclusive dialogue in their respective communities.