Building a Pluralistic Society: Lessons from the Turkistan Multi-Faith Retreat and the Path to Covenantal Pluralism 


Posted By
Wade Kusack
Posted On

Executive Summary 

In March 2023, Love Your Neighbor Community (LYNC), in partnership with Multi Faith Neighbor Network (MFNN) and regional partners, organized a successful multi-faith retreat in Turkistan, Kazakhstan. The training brought together imams and pastors from several regions in Kazakhstan, offering them a unique opportunity learn and develop personal relationships across religious and cultural differences. The retreat was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust, and its success complements LYNC’s efforts to promote “covenantal pluralism” – a three-pronged approach consisting of multi-faith relationship building, religious literacy, and all-inclusive dialogue. 

Twenty-three participants, including regional imams, Evangelical and Catholic clergies, and government officials, attended the training, that naturally but unexpectedly became a platform to resolve a tension due to an insensitive statement made by one of the evangelical churches before the retreat. The success of this retreat has strengthened LYNC’s efforts to equip imam-pastors’ duos to organize and host roundtables in nine Kazakhstani cities, which aiming to discuss social and religious affairs in the country, including reforms in religious legislation. 

This timely strategic support offered by LYNC to religious minority and majority groups and the government of Kazakhstan has proved effective in fostering collaboration and personal relationship building across religious and cultural divides. The success of the retreat is a testament to the effectiveness of LYNC’s mission to create a more just and strong society through advancing covenantal pluralism. 

Challenges in the Current Political Landscape 

Although retreat was planning to unite clergies from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan it was met with a series of unexpected challenges that highlighted the complexities of the current cross-faith relationships and political landscape. First, the Uzbek government decided not to give permission for its delegation to participate a day before the event while the US trainers and observers were already on the ground. It was a major disappointment especially given the prior approval and enthusiasm they had expressed. Speculation linked this decision to the appointment of a new foreign minister, the imminent rotation of the current Uzbek ambassador, and internal political shifts. 

Furthermore, the Kazakhstan Muslim Spiritual Board exhibited reluctance to join the retreat, citing a busy pre-Ramadan and pre-Nauryz season, as well as changes in LYNC’s local leadership which left the new leaders unfamiliar to the Spiritual Board. In spite of this, a Grand Mufti advisor conceded towards the conclusion of the event that it offered a significant opportunity to establish personal relationships not only with members of the Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK), but also with other Christian organizations based in Kazakhstan such as Evangelical Alliance and Seventh-day Adventist Church, with whom he had yet not previously met. However, a more significant reason for the Spiritual Board reluctance surfaced during the retreat itself. One of the imams played a viral video depicting a local Christian praying to Jesus to cast out the spirit of Islam from Kazakhstan, which had caused anger among Muslim community and many imams to decline the invitation. 

Despite initial discomfort, this incident sparked a constructive dialogue about the importance of gatherings like the retreat in fostering understanding and reconciliation. The mufti advisor apologized for bringing up the video that could be seeing as distracting element but noted the imams’ gratitude towards the organizers for providing a platform for open discussion. This unexpected turn of events ultimately led to a stronger commitment to work together, emphasizing the need of having local trainers to initiate similar retreats and connect clergies, including those featured in the video, and foster a spirit of unity and shared values.

Stride Forward:
Expanding Religious Freedom and Embracing Covenantal Pluralism

Over the past decade, despite all challenges, LYNC has made significant strides in promoting religious freedom in Central Asia, particularly during the past four years in partnership with Templeton Religion Trust (TRT). LYNC’s core engagement framework was built on measuring and monitoring religious freedom, analyzing government restriction and social hostilities levels, where higher levels indicate lower religious freedom. After examining the past years activities, LYNC recognized several interrelated issues to religious freedom, realizing the need to address each of the three “enabling conditions” for covenantal pluralism—religious freedom, religious literacy, and character development.

To ensure progress, LYNC is focusing on targeted multi-faith training for trainers and equipping government and diverse religious community leaders on how to run roundtables and connect to international network events. Through these efforts, key religious community, civil society, and government leaders of Kazakhstan will become both owners and implementers of the covenantal pluralism principles.

Despite initial challenges, LYNC remains steadfast in its commitment to adopting a regional approach in engaging with the Kazakh and Uzbek governments and religious leaders. By establishing cross-regional partnerships LYNC aims to continue facilitate trainings in Central Asia and bring trainees together to the United States for a final training for trainers’ program. This regional approach has already shown promise, even in the absence of the Uzbek delegation. A few Uzbeks religious leaders unofficially attended the retreat to observe the progress of multi-faith relationship development in Kazakhstan. Their enthusiasm and desire to replicate this level of relationship in their own country has created healthy competition and opened opportunities for identifying multi-faith champions in Uzbekistan through common friends and connections in Kazakhstan.

Trainees and Observers: Building Bridges through Expertise and Collaboration

The retreat was facilitated by LYNC’s president Wade Kusack, marking his 18th event in Kazakhstan since 2019, along with MFNN experts Micah Fries and Imam Dr. Talib M. Shareef. The combination of Wade’s cultural connections and the MFNN experts’ professional expertise made the retreat an outstanding success, as noted by participants. The Turkistan government, experiencing their first LYNC training, was highly impressed and requested further engagement. Vice Mayor of Turkistan Yerlan Kuzembaev expressed his amazement at the informal, friendly atmosphere cultivated during the retreat, describing it as “almost like a family” and requested that LYNC continue its activities in Turkistan.


The retreat brought together seven imams from Astana, Almaty, Oskemen, Shymkent, and Turkestan, as well as nine Christian leaders from the same regions. Among the honorable guests and observers were Chair for Religious Affairs Committee Yerzhan Nukezhanov and Ambassador Bulat Sarsenbayev, who is also the Chairman of the Board of the N. Nazarbayev Center for Development of Interfaith and Inter-Civilization Dialogue, the organization that administrates the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.

Dr. Yuliya Kharkova from Caspian University was also present as an observer. As the LYNC-Caspian Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) POC, she attended the training to develop feedback for future CCRL course development, ensuring the continued growth and improvement of the program. In January 2023, LYNC and Caspian University, Almaty, Kazakhstan have signed a historic MOU that creates a framework for the Cross-Cultural Religious Literacy curriculum development. With support from the Kazakhstan government and the best local and international experts, it will be unique advanced training for the government employees involved in religious affairs.

There were three observers from the United States who had an opportunity to get familiar with the Kazakh culture at the most cultural and historical city in Kazakhstan. One of them, Pastor Lee Cordell noted: “Over the course of three days, I was able to witness the development of 5

significant relationships among the participants. 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, 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.”


LYNC’s partnership with Kazakhstan is gradually advancing religious freedom and strengthening social cohesion in Central Asia through careful listening, learning, and adjusting. The Turkistan multi-faith retreat, a collaboration with MFNN and regional partners, addressed challenges and strengthened relationships among religious leaders and officials. LYNC’s commitment to engaging with Central Asia leaders, including Uzbekistan, reflects opportunities to promoting multi-faith, multi-sectoral, and cross-national understanding, and collaboration. By investing in targeted training and fostering personal relationships, LYNC addresses the enabling conditions for covenantal pluralism—religious freedom, religious literacy, and character development—contributing to a more cohesive and just pluralistic society.