Kazakhstan’s religions congress: What’s in it for the host - and Israel?
At a major conference in a Muslim-majority country, Israel is an equal
Climb the stairs and ramps through the winter garden, and you'll reach the top of the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Kazakhstan's capital of Nur-Sultan, where every three years the delegates to the "Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions" sit.
The very building — the "Palace of Peace and Reconciliation" — was built for one reason: For them and for it. Built specifically to host an event that happens only once every three years. And that, at its inception, included only a few dozen participants.
A striking investment, and a budget that speaks to priorities: Pouring millions of Kazakhstani tenge (Kazakhstan's currency) into a showcase building with a showcase event that happens so rarely. The event must be important to those footing the bill. But why?
It's important because it sends a message that the Kazakhstani government wants to be heard, and the message was sounded during my own visit last week, hosted in part by the Kazakhstani government, to Nur-Sultan (the capital set to revert back to its former name, Astana) to cover this latest edition of the congress, a high-profile event that featured the pope, the grand imam of Al Azhar (the world's leading Sunni Muslim authority), Israel's two chief rabbis, and dozens of other leading religious figures.
The Kazakhstani government wants the world — and its own citizens — to know that religious freedom and coexistence are core parts of its brand. This, as part of Kazakhstan's geopolitical balancing act.
On one hand, Kazakhstan is a country with intrinsic strengths. Not only its vast geography, but what the land holds: deposits of oil, natural gas, and other minerals. Those have delivered an economy that ranks solidly with middle-income countries and — at least according to official statistics — has little income inequality.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan is a country with an intrinsic weakness: a geographic prisoner, landlocked and sharing long borders with both Russia and China. The challenge is to deploy the country's economic leverage to manage the weakness, in fending off outside powers through a balancing of relations.
To create a Kazakhstan that, in the words of foreign affairs writer Robert D. Kaplan, turns the primordial Central Asian steppe into an "independent heartland."
On this, the conference helps the Kazakhstanis. To the West, Kazakhstan's president — speaking with charisma and flawless English — can open the event by sounding notes of religious tolerance and coexistence dear to Western ears.
To Russia and China, the congress sends the message that Kazakhstan has the geopolitical power and independence to convene, on its own, an event with 100 delegations from 50 countries. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the capital the day of the event, with the congress forming for Kazakhstanis an effective backdrop.
There's also a message to a domestic audience. Dignitaries and tour guides alike have picked up on government messaging, heard repeatedly even on a short visit: Kazakhstan has more than 130 different ethnicities living in harmony.
On its face, the talking point is banal: Kazakhstan's population is now 70 percent ethnic Kazakh. And what country of 19 million people doesn't have at least token groups from dozens of ethnicities?
Beneath the banality, of course, is branding. Here is a message that Kazakhstan will not see itself as a nation-state and that the 20 percent Russian minority has a safe home in the country. And, more importantly, a message to Islamic extremists: Get out and stay out. Kazakhstan is a place for religious coexistence, not for you.
For Israel, too, the conference sent a message: At a major conference in a Muslim-majority country, Israel is an equal and a participant in good standing, with the event as another forum for contact with the Muslim world.
When first held in 2003, the congress would have been quite the opportunity. Israel was still working its way out of the second intifada, and ties with post-communist parts of the Muslim world were still quite young.
Now, in the wake of the Abraham Accords, the event has less novelty for Israel — but still value. Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he had side meetings set with Muslim leaders that he could not disclose.
And from the perspective of the Kazakhstani government, the event hits its mark. A parade of religious leaders descended on the capital to testify to the government's messaging. Chief Rabbi Lau even went beyond them in crediting the leadership with a transition to democracy.
Size matters, too. The first congress, in 2003, had 17 delegations from 23 countries. This edition had multiple times that.
The original home was too small to host it and the 2022 congress moved to a convention hall (the "Palace of Independence") across the square, leaving the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation open for its hourly tours. A lonely testament not to the event's failure but — from the perspective of the Kazakhstani government — to its extraordinary success.