ALMATY, Kazakhstan (Nov. 3)
Unlike many of its neighbors in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has been spared the ethnic clashes that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The largest country in Asia after China and India — Kazakhstan is four times the size of Texas — the nation of 15 million has a Jewish community numbering anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000.
Sunni Muslims make up the majority, and there are more than 100 minority ethnic groups.
Some say the ethnic harmony in Kazakhstan comes at a price. The nation’s leader since independence in 1991, Nursultan Nazarbayev, runs the country with a firm hand, leaving little space for political dissent and anything more than token political opposition.
But Jewish leader Alexander Mashkevich, and other leaders of other minorities, say it is precisely Nazarbayev’s authoritarian style that has made possible Kazakhstan’s success in interfaith relations.
Kazakhstan is believed to have one of the most liberal laws on religious freedom in the entire former Soviet Union.
Nazarbayev, who met late last month with a delegation from the newly formed Rabbinical Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress in his new capital city of Astana, 600 miles north of Almaty, said Kazakhstan can serve as a bridge between Muslim nations and the Jewish communities of Europe and Asia.
“We have very good relations with Israel, as well as with Arab nations and Iran,” Nazarbayev told the delegation.
Kazakhstan has maintained good political and economic relations with the West since its independence in 1991. Most recently it joined the international anti-terror coalition, allowing the United States to use its air corridors to bring troops to the region.
Nazarbayev also agreed to play a role negotiating with Iran to assist Iran’s isolated Jewish community establish contacts with Jews elsewhere.
Rabbi Aba Dunner, the Britain-based secretary-general of the European Conference of Rabbis, even suggested that Kazakhstan could mediate on behalf of Iranian Jews who want to leave for Israel but cannot do so without direct ties between Tehran and the Jewish state.
Dunner said Iranian Jews who want to make aliyah could go through Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev, who said he had “very good” relations with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, also promised to deal with the issue of Israeli soldiers believed to be held in Lebanon by the Tehran-sponsored Hezbollah terrorist organization.
Nazarbayev said he already has ordered his Foreign Ministry to take up the matter of missing Israeli pilot Ron Arad, who was captured after bailing out during a mission in Lebanon in 1986 and was last believed to be held by terrorists in Iran.