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Around the Former Soviet Union in Kazakhstan, Jews and Muslims Pledge to Fight Religious Intolerance

February 21, 2003
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A recent meeting here between Jewish officials and the leaders of six Muslim nations is being hailed by participants as an important step in interfaith relations — and as a sign that the countries may be willing to serve as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.

Differences over an anti-terrorism document adopted at the conference highlight the differing views held by the forum’s Jewish and Muslim participants.

But Jewish participants said the fact that the conference took place was more important that the wording of the declaration.

“This conference is a tribute to the role of Kazakhstan” in promoting religious tolerance, Mortimer Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the participants at the forum, which was held last week.

The conference, which was hosted by the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and was praised by most local media, adopted a declaration that stresses the importance of interfaith dialogue in the international community and rejects the abuse of religion by terrorist groups.

The accord also affirmed the right of every individual to freely practice religion and called on the international community to join efforts to promote tolerance and fight extremism and terrorism.

Among those who attended the International Conference on Peace and Accord were the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as top officials representing Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Alongside Muslim politicians were Jewish leaders representing the Conference of Presidents and the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, headed by local industrialist and financier Alexander Mashkevich.

The Muslim countries agreed to establish a permanent group focusing on peace and stability.

“We are all open countries, nations of laws, sharing a common fate and an understanding that politics and religion no longer mix,” Nazarbayev said.

The final document of the conference did not mention Islam or Judaism, nor did it contain any references to the situations concerning Iraq or Israel.

A draft of the declaration prepared by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress contained a condemnation of suicide bombings that some in the Muslim world view as justified. However, a member of the group that met to discuss the declaration told JTA that all of the Muslim participants came out against this text.

Instead, the declaration condemned terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations irrespective of motivation.”

A Kazakh Foreign Ministry official said it is expected that as many as 50 nations may join the group to promote peace.

Jewish leaders also met with a group of imams after the conference, making this the second international Jewish-Muslim gathering in Almaty in the last four months.

“We have had many attempts to have a dialogue with leaders of Islam in many countries, but without much success,” Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, told the imams.

Kazakhstan’s leader since independence in 1991, Nazarbayev has long been pressing for market reforms and closer cooperation with the U.S. and its allies.

More recently, Nazarbayev has emerged as a major proponent of peace, security and religious harmony on regional and global levels. These efforts have already earned him praise from Pope John Paul II and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Unlike many of its neighbors in Central Asia, Kazakhstan which is home to some 100 ethnic and religious groups, including sizeable Christian and Jewish minorities, has been spared the ethnic clashes that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Moshe Kimche, Israel’s ambassador to Kazakhstan, says the country is very different from many other multiethnic societies.

“I was impressed how much the coexistence of various religious and ethnic groups is taken here for granted. To me, it doesn’t resemble other parts of the world,” he said.

But critics of the Kazakh leader’s authoritarian style say that by attracting international attention to his interfaith initiatives, Nazarbayev is trying to divert criticism from internal issues, including his tough treatment of political dissent and independent media.

One American Jewish leader attending the meeting gave Nazarbayev a mixed review.

“As generous as this government has been to the Jewish community, as supportive as this government has been of the U.S.-led efforts against terrorism, this is not what we view as a democratic government,” said Robert Meth, the chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

But the Jewish leaders said that although Kazakhstan’s record on human rights is not spotless, it is arguably much better than any of its neighbors.

They also believe their visit to the area is important to the United States, Israel and Kazakh Jewry.

“It is important to us to be in this area which is crucial for geopolitical, strategic reasons,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents.

“We can show the West that supporting a moderate Muslim state, which has good relations with Israel and the United States, can be pivotal in the fight against terrorism.”

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