Building effective multilateralism in Kazakhstan

Pope Francis at the Congress of the Religious Leaders, which took place in Kazakhstan in September. Credit:
Azza Karram

By Azza Karram

Secretary General of Religions for Peace International, and a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism

10 Oct 2022

St John Paul II was the first Pope to visit Kazakhstan, the Central Asian nation, in 2001. He described it then as “a land of encounter, change and newness; a land which stirs in everyone the desire for new discoveries and makes it possible to experience differences not as a threat, but as an enrichment”.

Today, Kazakhstan is a country of over 19 million, and a common home for representatives of more than 135 ethnic groups and 18 denominations. For Kazakh society, these religious traditions and the historic background of various ethnic groups have served as a bridge which unites and fosters a sense of cohesion among the diversity of peoples, cultures and traditions.

This is not a new role, but one which Kazakhstan has served since ancient times, long before it carried this name. Today, globally, “experiencing differences” appears to be a synonym - amongst ultra nationalists, religious zealots, political lightweights keen on nurturing divisiveness to secure legitimacy, amongst others – as a threat more severe than climate change. R

ather than rallying together to confront the supreme common challenges facing all of humanity, our world, in almost every corner, appears to be undergoing violent tears among and between peoples, which are based on little other than our differences.

As the incidences of violence worsen, the hate speech increases, and the toll on human lives and the earth itself, increase by the day, the calls for more effective multilateralism, based on common values and aimed at securing peace and human dignity leaving no one behind, are louder than they have ever been.

And yet, multilateralism, in the form of a United Nations formed by 193 governments (itself with over 50 offices, funds and mechanisms), is facing its biggest challenge, and perhaps even a crisis of legitimacy.

Together, the Churches of the world represent hundreds of millions, and serve even more. When you add the services and moral capital of the rest of the world’s faiths, the collective power is beyond imagination

The Covid-19 pandemic has showcased the weaknesses of many governments to effectively manage their greatest collective public health crisis. Together with climate change impacts including droughts, floods and earthquakes, and wars, food security has become a very real challenge for millions in almost every corner of the world. The availability of nuclear weapons in places known and unknown, together with financial predictions of a global recession, means the spectre of Armageddon facing each of us, appears difficult to shake off.

It is time we face some basic truths. Firstly, our collective existence is deeply interconnected, and we cannot live in isolation from one another’s realities. Moreover, we are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us.

In fact, those precise truths are inherent in every single faith tradition - from those of Indigenous and Traditional communities, to the largest and most centralised of religious institutions. It is time we appreciate the extremely significant and yet inherently intangible need for faith to be celebrated as a source of resilience, in life - and for life.

Pope Francis today, commands great respect not only among Catholics worldwide, but also among people of other faiths. Calculated together, the Catholic Church is the largest global provider of social services (including healthcare, education, and nutrition) as well as humanitarian relief, to hundreds of millions, around the world.

Together, the Churches of the world represent hundreds of millions, and serve even more. When you add the services and moral capital of the rest of the world’s faiths, the collective power is beyond imagination, and beyond count.

In Religions for Peace, the organisation I am privileged to serve (often referred to as “the United Nations of all religious institutions and faith communities” of the world), fifty years of convening faith leaders and religious institutions, and of supporting unique multi religious platforms in over 90 countries, to deliver together, the common good, provides undeniable proof.

Proof that no one religious community or institution can save the world alone. Proof that no civil society or government, no matter how organised and unified (and lets face it, few are coherent, unified and organised), can save the world, alone. And proof that although we do need multilateralism to be effective to help save our world, the multireligious has yet to be part of the resilience of effective multilateralism.

Two years after the historic visit of John Paul II to Kazakhstan, at the initiative of the founding father of modern Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on September 23-24, 2003, the first Congress of Leaders of Traditional and World Religions took place in Astana.

The Congress gathered the most authoritative representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shinto, Hinduism and Buddhism. As an ongoing gift to peacemaking, this year Kazakhstan will host the VII Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, under the wise auspices of the President Kassym-Jomart K. Tokayev.

No stranger to the vision and importance of this Congress, His Excellency in fact served, twice, as the Head of Secretariat of this Congress, being the Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan.

A Kazakh proverb says “a man can be more intelligent than his friends but cannot be wiser than the whole people”. In fact, this Congress is what the Kazakh people continue to provide as a contribution to strengthened multilateralism, for all people. Blessed are the peacemakers.