WHEN Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan just days after the September 11 attacks in 2001, his message to the central Asian nation was clear.
“Kazakhstan, you have the mission of being a bridge between religions, between nations and continents,” the pontiff said.
In any case, this land-locked country which gained its independence in 1991 has always held firm to its belief about religious freedom for its people.
Right from Article 1 at the start of its constitution, it is stated that “the Republic of Kazakhstan proclaims itself a democratic, secular, legal and social state whose highest values are an individual, his life, rights and freedoms.”
And in Article 19, it is proclaimed that “everyone shall have the right to determine and indicate or not to indicate his national, party and religious affiliation.”
Despite having just an 18 million population, Kazakhstan, which lies between China and Russia, is said to be one of the most diverse countries on earth.
It has about 130 ethnic groups. About 63% of them are Kazakhs, followed by Russians at 24%.
“Everyone is equal here,” said a Kazakh diplomat, who speaks four languages.
And as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roman Vassilenko, told a group of foreign journalists last Saturday:
“We don’t use the word ‘minority’ in Kazakhstan to refer to ethnic groups.”
(Vassilenko met with the foreign press just a day before Kazakhs went to the polls to vote for a new No. 1 in the country.
The presidential election was eventually won by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who had campaigned on a wide ranging platform that included fighting against intolerance and extremism.)
According to the book Modern Kazakhstan: Nomadic Routes from Caspian to Altai, “Kazakhstan today represents a true melting pot of peoples.”
It is a Muslim-majority country but there are 17 different faiths among the people.
Kazakhstan’s strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for almost 30 years before he stepped down as president in March, had made known “the value of a secular state policy and equal rights for all religious beliefs.”
(Despite the many accusations against him about clamping down political dissent, The Guardian pointed out that Nazarbayev had been credited for keeping ethnic peace.)
In 2003, he initiated the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, a triennial meeting of top leaders. The gathering is meant as a platform for global dialogue and to make a united stand against efforts to use religion in a divisive mannner.
“It is a very big event (whenever it takes place). It is one of the priority activities of the government,” said the above diplomat.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had attended the congress in 2006.
In 2012, Dr Mahathir as the then former Prime Minister, held an informal meeting with Nazarbayev.
During that meeting, he spoke of “the unique experience of Kazakhstan in maintaining inter-ethnic and inter-religious accord.”
Last week during his briefing to the foreign press, Vassilenko also made clear about his country’s emphasis on inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony.
Kazakhstan’s credentials is that of a peace loving country, he said.
“Kazakhstan is a secular country. We respect the right of the people and the freedom of religion.”
“Harmony is what we seek here. It is not something we should take for granted. It is unacceptable for any individual or organisation to hijack the religion for their own purposes.”
“Religion here is to promote the spirituality of mankind,” he said.