Woolf Institute Visit to Kazakhstan
Each year the Woolf Institute takes a small group of Patrons to a place where interfaith matters are playing a significant role in the life and development of local, regional or international society. This year, the Woolf Institute party visited the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan for five days. Director of Development, Helen Cornish was on the visit and reflects here on the experience.
'Kazakhstan has more than 100 ethnicities and everyone lives together well, regardless of ethnicity, or whether they are a Muslim, Christian, Jew or Atheist' was a refrain – almost a mantra – that we heard many times a day on the recent Woolf Institute Patrons' Tour to this geographically and culturally rich and diverse country. During our visit we met many Kazakh citizens, who usually described themselves with reference to their ethnicity, calling themselves 'Tartar', 'Russian', 'Kazakh', but also very aware of their status as citizens of Kazakhstan and of incorporating their ethnic background within their national identity.
In December 1991, Kazakhstan was the last of the republics to declare independence from the USSR and since then its government, led by President Nurlan Nazarbayev, has worked to secure a stable economy and society. The country has been helped by its oil wealth, discovered in the Caspian Sea, and other mineral resources, funds from which have been used to support universal education and medical care. Unemployment has declined and per capita GDP has increased signficantly, but the risk of being heavily dependent upon one economic sector is recognised and moves are afoot to try and diversify the economy.
As part of this diversification process, the Astana International Finance Centre (AIFC) is being created. AIFC aims to be a regional hub for finance and business in Central Asia and operates within a special legal regime based on English Common Law, which regulates the legal relationship between AIFC participants and third parties and is aimed at development of the financial market. Lord Woolf, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales and Patron of the Woolf Institute, is overseeing the establishment of the AIFC Court and during his visits to Kazakhstan found a significant interest amongst government officials and policy makers and influencers in encouraging good interfaith relations as part of building this new period of Kazakh society. Lord Woolf introduced colleagues at the Woolf Institute to colleagues at AIFC, Nazerbayev University and within the government, which led to the Woolf Institute Patrons' Tour visiting Kazakhstan in May 2018.
Each year the Woolf Institute takes a small group of Patrons to a place where interfaith matters are playing a significant role in the life and development of local, regional or international society. This year a group of nine flew to Almaty, arriving minus our luggage and after a tricky check-in at Heathrow when two of our group's booking names were deemed insufficiently close to their passport names, a late take-off due to waiting for passengers from a connecting flight and a resulting rushed change-over, assisted by helpful airport staff at Astana, but to a warm welcome from former Woolf Institute colleague, Dan Ava, now resident in Almaty, and two AIFC staff. Happily, our luggage caught up with us later in the day, our suitcases were a welcome sight after many hours and several trains, planes, buses and airports in the same clothes!
After a briefing from British Council Deputy Director, Rowan Kennedy, to set the scene for the visit with information on the history and development of Kazakhstan, we enjoyed a walking tour of Almaty with a local, ethnically Tartar, guide. This was our first proper introduction to the mantra, which our guide, Khamida repeated at intervals whilst showing us some of the sights of Almaty, including the Soviet-era opera house, buildings of the local Islamic University and the medical school. Afterwards we drove through Almaty to the synagogue and were welcomed by the local Chabad community. I had expected a rather older building and members of the community to be from families with longer associations with Almaty, given Kazakhstan's history as a place of both exile and sanctuary for Jewish people in the 20th century. We were welcomed to a modern building and after the Shabbat service enjoyed the hospitality of a Shabbat meal together with members of the community, who came from around the world, including the USA, Poland and Israel. Supper was a tale of two meals – we women and the children enjoyed a generous and tasty spread of food on one side of the room, modestly behind a separating screen, whilst the menfolk enjoyed quite a few vodka toasts to friendship on the other, alongside the same supper dishes. Rabbi Cohen gave a talk with responses from Dr Kessler, which continued throughout the evening, with the Rabbi ensuring that all could benefit from the discussion by switching between English and Russian (the official Kazakh language of interethnic interaction).
The following morning, we were able to compare our synagogue experience with a visit to the Central Mosque,
where the Imam guided us and answered questions about the Arabic inscriptions from the Qur'an on the beautiful tilework and the observance of Ramadan amongst the local population in the post-Soviet era. Islamic observance is growing again, particularly amongst younger Kazakhs and the Imam spoke about the system of madrassas in the country and the Islamic University in Almaty. The Kazakh government is eager to support observance of the Abrahamic faiths, but to ensure that this is done within the framework of Kazakh traditions and identity, a subject we were to return to with the Deputy Supreme Mufti when we met him later in Astana. We were also honoured to be invited to witness the Imam performing a nikah for a bride and groom and their two official witnesses. The bride's headscarf was a fusion of traditions -
it was an Islamic head covering, whilst being white for a bride in the European tradition and decorated with silver sequins forming a traditional Kazakh decorative pattern reminiscent of animal horns.
A visit to a local market is a good way to understand how local people interact on a daily basis and the Green Bazaar in Almaty was a microcosm of Kazakhstan. Stall holders came from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds – many were ethnic Kazakhs, others were ethnically Russian, Korean or Tartar Kazakhs and there were stall holders from neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Our guide warned that stallholders from certain countries would charge higher prices than others, but this appeared to reflect the different expectations of the stall holders about the nature of the transaction – those who started with higher prices were more than happy to haggle, those with lower prices kept to the stated amount. Whatever their approach to agreeing a price, all the stallholders were friendly and happy to show their wares, working alongside people of different beliefs and practices. The meat area illustrated this graphically with horse meat, the traditional meat of Kazakh culture, sitting alongside pork stalls serving the ethnically Russian population. The Institute's Director of Research, Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, and I found that by pooling Miriam's knowledge of Cyrillic script with my Turkish food vocabulary, we could work out what quite a range of dried fruit and other items were: a reflection of Kazakhstan's position on the ancient Silk Route and its close historic links with both Tsarist Russia and the USSR.
By Saturday afternoon, Almaty felt unusually familiar for somewhere I was only just getting to know. On reflection I decided that the style in which the city was built, the mountains, the warm balmy weather and the familiar language sounds I heard around me felt comfortable because they reminded me of my teenage experiences of living and travelling in Turkey in the 1980s. Although I could not fully understand Kazakh as it was spoken around me, its rhythm and sounds were familiar and it was encouraging to understand some words.
Sunday saw us attending the two hour mass at the Russian Orthodox cathedral of the Holy Ascension with a huge and milling congregation of people of all ages, from elderly ladies to toddlers and babies in arms. The music from the choir, hidden on a balcony high above the congregation, the long standing in the warm, muggy heat, the incense, the liturgy sung by the clergy and congregation (without any service sheets in sight), the devotion of the congregation at times kneeling or even prostrate on the hard tiled floor, the dazzling gold icons and the drama of the flinging open of the golden doors between the High Altar sanctuary and the main body of the church as the blessed bread and wine was brought in to view by Bishop in a vast onion-shaped crown, created an atmosphere unlike any other church service I had attended before. Coming as I do from an Anglican background of worship in far plainer, quieter churches with pews and service sheets, there was much that was new to see and yet it all seemed familiar because it was the same faith, differently expressed. Like Almaty, it felt like a home from home.
It was a very fitting Sunday for the Woolf Institute delegation to visit this stunning place of worship – one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world – decorated not only with many golden icons of saints and scenes from the Bible, but also with silver birch branches and flowers for Pentecost. Pentecost marks the time when Christians believe that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles as they waited at the time of the feast of Shavuot in Jerusalem for instructions following the Ascension of Christ. The decorative flowers and branches in the cathedral that day reflected the decorations that are still used in synagogues and Jewish homes to mark this important commemoration of the giving of the Torah and highlight one of the close connections between the Jewish and Christian religious calendars.
The theme of links between Holy Scriptures was also addressed by one of the patrons in our group during the tour. One of our Jewish patrons spoke about how during the 2017 visit to Sarajevo, he and one of our Muslim patrons had recited verses from the Torah and Qur'an respectively including the word 'Shekhina'. This has led him to look at the weekly portions of the Torah since and to seek verses in the Qur'an with a direct or close parallel. He had looked either at identical words, as in the original case, or for a story, theme or body of laws, or a concept contained in the Torah that could be directly connected to something in the Qur'an. The patron presented some of his findings to the 2018 group, resulting in an engaging discussion, an example of Dr Ed Kessler's often-made statement that in looking at the religious beliefs and practices of others, we better understand not just 'the other', but our self too.
An afternoon flight to Astana took us to a different world metaphorically and certainly very different weather – leaving a sunny and balmy 28 degrees in the long-established Almaty and landing in 2 degrees and sleet in Astana. Astana has been established as Kazakhstan's capital on the steppe only since its independence from the USSR and is home to an extraordinary collection of contemporary architecture. The city's plan includes architecture on a monumental scale, designed to impress and to the project its intended role as a centre of power, not just for Kazakhstan, but also in its ambitions to be a regional hub. However, the welcome was just as warm and that evening the British Ambassador, Mike Gifford, hosted a reception for the group to meet diplomats, business people, religious leaders, NGO staff and others involved in development work, such as the UN Development Programme. The following day and a half gave us an insight into the policy and development work that interacts with growing religious observance within Kazakh society.
Monday and Tuesday included a packed programme of meetings with Ambassadors and Ministers, including the Minister for Religious Affairs and Civil Society, the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council and the Chairman of the Senate of the Republic of Kazakhstan. During a visit to the International Centre of Cultures and Religions in its instantly recognisable Foster and Partners-designed glass pyramid home,
the Woolf Institute signed a memorandum of co-operation with the Centre and discussed possible joint lectures and other academic initiatives. We also enjoyed meeting a young local, ethnically Tartar, woman who shared her experience and insights regarding the position of women within Kazakh society, both in the home and workplace and the cities and the countryside.
We visited the Hazret Sultan Mosque during midday prayers and were hosted by the Deputy Supreme Mufti, viewing an ancient copy of the Qur'an, discussing the Arabic inscriptions within the mosque and Kazakhstan's approach to supporting the rising Islamic observance amongst its population. The Deputy Supreme Mufti outlined how Kazakh Islamic practices have traditionally incorporated local custom and the government and religious leadership would like this to continue. For example, if women choose to cover their heads, they are encouraged to choose colourful scarves, rather than to adopt head coverings from other countries.
He entered into a debate about the different inscriptions decorating the inside of the mosque, which was beautifully appointed, one of which was challenging from an interfaith perspective, as can be the case with passages from other Holy Scriptures. It was clear from his responses that the Deputy Supreme Mufti was committed to interfaith understanding and living together constructively and he shared his pleasure at discussing the words of the Qur'an with scholars such as Ed and Miriam and with other members of the party.
On Monday evening we were privileged to share an Iftar with Dr Kairat Kelimbetov, Governor of the AIFC, and some of his staff. It was another warm and hospitable occasion, reflecting our experience of all the Kazakh people we had met during our tour and as we relaxed over delicious food and traditional Kazakh tea (with milk, unlike elsewhere in Asia, something our hosts were quick to point out as a similarity with the UK), their fine sense of humour came out with much joke-telling and laughter.
Beginning with a Shabbat meal on our first day and ending our last full day in Kazakhstan with an Iftar appropriately represented the Kazakh's proudly and often repeated claim of religious tolerance to the Abrahamic faiths within their extraordinary country. I left with the impression of warm people with a genuine desire to allow people of different beliefs to live alongside one another peaceably, but aware that this is not something that can be taken for granted and always includes challenges. The mantra is a subtle reminder of the risks involved in a breakdown of relations and of the government's aim to maintain a peaceful society in Kazakhstan and to avoid the conflict seen in some of its neighbours and further afield.
Helen Cornish is Director of Development of the Woolf Institute and has spent her career raising funds for a variety of medical and educational causes and helping those organisations to advance their charitable purposes to improve the circumstances of individuals and communities. Helen spent a great deal of her childhood in the UAE and Turkey.
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