KAZAKHSTAN: RELIGIONS AND RELATIONS BETWEEN CONFESSIONS

Sapar Ali BEIBIT
Muhamed-Kanafia BARBASOV


Sapar Ali Beibit, Professor, deputy rector, Kazakh Institute of Islamic Studies (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Muhamed-Kanafia Barbasov, Ph.D. (Econ.), specialist in religions (Almaty, Kazakhstan)


Kazakhstan today is a democratic and secular state ruled by law. Its supreme values are man, his life, rights and freedoms. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience and religion and bans propaganda and agitation that may incite religious and other hatred and enmity. Yet the republic has so far not determined the status, sphere and limits of religions influences on everyday life. There are no mechanisms of state control over the relations between confessions that might impair peace, stability and religious tolerance in the republic.

It is important to analyze the present state and prospects of Kazakh society, the place and role of religion in it, specifics of social changes and the world experience.

Religion in Kazakhstan: the Present Day

History of mankind includes the dynamics of beliefs and religions that served peoples spiritual and intellectual needs. Religion (by which we mean the world monotheist confessions) forms in the minds of men a set of ideas about the world as a whole, the individuals place in it, and an understanding of lifes realities.

Religion guides men, opens up the hitherto concealed potentials of reason and righteous behavior, shows the wide horizons of truth and goodness, helps man understand himself, his place and purpose in life, the world order and the way it was created. Religion meets the spiritual requirements and plays down material needs, elevates noble strivings, reveals the secrets of life and nature and teaches how to interpret them in the correct way, how to distinguish between good and evil; it purifies spirit, relieves mind of its doubts, strengthens mans willpower, corrects the way people think, and adjusts their convictions.

Religion educates people, it teaches them to be patient and never lose hope, love truth, spread true love and kindness, remain staunch and courageous at all timesin short, everything that can be called a righteous life, everything that protects man against fear, utter discomfort and spiritual losses, brings peace and quiet into their minds, and fills life with meaning.

Obviously, religion is called upon to revive spirituality in society, improve the moral climate in every way. This will help remove many negative phenomena from social life, strengthen peace and social harmony.

Kazakhstan is home to over 120 large and small ethnic groups traditionally identified with various religions. Their common territory, shared economic and social interests are not the only factors that keep them together: there are many common features in their origins, languages, cultures, traditions, and rites. Besides, they share many elements in their religious teachings and values. Kazakhs, other Turkic and Slavic ethnic groups are in the majority; their traditional religions are Islam and Christian Orthodoxy.

Islam helped numerous Turkic tribes and clans to unite into the autochthonous nationthe Kazakhs. It was Islam that united them; it produced a profound impact on their culture while the nation was still in the process of consolidation; it is reflected in the language, psychology, mentality, and ideas about life that, in the course of centuries, became an inalienable part of the Kazakh nation.

Everybody knows how Islam treats the Jews and Christians: it believes that they share many common features with the Muslims: they all descend from Ibrahim (Abraham), their religions are monotheist. Islam looks at Judaism and Christianity as kindred religions and bans Muslims to accuse the Jews and Christians of lack of faith, the Muslims are instructed to treat them with special regard and not to enter into religious controversies with them. They have the only rightto contest Jews and Christians in performing good deeds. According to the Islamic dogmas piety consists, among other things, in a sincere faith in all the Books that existed before the Koran and all the Prophets who lived before Prophet Muhammad. Islam recognizes the Torah, the Book of Psalms, and the Gospels as true. This makes it possible to tap the spiritual and moral potential accumulated by these religions in Kazakhstan that can and should be used to humanize public life and consolidate the nation.

In strict accordance with the Koran the Muslims treat Christian Orthodoxy with great respect and are fully aware of its immense influence on the culture of Russians and other Slavic nations.

Christian Orthodoxy is an independent trend within the Christian church that has no single center: there are about 20 autocephalous Christian Orthodox churches. The Ukrainian Christian Orthodox Church is also independent. This fact has supplied food for thought to the Christian Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan still working under the Moscow Patriarchate.

In Kazakhstan religious affiliation is mainly associated with ethnic affiliation while the problems of religion are equally interesting to all, atheists and believers. This should be borne in mind when discussing the future of ethnic relationships in the republic. While translating their ethnic and religious policy into practices the central and local authorities should pay particular attention to the ethnic map, the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nature of each of the regions: the republic has no mono-ethnic territories.

Today, religion has not yet exhausted its potential: two major religions, Islam and Christian Orthodoxy have not yet tapped everything they can offer.

In Kazakhstan civic peace, developing economy, stable social and political situation, ethnic and religious relationships depend on many factors. The country needs a multi-sided dialog between the clergy and the followers of the two major religions to proceed at different levels to become less dependent on all sorts of nationalist, chauvinist, and pseudo-patriotic forces and political speculations. The dialog should proceed from the idea of equality of all religions in Kazakhstan. The two religions should admit that the major aspects and ethical values of their teachings are very close, and that the followers have common histories and interests. This should be insistently explained both to the Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

The unique situation in the religious and spiritual sphere of Kazakhstan has made the state the third force in the relations between confessions. Indeed, any dialog and coordinated activity require a competent and responsible official structure that can enlist the services of theologians, sociologists, respected religious figures of the main confessions, and in general, all healthy social forces. This mission is valuable: the future of the state and prosperity of its citizens depend on harmonious relations between religious confessions and a timely settlement of all problems in this sphere.

Religion in Kazakhstan: the Present Situation

Today there are over 2,500 religious associations in Kazakhstan that represent about 50 confessions and religious trends. This makes an objective assessment of the religious situation very difficult. Legally, the state is separated from religious organizations, it fairly often sides with certain confessions and with impudence interferes in the religious structures affairs.

An estimated number of Muslims in the country is over 10 million, or 70 percent of the total population. They belong to 29 ethnic groups. Islam in Kazakhstan (where it has been present for over 1,300 years) is Sunni Islam of Hanafi maddhab (its followers are mainly Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Uighurs, Tartars, Dungans, and others). Muslims of other ethnic affiliations belong to Sunni Islam of Shafiite and Hanbali maddhabs.

The Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan (SAMK) was set up in 1990. Before that the Muslim communities were administered by the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. It was at that time that traditional Islamic structures appeared: the faithful got back their cultic objects, old mosques are restored, new ones are under construction, religious schools opened, etc. Many mosques run courses of primary spiritual education, there are several madrasahs, faithful youth can get education in Muslim countries, there are Islamic newspapers and magazines, yet because of a weak printing industry in Kazakhstan religious books are brought from Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

According to the SAMK, it administers about 1,300 mosques (out of the total number of 5,000 mosques found in Kazakhstan). This fact reflects the split between the Muslim communities of Kazakhstan and the Spiritual Administration. Certain provisions of its charter (registered back in 1996) no longer correspond to the laws and practices of the Muslim communities. For example, the Kurultai (shura) of the most respected people of the Muslim communities, the highest structure of the SAMK, does not have a monopoly on electing the Administrations new head and new members, on approving annual plans of activity and reports submitted by the executive and controlling agencies, and on introducing amendments into the charter. The SAMK Council, the working structure expected to coordinate the communities between the congresses, does not function.

Christian Orthodoxy is the second largest confession: it has about 3 million followers, mainly Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has over 200 parishes in Kazakhstan. In 1991, by a decision of the Holy Synod of ROC they were distributed among three eparchies: Astana-Almaty, Shimkent, and Ural. The clergy is trained locally, in a religious college in Almaty and in religious educational establishments ROC has in other CIS countries. The Russian Orthodox Church also publishes two monthlies Svet pravoslavia v Kazakhstane and Vedi, is actively building prayer houses and churches and restoring old cultic buildings. Nearly all churches and prayer houses run religious schools.

Lately, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (formed in 1921 by Russian émigrés who condemned ROC for its collaboration with Soviet power) has stepped up its activity. The state structures refused to register the community because its charter contained political points such as a requirement to fight the godless power in Russia.

There are several clandestine groups of followers of the True Christian Orthodox Church across the country. The Church was set up in Bolshevist Russia in the 1920s. It recognizes the Orthodox Christian dogmas and rites, preaches restoration of the monarchy across the entire territory of the Russian Empire.

There are Christian communities of Old Believers of various trends and the so-called Russian Christian Orthodox Church of Old Believers headed by Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia Alimpii.

Since at all times Kazakhs have been more tolerant to Jews than people in the European part of the Soviet empire Jews flocked to the republic in great numbers. There are official structures of the Orthodox, Reformist, and Conservative branches of Judaism and four synagogues (two in Almaty and one in Shimkent and in Kzyl-Orda). All regional centers have Jewish Sunday schools, but the number of religious Jews in the republic is diminishing all the time due to Jewish emigration evident in all CIS countries.

There are also new, nontraditional confessions in Kazakhstan engaged in publishing activity and printing educational and religious books. Nobody knows exactly what the religious communities that have never been registered are doing. They represent all sorts of missionary religious trends, sects and spiritual schools. Many prefer not to register as religious organizations and are functioning as educational centers, health groups, and commercial structures. Their finances are not controlled, their impact on the religious situation in the republic has not been studied, and their effect on the minds and souls remains a mystery. The state should control all registered religious organizations and close down without pity all unregistered ones.

Foreign missionaries lavishly funded from abroad are mainly responsible for the growing influence of unregistered religious organizations that have no roots in Kazakhstan. They are exploiting the climate of religious democracy in Kazakhstan. This game is dangerous and its results are hard to predict. The situation becomes even tenser because the state lacks adequate information about the aims and goals of such missionaries and scientifically substantiated forecasts of their activity. It should be said that missionaries are working in all CIS countries while all sorts of nontraditional confessions are too independent in their desire to extend influence and increase the number of followers. In Kazakhstan they have found fertile soil: the present social and economic conditions, corruption and arbitrariness of certain people have sown disenchantment with the authorities. As a result people are hooked by promises of foreign moneythe destitute take an opportunity to challenge the authorities.

This situation calls for an urgent and objective analysis of the religious context in the country that should be done by theologians and members of the clergy of the traditional confessions.

On the whole, the religious situation in the republic is closely connected with the general economic, social and political conditions: world experience testifies that the worsened situation causes tensions among confessions and threatens peace and harmony among ethnic groups.

Religion in Kazakhstan: Cooperation with the State

The secular state concept speaks a lot about the relations between the state and religious structures. The republics legislation rules out any coercion that infringes on the freedom of worship. At the same time, laws of many secular states while proclaiming the right and freedom of worship still put certain limitations in this sphere of life according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1966. It says, in particular, that Freedom to manifest ones religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others (Part III, Art 18). Criminal legislation of many countries contains provisions under which the state has the right to persecute any religious or public association, or its heads, that by its activity impairs peoples health or infringes on their personalities or rights in any other ways, or calls on them to refuse to perform their civic duties, to act against the law. Such religious organizations are deprived of the right to participate in social life.

The secular European states the majority of which are mono-national and poly-confessional (within Christianity) are actively cooperating with religious associations, are strictly monitoring the relations between confessions, and resolutely oppose any pronouncements aimed against followers of any religion and its dogmas made in the media. The state acts in the capacity of a regulator of religious life by issuing laws that determine the way the religious organizations should function and the forms of control over them. The state ensures peaceful coexistence of the followers of different religions and maintains a constant dialog among them in the form of seminars, conferences, scientific research, etc. It is the duty of the state to fund organizations engaged in religious studies thus providing a foundation for such dialog.

In Spain, for example, none of the confessions is the state religion yet the authorities take into account the religious feelings of citizens and cooperate with the Catholic Church and other religious organizations.

In Italy the Catholic Church has an important role to play in social life; it enjoys authority among the public, which is registered by the constitution. There the state and the Catholic Church are independent and sovereign, each within its own sphere. The confessions are equal from the legal point of view yet none of the religious organizations is allowed to break laws.

At the same time, in certain countries one of the religions is recognized as the state religion: Judaism in Israel, Church of England in Britain, and the Lutheran Church in the Scandinavian countries.

There are states that have completely removed themselves from dealing with the religious problems and left them to the discretion of religious associations. This was done, for example, in the United States where the state has preserved the right to control how the principle of separation of the Church and the state and the school from the Church is observed, and to protect the freedom of conscience.

In Kazakhstan with its specific features enumerated above and for the sake of peace, harmony and religious tolerance, absolutely indispensable in a state with many ethnic groups and religions, the state should monitor the relationships among the local confessions. The laws here have nothing to do with religious norms while the decisions passed by religious organizations have no legal force. This explains why religious ceremonies, rites and other religious events cannot be conducted in state structures and be part of official activities. The religious organizations have no right to interfere in what the state structures are doing, perform official state functions, and meddle in politics. Besides, there is a ban on confession-based political parties.

While respecting the internal rules of each religious organization and letting it act accordingly the state in Kazakhstan keeps away from such associations and does not fund them. On the other hand, it is its duty to protect the freedom of conscience. Being aware that the believers and their organizations are part of the spiritual and social structures the state cooperates with them in the charitable, humanitarian, cultural, and educational spheres. It also turns to them to join forces when dealing with lack of spirituality, alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime. The state and religious organizations are supposed to work together to promote the healthy way of life, stronger families, and to build up the spiritual and moral potential. The state allows all religious organizations perform religious rites and conduct other activity in prisons, colonies, penitentiary organizations, in the army and hospitals strictly within the law.

At the same time, the state has actually removed itself from regulating the religious life in the republic. We consider it wrong. The Council for Contacts with Religious Associations at the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan has no power to address the problems that have accumulated in this sphere. In a multi-national and poly-confessional state it is the state structures that should regulate the relations between confessions. Any religious organization should be allowed to function only after it registered itselfotherwise it would be hard to preserve social and political stability, religious tolerance, and prevent religious extremism.

Education is one of the most important fields in which religious organizations are acting. The secular school should be aware of the countrys multi-national and poly-confessional nature, school administration and teachers should respect the religious feelings of the students and parents. The school should inculcate religious and ethnic tolerance. Teaching religions as theological systems is banned at secular schoolsreligions there are treated as cultural phenomena and objects of religious studies; no religious rites can be performed. The teaching of theological disciplines belongs to religious schools and courses set up and run by religious organizations. They alone have the right to send their pupils to study religions abroad yet they cannot force people, including children, to study or practice any religion.

There is another important aspect of cooperation between the state and religions, viz., religious extremism and international terrorism. Today, terrorism uses religious slogans, which makes it very important to separate it from the religion it is exploiting. Regrettably, certain media deliberately describe one of the religions as an ideology of fanaticism and intolerance that breeds wars, terrorism, and extremism. They normally refer to Islam when speaking about terrorist acts thus forming a negative attitude to all Muslims. At the same time, newspapers and magazines never refer to terror in Northern Ireland as Christian terror or to the assassin of the Premier of Israel as a Jewish terrorist. The world press, of which the Kazakhstani press is part, is fond of tale-telling headlines about Islamic terror. They deliberately distort the truth about the religion with the greatest number of followers in Kazakhstan. Islam does not call for violence, hatred, coercion and missionary activities as a method of conscripting new followers.

In fact, any attempt to sanctify extremism and terror with Islam is anti-religious by nature. Islam is a religion of humane attitudes, charity and nobleness, justice, humility and tolerance, responsibility and moderateness, diligence and sympathy. Islam is a religion that is very tolerant to other faiths, customs, and traditions; it preaches brotherhood of nations, all of them created by God. Any true Muslim is friendly toward followers of other religions and people of other ethnic affiliations: Islam teaches that it was the Creators will to have a multitude of nations on earth.

In the world today all sorts of political forces are using religions to achieve their own ends, up to usurping power. They are shamelessly abusing religious slogans and add in religion a great share of politics.

Today, people have in general understood that terrorism is not connected with any single religion or nation: a different approach will escalate tension across the world. This should be borne in mind when selecting the ways and means of fighting international terrorism and extremism.

On the whole we know why the Islamic world is presented as an enemy of civilized mankind. Potential oligarchs that have not yet become the world government but are aspiring to become one are scared by a possibility of Islam siding with the anti-globalist left movement.

The present-day realities call for an objective and well-balanced analysis of the religious situation. We should learn to distinguish between the canons of true religion and religious slogans used in political squabbles, and to recognize the causes and sources of politization of religions. Religious feelings may be used as an instrument of political struggle if the spiritual foundations and key values of any religion are presented in a distorted form. Not all people, including believers, can independently sort out intentions of sophisticated political technologists, globalizators of human civilization, fighters for the purity of faith, etc. To preserve peace and harmony the state, religious organizations, theologians, sociologists, and other public figures should join forces.

Negative phenomena flourish in places where the social situation is affected by unemployment and lack of economic growth and where people feel excluded from social life. This is typical of Kazakhstan: the republic needs efficient solutions of social problems and of corruption. The state should concentrate on a consistent ideological platform on all major problems able to channel the efforts of all healthy forces to the preservation of peace and stability.

Religion in Kazakhstan: State and Religious Structures

In Kazakhstan the state should actively cooperate with the religious organizations, control the relationships between religions, stimulate religious studies and the efforts to create a scientific basis for the dialog between religions and cultures, invite the representatives of the main confessions and leading religious figures of other confessions, theologians, historians of religion, lawyers, sociologists and other experts to deal with religion-related problems.

The Council for Relations with the Religious Associations at the republics government can hardly cope with these questions: it lacks adequate powers and possibilities. It seems that we need a state structure to deal with religious problems with full powers and with branches in all regional and district centers and large cities. It should monitor the activities of all confessions, cooperate with religious associations, deal with all daily problems, tap the huge spiritual potential of religions in the interests of society, maintain dialog between different confessions.

This state structure should organize a system of monitoring the religious processes to be able to control how the freedom of conscience is observed in the republic, to identify the trends of relationships between the confessions and to provide, as a result, an all-embracing picture of the religious situation in the country. It should coordinate the search, processing, and analysis of information that comes from all corners of the republic so that to be able to create scientifically substantiated and politically balanced recommendations for the central and regional state structures. This structure should invite theologians, students of religions, lawyers, sociologists, and progressive religious and public figures to cooperate with it.

Such programs demand specially trained civil servants with good knowledge of religions and an active cooperation of the republics intelligentsia. In the last ten years the republic lost the entire educational network; together with the presence of obscure missionary sects this created a new situation in the field of shaping the world outlook and the cultural values of the people.

The present system of professional training, philosophical education and upgrading the skills in civil service is far from perfect. The Civil Service Academy at the Administration of the President trains higher officials while the training courses in Almaty and Shimkent cannot offer adequate training in management and administration to all who need it, especially to those living in the countryside (the share of the republics rural population is 49 percent).

We believe that secondary schools, higher and specialized educational institutions, the Civil Service Academy, the training courses for civil servants should offer training in religious issues and international experience of relationships between confessions. This will require assistance of leading theologians capable of writing high quality teaching aids, textbooks, and popular books as well as materials to be used in the traditional and electronic forms. The country needs popular educational programs on the radio and TV on the religious and related problems.

Representatives of the central and local authorities responsible for managerial decision-making, graduates of higher educational establishments trained in religious questions and international experience should become the vehicles of religious tolerance, democratic forms of relations between confessions, and supporters of a just system of management of public affairs in this sphere.

There is another important element of state religion-related policy. We have in mind the media that should inculcate, on a day-by-day basis, mutual respect, tolerance, and better relations between members of various confessions.

If informed about the latest scientific results and scientifically substantiated recommendations elaborated by state centers and institutions engaged in religious studies the media will be able to better promote the idea of a dialog among confessions.

The media should exercise differentiated approach to the religious groups, take into account their specific features. This, in turn, requires a profound knowledge of the religious situation in various parts of the country. They should also bear in mind that differentiated approach to people is a must while a thoughtless application of the same methods and communication forms may damage the cause beyond repair. It is necessary to know the details about population groups educational and cultural levels, special attention should be paid to the social groups excluded from active productive and public activities: old age pensioners, unemployed, housewives, etc.

Experience has proven that better relations among members of society can be achieved through an active involvement of prominent religious figures known for their tolerance toward other confessions and able to defend their views in a convincing and well-argumented way. TV viewers and readers can learn a lot from such people about the true religious values and traditions.

At the same time, while tracing the shortest road to the hearts and minds of viewers, listeners, and readers the state should respect the believers and the clergys feelings and avoid a direct administrative interference in the religious associations inner life.

We think that so far the state structures have not yet learned how to use the religious teachings wide potentials to combat such evils as drug addiction, alcoholism, smoking, prostitution, etc. The deviation from normal behavior widespread among the youth directly threatens the republics gene pool and its future.

Salvation is the key aim of all religions that look at the Creator. There are numerous positive examples, the number of which will undoubtedly increase. Knowledge, spiritual and moral values and objective information are not an aim in itself but an instrument of persuasion. Such persuasion can be achieved through meetings, talks and discussions with leading scholars, theologians, and respected religious figures.

The clergy of those religions that specifically ban the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can help in an all-out combat against the vices that cripple minds and souls and destroy health. The state, school, family, the public and religious associations should pool their efforts in an attempt to rise a healthy generation. Lives are destroyed by the declining moral principles in the family and the habits of drinking, smoking, and excessive sexual activity acquired early in life.

It is in the family that children learn the basic thingsparents should be taught to be aware of their huge responsibility to the nation, society, and the state for their children. Contemporary pedagogics insists on the same. Each happy family can bring out the best in its children: love of people, the urge to help those who need help, respect for the elderly, charity for younger children, justice, tolerance toward those who hold different opinions, follow different religions or belong to different ethnic groups.

This is how we see the noble aims of the state, all religious confessions, society as a whole, each family and each citizen of the republic.

* * *

Religion is gaining weight in the contemporary world. It affects, in an indirect way, peoples social and economic behavior, ethnic, social, and spiritual relationships and interstate relations. It helps form state identities, systems of value preferences and ideals of people, and human mentality in the public. Religion helps each and every person tap his spiritual potential, form civic position, and realize his social and cultural as well as moral features. It forms mans intellect, educates his feelings and emotions, and promotes a definite system of lifes values and aims.

It is the task of the state to mobilize all social institutions, all potentials of the educational system, the family, culture and religion to shape harmonious personalities in each member of society, to preserve peace and stability in the country. Time has come to introduce state measures and mechanisms to inculcate tolerance in people, to decrease social and psychological tension, to stand up to extremism in its secular and religious manifestations.

The state and religious organizations should act together in order to neutralize definite political forces that are pursuing ambitious aims camouflaged as religious slogans. To achieve their selfish aims they are actively exploiting the so-called religious factor and the feelings of those who, for historical, cultural, and philosophical reasons, guide themselves by religions.

If these urgent problems are settled the state and religion will cooperate in a better way while their consistent and civilized dialog will help achieve their common aim: spirituality, high moral features and a stronger statehood of Kazakhstan.

Development of state institutions and stronger ties among confessions is a living and natural process that goes on in any society. Here we have concentrated on the trends and tendencies that are important today and will retain their importance in future. We think that the above can be used to improve the religion-related laws and to formulate new rules of practical cooperation between the state and religious communities and institutions.


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