The 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, a triennial event hosted by Kazakhstan, was held in Astana on September 14 and 15 (Astanatimes.com, September 22). This event, once derided as a vanity project by the detractors of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who initiated the forum in 2003, has now emerged as an important global platform for track two diplomacy. As the world is inching closer to a potential global conflict between the established and rising global powers, this congress has the potential of playing a critical role in preventing the possible conflict from spiraling out of control.
The impact of religious leaders on politics cannot be underestimated given their ability to influence policymakers’ decisions. This year’s congress drew more than 100 delegations from 60 countries. The list of the forum participants was quite impressive: Pope Francis, Supreme Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad At-Tayeb, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Joseph, as well as spiritual leaders of Islam, Christianity (Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism), Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and several other creeds.
The congress covered many topics. Some were traditional to the gatherings of religious leaders, such as their role in the spiritual and social development of mankind post-pandemic. Other topics were relatively new: the role of women in the modern world, the role of religion in achieving gender equality, improving education, the contradictions of digital development and the problems of digital inequality. The congress adopted a final declaration that reflected religious leaders’ vision of the current problems of our time and possible ways to resolve them. The Declaration is planned to be approved as an official document of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly.
While the discussions and deliberations among the world religious leaders were in and of themselves fascinating, the congress came into the global spotlight for two primary reasons, which both highlight this forum’s standing as one of the few remaining neutral platforms for track two diplomacy. The first was an anticipated meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Pope Francis, both of whom initially confirmed their participation in the congress. In 2016, Patriarch Kirill, who had previously refused to meet with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, met Pope Francis in Cuba. The two issued a declaration that called, in part, on all parties to the conflict in Ukraine to end it and prevent its potential spread to the surrounding regions. With the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine on February 24, some had hoped that their meeting in Astana would result in a similar declaration, reiterating their call to end the war. Such a declaration from two of the world’s most consequential spiritual leaders who exercise immense political power, no doubt, would have stirred up anti-war sentiment in Russia and heaped additional pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his invasion.
However, the much-anticipated meeting did not happen as the patriarch cancelled his attendance at the congress. The formal explanation was that a meeting with the pope should be carefully planned and be an event in and of itself, not something conducted on the margins of another occasion (Liter.kz, August 25). It is noteworthy that the trip’s cancellation—and by default the patriarch’s meeting with the pope—was criticized even by the Russian pro-government media. Outlets speculated that the true motivation behind the cancellation was the Kremlin’s desire to punish Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for his ambiguous policy toward Russia rather than the patriarch’s own refusal to meet with the pope (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 6). A former Vatican ambassador to Moscow suggested, however, that grumblings from the anti-Catholic faction of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy at the time might have factored into Kirill’s decision (TASS, September 14). The patriarch, himself reportedly belongs to the philocatholic faction of the Russian Orthodox Church and is clearly open to dialogue with Pope Francis.
The second event that drew the world’s attention to the congress in Astana was the quiet hope that Pope Francis would hold an impromptu meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose official visit to Kazakhstan coincided with the congress. Formally, Pope Francis came to Kazakhstan on an official visit as well, as the head of a member state of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. A meeting between the leaders of China and the Vatican, which have not had formal diplomatic relations for over half a century, would have had implications beyond simply sorting out the ongoing conflict over the appointment of Catholic bishops in China. Such a meeting might have resulted in a call to prevent a global conflict by finding a common ground, if not détente, between the West and China. However, the meeting did not take place.
Dashed hopes for the two meetings underscore the opportunities the congress presents. It has become one of the few remaining venues for international dialogue and track two diplomacy. Pope Francis’s decision to attend, notwithstanding Patriarch Kirill’s decision to cancel his participation, underscores this fact (Turanpress.kz, September 12). As does the global attention it has generated. Given the current ominous geopolitical situation, Astana should make the congress an annual event. That would contribute to global stability and validate its role as an emerging global center for diplomacy.
Since the congress, Kazakhstan has hosted numerous global and regional forums, further testifying to Astana’s growing influence for regional diplomacy. In October 2022 alone, Tokayev chaired the first-ever Central Asia–Russia and Central Asia–EU summits, as well as the 6th Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The latter, which counts 27 member states, was attended by the delegations of 50 states. The CICA conference, initiated by Nazarbayev in 1992 and put together in 1999 by then-Foreign Minister Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, announced its transformation into a formal organization. Thus, in addition to becoming a global center for diplomacy, Kazakhstan has the potential to further build its potential as a critical regional security hub.