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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 September 2006, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Kazakh stage for religious event
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Astana

Palace of Peace and Harmony prior to the opening ceremony in Astana, 1/9/06
A glass pyramid was built especially for the Congress
More than 40 spiritual leaders from around the world are in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, for the Congress of World and Traditional Religions.

The event was organised by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, to promote security and stability through religious tolerance and understanding.

Critics say it was also designed to promote Kazakhstan.

Delegates are meeting beneath the glass roof of a 62m (190 foot) pyramid built by British architect Norman Foster.

For two days, seated in the building's spaceship-like giant hall, Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist spiritual leaders have discussed religious freedom and tolerance.

Much of the conversation has focused on the Middle East and the recent war in Lebanon.

Tolerance

The idea for this dialogue belongs to President Nazarbayev, and its goal, he says, is to enhance peace and security worldwide. He calls his own country an example of such tolerance.

But beyond the walls of the spectacular pyramid, there are concerns that the Kazakh government, although more tolerant than others in Central Asia, has recently itself moved to restrict religious freedoms.

Muslim groups that are outside state control and non-traditional groups like Hare Khrisna have complained about official harassment.

This is one of the reasons why critics have questioned whether the Congress was as much aimed at serving President Nazarbayev's goal of promoting his country, as it was designed to promote world peace.

Oil and uranium-rich Kazakhstan is an emerging economic giant and President Nazarbayev has ambitions to turn it into a serious political player too.

But Kazakhstan's rare post Soviet economic success is increasingly overshadowed by question marks over democracy and freedom.

Not a single election here, observers say, has lived up to international standards and the media are tightly controlled by the state.

While during the Congress President Nazarbayev has called on his guests to help foster democratic values worldwide, his opponents say more effort needs to be put into promoting them inside the country too.


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