This week Russian Ministries’ director for its Religious Freedom Initiative, Wade Kusack, participated in the Religion, Security, and Citizenship conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, organized by the Carnegie Endowment and the Institute for Global Engagement, which took place February 25-27th. The conference provided a safe space for representatives of various religious group, government leaders, and representatives of civil society to discuss topics which included “Religion and identity,” “Religion and education,” and “Religion, the family, and society.”
The goal of the conference was to pass resolutions and offer recommendations to the Kyrgyz government regarding religious freedom. Russian Ministries’ participation in this conference was part of our strategy of creating dialogue between government, civil society, and Evangelical churches in the former Soviet Union, with the goal of softening religious legislation; changing the relationship between the government and the Church; and including Evangelical leaders in the discussion of relevant topics in their countries on an equal basis with so-called traditional religions.
Kyrgyzstan still bears traces of its Soviet past; many current leaders started their careers in the Soviet government. Corruption is widespread, and there are many divisions in Kyrgyz society, on ethnic, religious, and geographical lines. Society is becoming increasingly Islamized, with 25% of the Kyrgyz population supporting the implementation of Sharia Law.
Religious legislation passed in Kyrgyzstan in 2008 is stricter than legislation passed in neighboring Kazakhstan in 2011. For a new church to register it must have 200 members, while Kazakh law requires only 50. There are also many activities that are forbidden on the basis of “unlawful religious activity.”
The second day of the conference was devoted to hearing from government representatives and to developing recommendations. Considering the existing limits on religious freedom in Kyrgyzstan, Russian Ministries’ Wade Kusack noted that he was “pleasantly surprised” that Evangelical leaders were able to participate in the conference on equal footing with other religious leaders, and that discussion was open and honest.
Participants in the conference included a wide range of government officials, representatives of various religions, and representatives of non-government organizations. Notable participants included Mira Karybaeva, Office of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic; the Honorable Muratbek S. Imanaliev, former foreign minister of the republic of Kyrgyzstan, diplomat, president of Institute for Public Policy; Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement; and Sultana Parvanta, independent advisor, Kabul, Islamic Republic of Afganistan.
As a result of the conference, Russian Ministries was invited by Mira Karybaeva, from the Office of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic, to participate in discussion about new government strategy in the area of religion. We agreed to continue dialogue and invited officials and members of the Kyrgyz religious community to Washington DC. We are planning a full scale International Religious Freedom Roundtable in Bishkek in the near future.
After the conference, Russian Ministries’ Wade Kusack participated in meetings with the Interfaith Counsel of Kyrgyzstan, which unites representatives of the four most influential religious groups in Kyrgyzstan to discuss safe coexistence. Tomorrow, February 28th, Wade will speak at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University to future political scientists and government officials on issues of religious freedom.