Trans Eurasia travel

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Kazakhstan's complex ethnic mix does much to explain the country's religious diversity. Kazakhs have never been deeply religious and extremism is notable by its absence. Islam, their predominant faith, is at its strongest in the south, especially around Taraz, Shymkent and Turkistan. Pilgrimages to the mausoleum of Kozha Akhmed Yasaui at Turkistan and the desert shrine of Beket-Ata, east of Aktau, are important ways for Kazakh Muslims to affirm their faith. Most Muslims are of the Sunni denomination of the Hanafi School. The Russian Orthodox Church claims more than 40% of the population. The government stresses Kazakhstan’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Other religions present in Kazakhstan include Roman Catholicism, especially among the ethnic German, Ukrainian and Polish communities. Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in 2001. There are also, inter alia, many Protestant and Baptist groups, and a small Jewish community. Under the 1995 Constitution, Kazakhstan is a secular state, and President Nazarbaev pays frequent attention in his speeches to the religious tolerance found in modern Kazakhstan. The presence in the centre of Astana of a mosque, Russian Orthodox church, Catholic church and Jewish synagogue, is frequently cited as an example. A triennial Congress of World and Traditional Religions has been meeting in Astana since 2003, an initiative of President Nazarbaev, to promote interfaith dialogue. There have, however, been some concerns raised internationally about the treatment of certain more proselytising religious groups, both Christian and Muslim, and about the handling of a dispute over the title to the farm and cottages of the Hare Krishna community outside Almaty.

Today, the construction of mosques can be seen everywhere. But along with this, although with less fanfare, synagogues and Christian places of worship are also being opened. Both Islam and other beliefs fit well into efforts to counter post-Soviet ideological doctrine, and national self-awareness and Islam are being linked together. A religion stressing esteem and hospitality, tolerance and respect for the elderly, resonates with Kazakh traditions. Islam is of great cultural significance here, but is rarely put into practice in an overtly religious manner. There also remain many ancient and traditional elements within the culture that mingle with Islam.

Many factors will determine the answer to the oft-posed question of whether Kazakhstan will become more Islamic in the future. Of these, the country's social development and level of education are the most important. Of course fluctuations in domestic and foreign politics are bound to play a role in the process as well. An attempt to reinforce pan-Islamism is inevitably taking place, since on the Islamic world's northern flank all sorts of interests are at stake-not least Kazakhstan's economic- wealth. At present, however, neither the President's moderate religious policy nor the attitude of the country's believers give any reason for concern. Sociological surveys provide a contradictory picture, but one can conclude that about 80 percent of Kazakhs consider themselves Muslim and 60 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox Christian. However, only 10-20 percent of these believers practise their faith with formal religious weddings and study of religious works.

Rates of mosque attendance and observance of the Ramadan fast are relatively low, in part the result of Kazakhstan having lived under more than seven decades of officially atheist communist rule, but these are rising. The brand of Islam practised by the nomadic Kazakhs always incorporated certain pre-Islamic elements, including shrine pilgrimage and worshipping at the graves of ancestors. Sufi mysticism, which appeared to incorporate some traditional practices within Islamic worship, was highly influential, and the mausoleum of the Sufi figure Khodja Ahmed Yassaui at Turkestan is a major place of pilgrimage, as it has been for centuries. The wearing of amulets remains popular, often in 'Islamised' forms; for example, amulets containing verses from the Koran.

There are echoes too in modern Kazakhstan of Tengriism, the traditional religious belief of the early Turkic nomads who occupied Kazakh territory, though more often in a broader cultural than strictly religious sense. Tengriism took its name from that of the deity of the sky, and included an important role for shamans in helping to secure salvation from evil spirits. Mountains, with their appearance as a bridge between earth and heavens, played a particularly important role in Tengriism, and it is no accident that Kazakhstan's highest mountain is named Khan Tengri. Even the in-flight magazine of Air Astana is named Tengri.