Washington, D.C. – (December 10, 2013) — In an environment of ever-increasing restrictions on religious freedom, the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) held its first region-wide conference on religion, security and citizenship in Central Asia from 5-6 December at al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The event was co-organized with the al-Farabi Carnegie Program on Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and co-sponsored by the Department of Religious Affairs of the City of Almaty. The 56 participants represented Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Singapore and the United States. Government officials, academics and civil society representatives attended, as well as Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Scientologist leaders.

The meeting comes at an important time for Central Asia, which is facing the prospect of instability in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw in 2014, as well as increasing religious extremism and social discontent within its own borders. Participants discussed the intersection of religion, identity, education, gender and its relationship to security in Central Asia, with the aim of establishing a network of experts and officials dedicated to addressing these issues.

The conference opened with keynote addresses from Dr. Chris Seiple, IGE President, Dr. Sultan Akimbekov, Executive Director of the Institute for World Economics and Politics of the Fund for the first President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and Nurzhan Japarkul, Head of the Department of Religious Affairs of the City of Almaty. The conference included a session on the importance of religion’s role in the construction of national identity, and the radicalization that results from certain religious groups being excluded from this identity. A second session examined the poor state of religious education in Central Asia, which opens the door for radical preachers to exploit the population’s low levels of religious knowledge. The meeting also explored the role of religious women in society, concluding that marginalized women are more likely to be recruited by religious extremists. Participants from Pakistan, Turkey, Singapore, Afghanistan and Dagestan (Russia) provided a comparative context for the discussion.

The conference concluded with a panel on practical policy recommendations for Central Asia. Recommendations included joint research projects and continued dialogue on the nexus of religion, identity, education and gender. Other recommendations included direct engagement of Central Asian youth on religious issues, as well as engagement of artists such as musicians and filmmakers in the struggle against violent extremism. Participants agreed that there is currently no space to discuss religion in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that a regular forum for dialogue on these issues must be created. As an interim policy recommendation, participants proposed workshops to train educators, civil society, government officials and law enforcement officers on how to engage religious groups to counter violent extremism.

Simultaneously with the conference, the International Religious Freedom NGO Roundtable, co-chaired by IGE, led a delegation of Evangelical, Jewish and Scientologist leaders to Kazakhstan, the first delegation of its kind. The group met with Kazakhstani and U.S. government officials in Astana and Almaty, and attended the conference as observers.

About the Institute for Global Engagement – The Institute for Global Engagement works at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide. Through local partnerships, IGE works transparently to convene, connect, and build consensus among government, religious leaders, and scholars to ensure that all people, of any religion or no religion, have full freedom of conscience and can participate as equal citizens in public life. To learn more about IGE or our various overseas programs, please contact James Chen at jchen@globalengage.org.