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Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

The Palace of Peace and Reconciliation in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

Now two of “the five ’Stans” are becoming bigger fans of—or, as Gen Z would say, “stanning” for—religious freedom.

“In Kazakhstan, all denominations can freely follow their religion,” said Yerzhan Nukezhanov, chairman of the committee for religious affairs, “and we will continue to create all necessary conditions for religious freedom.”

Speaking at the 2021 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, Nukezhanov signed a memorandum of understanding with Wade Kusack, head of the Love Your Neighbor Community. It sets a three-year roadmap that will train local imams, priests, and pastors in religious dialogue, to culminate in the establishment of religious freedom roundtables in nine Kazakh cities.

“It is a front door approach in openness and transparency with the government,” said Kusack. “Mutual trust is built one relationship at a time.”

An ethnic Belarusian, Kusack is also the senior fellow for Central Asia at the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), the American NGO which helped shepherd Uzbekistan’s efforts to improve its international religious freedom standing. In 2018, top Uzbek officials pledged reforms at the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, convened by the US State Department.

Later that year, Uzbekistan was removed from designation as a Country of Particular Concern for the first time since 2005. Downgraded to Special Watch List status, by 2020 enough progress was made for the State Department to delist the nation altogether.

Developments in Kazakhstan were hailed as “proof of concept” for the engagement model of international religious freedom advocacy. Not listed by the State Department, the nation has been recommended for SWL status by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom since 2013.

Nukezhanov noted 2018 as the year his committee established a religious freedom working group, specifically to demonstrate openness to American concerns. That same year, Nikolay Popov was fined $600 for sharing his Christian faith—without a license. Popov, part of the Council of Baptist Churches in Kazakhstan’s Karaganda region, also…

This article was originally published by Christianity Today on July 16, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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