Will Central Asia Become ‘Stans’ for Religious Freedom?

Kazakhstan pledges improvements at 2021 IRF Summit in Washington DC, following footsteps of neighboring Uzbekistan.

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 Central Asian nation’s committee for religious affairs, “and we will continue to create all necessary conditions for religious freedom.”

Speaking at the 2021 International Religious Freedom (IRF) 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 dialogue, culminating in the establishment of religious freedom roundtables in nine Kazakh cities.

“It is a front door approach in openness and transparency with the government,” Kusack told CT. “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 IRF 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, the State Department removed Uzbekistan from its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for the first time since 2005. Downgraded to Special Watch List status, by 2020 the nation had made enough progress to be delisted altogether.

Recent developments in Kazakhstan were hailed as a “proof of concept” for the engagement model of IRF advocacy. Not listed as a CPC by the State Department, the …

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