No one can accuse the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, of being insincere in his efforts to bring together believers of all faiths.
His nation of 16.7 million includes as many as 150 nationalities. Three thousand, two hundred mosques, churches, temples, synagogues and many other houses of worship are prominent in Astana, the country’s rapidly developing new capital.
Last week, Mr Nazarbayev hosted the Third Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Mr Nazarbayev plans to turn Astana into the business centre of central Asia, and initiating the triennial interfaith conference was another way of bringing the world to observe his nation.
The conference took place in the Pyramid of Peace, which was designed by architect Sir Norman Foster to accommodate members of all faiths. Rabbis sat next to Imams, creating a picture of reconciliation.
Eventually, they drafted a non-offensive document urging faith leaders to promote inter-religious dialogue and to condemn extremism.
But although the formal goal of the conference was to advance dialogue and agreement between religious leaders, some could not help themselves.
The Iranian delegation threatened to cancel when it found out that Israeli President Shimon Peres was the guest of honour. Not wanting to harm Iran’s business relationship with Kazakhstan, they quickly changed their minds.
Israeli reporters fanned the flames by asking Mr Nazarbayev whether his country, which is believed to possess 15 per cent of the world’s uranium, will sell the enriched ore to Iran. He responded that “no nuclear material will reach Iran from our territory”.
“Our people suffered 49 years of nuclear experiments. In 1991 we closed down the nuclear test site. A leaking of nuclear substances is as acute a problem for us as it is for you and can influence the security of the entire region.”
The next day, Dr Mahdi Mustafavi, head of the Iranian delegation, left the discussion table when Mr Peres spoke.
“I came to the congress to hear religious leaders and Peres is not one,” Mr Mustafavi said.
The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yona Metzger, was the most effective of the Jewish respondents. He pulled out a picture of the abducted solider Gilad Shalit and called on the leaders to pressure Hamas to “at least allow a representative of Shalit’s religion to visit him in captivity and to fulfil his religious needs”.
But none of the participants much cared. One Armenian clergyman said the Iranians had to boycott Mr Peres.
“It’s part of their protocol. We expected that to happen.”
Meanwhile, an Indian Buddhist monk in an orange robe sat barefoot in the parlour and said, smiling, that the congress was only a formality.
“If the world wants the Israelis and the Palestinians to make peace the leaders must force them to sit together and reach a solution. This is not the place to solve ongoing conflicts.”