Guardian: It might feel a little more convincingly like a Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, commissioned perhaps as a celebration of religious plurality, were it not for the seven tonnes of Russian-made BRDM-2 armoured personnel carrier stationed outside. By contrast, within a preposterous Norman Foster glass pyramid – decorated with the kitschest white doves you have ever seen – the Fifth Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions meets, and the talk is of harmony and concord – even a condemnation of global arms spending by the Zoroastrian representative. Observing this, a Martian could be forgiven for assuming that religion is the number one force for good in the world. Here the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel sits next to the head of the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought next to the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue next to some other terribly important religious dignitary. If I gave them their full titles that would be half the word count of this article. Just as effusive greetings take up half the speeches of the delegates.
Welcome to Astana, Kazakhstan. Set amid thousands of miles of the central Asian steppe, once a place of exile and hellish punishment for the likes of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, religious leaders now fly into this Canary Wharf of a city, with its oil-boom show-off architecture, to talk nice and stay in nice hotels. Surely Tony Blair has to be here somewhere. But the peace-loving speechifying is massively out of kilter with the global reality.
On Thursday morning an uncomfortable-looking Church of England bishop chaired a meeting with Indian cleric, Sheik Salman Al-Husaini Al-Nadwi, who publicly spoke airy words about interreligious harmony. But this same cleric has been a vocal supporter of Islamic State, last year sending effusive greetings to Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. “You are standing bravely as a rock,” he wrote to him. Again last year he penned a controversial letter to Saudi Arabia inviting them to fund Indian jihadis to fight Shias in Iraq. He dismissed the newspapers that exposed all of this as “the chatterings of an old village hag”. But such was the outrage in India that he was forced to issue a retraction. Nonetheless, his organisation, Jamiat Al-Shabab, still describes its mission statement thus: