Sunday, May 25, 2014

You gotta have faith

by Robyn and Kevin

I'm sitting on our couch, laptop open at 6:44pm on a Monday, listening to some sounds of the city through open windows. Car alarms. Children playing on the playground in the courtyard. and today, when the wind is blowing in the right direction, the call to prayer.

To me, it remains a novelty to hear the call to prayer. It's only when I'm home at the right time of day with the windows open and the wind blowing the right way, usually a mellow chant carried by an evening breeze.

Urban Kazakhstan seems to be pretty secular, but Kazakhs are traditionally Muslim. Now that we're past the season of coats and hoods, we are noticing more signs of religious observance, mostly in the form of women wearing headscarves. In the city it's a small percentage (maybe 2-3%) and tends to be older women, but I suspect it's a higher proportion in villages.  Of our acquaintances and friends here, none have discussed attending religious services or personal faith with us, although my Kazakh colleagues seem to expect that major life events, particularly weddings will be held at the mosque.

I think 95% of the mosques I have visited in my life have been in the company of our dear friend, Diane ... including the mosques of Kazakhstan. Thanks to Diane I have learned that many mosques, including Astana's, are open to the public. When entering the prayer areas, you'll remove your shoes and women will have to cover their head and/or body depending on the mosque.  Diane and I spent a weekend in Almaty in January and caught the end of the late afternoon prayer at a large mosque near Panfilov Park where we were warmly welcomed by the women, and even given some books on Islam.

Astana has two showcase mosques near the national mall in the middle of the city.  At one end the Nur-Astana Mosque, is a gift of the Emir of Qatar. At the other, a stone's throw from the White House (and ironically showcased in our photos from the military parade on Defending the Fatherland Day) is the Hazret Sultan Mosque.

Nur-Astana Mosque

Hazret Sultan Mosque
(Fun fact: the Hazret Sultan Mosque has a surprisingly tasty and reasonably priced restaurant. No, you can't get pork.)

There is also a much smaller mosque down the street from us.

Our Neighborhood (Chubary) Mosque
Other faiths are represented in Astana as well. We sometimes pass by the Assumption (Russian Orthodox) Cathedral, and the Beit Rachel Synagogue.

Assumption Cathedral

Cathedral of Our Mother of Perpetual Help (Catholic)

Beit Rachel Synagogue
There is a small group of members of our own Christian faith here, and services are regularly held in a rented space in a three-story commercial building.  Proselytizing in Kazakhstan is not allowed except by individuals who receive government permits to preach. There are currently four full-time young volunteers working in Astana (2 men and 2 women) who are part of a group based in Novosibirsk, Russia, as well as a retired couple working on humanitarian projects.  The local community consists of about a dozen natives, and a rotating group of expats, typically families either working for the US government or at a local university. This group is so small it is not an official congregation, rather a sub-unit affiliated with a congregation in Almaty, 800 miles away.

Some have recently questioned the government's comfort with religious beliefs outside of the main sanctioned religions. A US government official has even raised the matter in relation to a law that took effect about two years ago requiring all religions to re-register with the Kazakh government.

Have you ever attended worship services in a foreign country? 

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