East-West rift looms over world religions gathering in Kazakhstan

Representatives of the world's major religions gather at a conference in Kazakhstan amid fears of a deepening rift between Islam and Western countries.

The two-day "Dialogue of Confessions" congress, starting Tuesday, gathers delegates from 17 faiths and denominations in the capital of this secular, predominantly Muslim former Soviet republic.

Representatives from the Vatican, the Orthodox Church, the World Islamic League and the Israeli rabbinate are to attend the talks on inter-faith dialogue and conflict resolution.

But the focus of the conference is likely to be Islam and its perception in the West following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

"Countries struggle against terrorism that threatens all nations and states (but) it would be a big error for humanity to assert that terrorism emerged from Islamic countries," Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev said ahead of the meeting.

"The Astana meeting is of great importance for different people and different religions... Kazakhstan is a bridge between East and West," Kazakhstan's Roman Catholic Archbishop Tomash Peta wrote on the congress's internet site.

"The deep meaning of the forum is anti-terrorism, we should strive for peace and consent," said Rabbi Elkhanan Kogen, of Kazakhstan's business capital Almaty, home to much of the country's small Jewish community.

The meeting was organized partly at the prompting of Pope John Paul II, who has urged dialogue with Islam ever since the September 11 attacks, while criticising aspects of the US response to them.

The pope was a fierce opponent of the US-led war on Iraq, which many feared would further inflame tensions between Islam and the West.

The meeting takes place in Kazakhstan, one of several former Soviet republics in Central Asia with a Muslim majority where governments have feared a spread of radical Islam ever since gaining independence following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The fundamentalist Hizbi Tahrir party, which was founded in the Middle East in the 1950s, established itself in Central Asia 10 years ago, at first in the Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan, and then in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyrzstan.

The party, which had close links with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan before it was toppled in 2001, wants to establish an Islamic state in Central Asia.

Recent heavy-handed repression of militant Islam by countries such as Uzbekistan may get only limited attention because few representatives from Kazakhstan's neighbors are expected to attend.

Hanging over the conference are likely to be ongoing tensions between Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church, which has blocked efforts by the Pope to visit Russia and lashed out at Catholic proselytising in Kazakhstan.

The Orthodox Church insists that Kazakhstan remains under its sphere of influence, despite the presence of up to half a million Catholics, many of them Stalin-era deportees from Eastern Europe and their descendants.

The World Islamic League will be represented by Abdullah bin Abdul Muhsin Al-Turki, the Vatican by Cardinal Joseph Tomko and Israel's rabbinate by Yonah Metzger, the chief rabbi who represents Israel's Ashkenazi Jews.

Also expected to attend were Shintoists from Japan and Hindus from India. But despite Kazakhstan's relative liberalism in religious matters, more marginal groups that have faced persecution, such as Baptists, were not scheduled to participate.