The Alatau mountains sleep in the distance, their jagged profile cutting the cobalt blue sky in Eastern Kazakhstan. At the feet of these mountains, mares graze in peace, their young colts running around, curious, yet unwilling to explore further into the steppe. Water trickles down from the mountains and irrigates the lands in this fertile region. Vegetation abounds in Almaty. Lines of trees adorn many of its streets, its branches hanging like the arms of a protecting friend. In this city of verdant allure, lies the gravesite of Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, a leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, an orthodox branch of Judaism. Schneerson served as the chief rabbi of the city of Dnepro in Ukraine, until he was arrested, charged with anti-Soviet propaganda, and deported in 1939 by the Stalin regime. He died in 1944 in Almaty, but was posthumously cleared of the propaganda charges in 1989. Every year, thousands of pilgrims travel to visit Schneerson’s gravesite.
This is just one example of the multicultural and inclusive nature of Kazakhstan. Since the country’s independence in 1991, its First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has fostered dialogue and a mutual understanding of cultures and religions. He championed the creation of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, now into its 7th edition. In September of 2001, he welcomed John Paul II, during the 10th Anniversary of the country’s independence.
For Kazakh society, religious traditions of various ethnic groups have become a bridge that unites diverse communities and builds cohesion across the country. This attitude has nourished mutual respect and tolerance toward each other. With a population of nearly 19 million, the word Kazakhstan means home for more than 135 ethnic groups and 18 denominations.
Roughly 65 percent of Kazakhstan’s 18.6 million people are Muslims, most of whom are Sunni following the Hanafi school of teaching. Roughly 30% of Kazakhstanis are Christian Orthodox, and the remaining 5% follow the Catholic faith, Judaism or other beliefs.
Below is a quick tour, a glimpse of the multicultural richness of Kazakhstan.
Before the adoption of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, medieval Turkic peoples, ancestors of Kazakhs, had their ancient religion – Tengrism. It is a religion based on a belief in the Creator, presumably originated in the late 2nd, early 1st millennium BC. The cult of Tengri is the cult of blue sky – the Eternal Sky, a place of permanent habitation of the Creator. Blue is the color of Kazakhstan’s flag, which means an infinite sky over the earth and the people. This is a clear reference to the Tengri religion.
2. Muslim constructions and sites
Hazrat Sultan Mosque
The largest mosque in Central Asia, Hazrat Sultan is located in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the capital city of Kazakhstan. The construction of the mosque began in June 2009, and it was inaugurated on the 6th of July, 2012. The building was constructed in the classic Islamic style using traditional Kazakh ornaments. The mosque can accommodate up to 10,000 people. “Hazrat Sultan” has the largest dome in Kazakhstan (height – 51 meters, width – 28.1 meters). The height of the minarets is 77 meters.
Karaganda regional mosque is one of the largest mosques in Kazakhstan with a capacity of 4000 people. The mosque is located in ethnic park named “The 10th Anniversary of Independence.” The opening of the mosque took place on November 20th, 2011. It is the largest place of worship in central Kazakhstan, the height of the four minarets is 51 meters.
Mosque of Ryskeldy Kazhy
In May of 2018, a new mosque was opened after two years of construction in the Saryarka district of Nur-Sultan. The design is made in the style of Kazakh postmodernism and also features traditional patterns and decorative elements. Named Ryskeldy Kazhy, the Mosque resembles a flower bud or a diamond. The total area of the mosque is 3,695 square meters; it can accommodate more than 2,000 people. The diameter of the building is 53 meters, with a height of 26 meters.
Shopan-Ata and Beket-Ata Mosques
In the region of Mangystau lies the ancient city of Aktau. Every year, thousands of pilgrims come from different places to pray at the underground mosque of Beket-Ata. Born in 1750, Beket-Ata was an astronomer, physicist. A few miles east lies the mosque and burial site of his teacher, Shopan-Ata, a revered Sufi master whose remains can be found there.
3. Orthodox Constructions
Ascension Cathedral in Almaty
The Ascension Cathedral (1904-1907), also known as Zenkov’s Cathedral (in honor its architect Andrei Zenkov), is located in the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen in Almaty. It is included in the list of historical and cultural monuments of Kazakhstan.
The church is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world and the tallest Orthodox wooden church. The highest point at the upper end of the cross on the main dome is 39.64 meters, at the top of the bell tower – 46 meters.
Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Almaty
This Orthodox church is located in Almaty, in the Karasu district (Vysokovoltnaya Street). Built in 2011, the Church in Honor of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was designed in Byzantine style, with a height of 33 meters.
4. Catholic Constructions
Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima
The cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima, located in Karaganda, is the largest Catholic church in Kazakhstan. For its construction, the Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, was used as a model. The consecration of the cathedral took place on September 9th, 2012. In the warm season, it also hosts concerts of organ, symphonic and choral music.
Minor Basilica of St. Joseph in Karaganda
St. Joseph’s Basilica was constructed in the 1970s while Kazakhstan was a Republic of the Soviet Union, at the request of Catholics in exile. The church was approved in 1977 and dedicated in 1980, at which point it became a focal point for the country’s Catholic community. In September of 2020, the Vatican has named St. Joseph Church the first minor basilica in Central Asia, a region that includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.
One of the first indications of Jews in the nation dates to the early 19th century. In 1825, a handful of Jewish people lived in the Semipalatinsk district in Eastern Kazakhstan. By the 1870s, Verniy —as Almaty was known in the late 19th century— became home to the first Jewish community in the city, mostly consisting of soldiers. The first synagogue opened in May 1884 in a small wooden building, and 24 years later the Jewish prayer society was registered.
Another inflow came during the Second World War, when the Jewish population was evacuated from the European parts of the Soviet Union to Central Asia, primarily to Almaty.
Besides the gravesite of Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, a holy site for many Jews, today there are six synagogues in Kazakhstan: Almaty, Nur-Sultan, Karaganda, Kostanai, Pavlodar and Ust-Kamenogorsk, all built after the country gained its independence. The first opened its doors in Almaty in 1997.