By Melanie Ave
Hoping to learn more about interfaith partnerships and religious freedom in the United States, four Christian and Muslim visitors from Kazakhstan met with LCMS officials March 8 in St. Louis as part of a U.S. Department of State-sponsored leadership program.
The Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, the Synod’s director of Church Relations, and the Rev. Dr. Timothy C.J. Quill, LCMS director of Theological Education, met with the group at the request of the World Affairs Council of St. Louis. LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison also greeted the group briefly.
Collver said the meeting has opened the door to a greater relationship between the LCMS and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Kazakhstan (ELCRK), which is the largest Lutheran church in the Muslim-majority country.
The international visitors included Khassan Amankulov, naib-imam of the Central Mosque Nur-Astana, Astana; Igor Andreikin, senior pastor, Church of Christians Vera Evangelical New Life, Temirtau; Aiman Rustembekova, director, NGO Religious Issues Information Center Areal, Astana; and Yuriy Novgorodov, bishop of the ELCRK, Astana.
“It was an encouragement to talk to this group about religious liberty,” Collver said. “It was particularly helpful to connect with Bishop Novgorodov, who has requested closer ties with the Missouri Synod.”
Collver, who hopes to schedule a formal trip to Kazakhstan to meet with Novgorodov within a year, said the group agreed on the important role governments play in religious freedom.
In recent years the Kazakhstan government enacted a new law that requires all religious groups to seek authorization in order to operate, according to news reports. The law does not allow the existence of religious groups with fewer than 50 members.
After the meeting, the visitors toured the LCMS International Center, making stops in the chapel and the Concordia Historical Institute Museum.
They were in the United States as part of a leadership program on interfaith partnerships in which they are spending about three weeks visiting a handful of U.S. cities and learning more about religious liberty, diversity and tolerance. According to the World Affairs Council, a U.S. Department of State officer wanted the visitors to meet with a representative of a religious entity that had signed a joint letter to Illinois lawmakers who opposed the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act.
In advance of an anticipated vote in the Illinois Senate on a same-sex marriage law in January, the three LCMS Illinois district presidents joined Roman Catholic, Muslim and Mormon church leaders in signing an open letter to Illinois lawmakers in support of the traditional definition of marriage and religious freedom. The letter urged Illinois lawmakers to reject the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act that would alter the definition of marriage from anything but the union of one man and one woman.
If the act passes, Illinois would become the 10th state to legalize same-sex “marriage.” As of March 14, the bill passed the Senate and had been endorsed by Gov. Pat Quinn, but was several votes short of passage in the Illinois House of Representatives.
Before the meeting with the visitors from Kazakhstan, Collver was encouraged by the World Affairs Council having “honest and open discussion” about why the LCMS believes the Illinois act “impinges on your First Amendment rights.”
Collver said he believes the LCMS also may have been selected to meet with the group because of Harrison’s strong statements in support of religious freedom and traditional marriage, and his testimony with other religious leaders last year before members of Congress about the threat to religious liberty posed by the contraception mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Following the recent LCMS and Kazakhstan meeting, Jessica Bellomo, director of the international visitor program of the World Affairs Council, wrote a letter thanking Collver for his time.
“The visitors enjoyed the panel discussion and appreciated your insights regarding why LCMS and the Catholic Church are opposed to the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act as well as how other religious institutions have joined together with your church in protest,” she wrote. “The knowledge they have acquired will help them make positive impacts in their home country.”
Melanie Ave is senior writer and social media coordinator with LCMS Communications.
Updated March 27, 2013