Humanitarian and Youth Programs


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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Project Builds Friendships in Tajikistan

Dushanbe, Tajikistan - "Dushanbe – City of Peace," was the theme of the first Religious Youth Service project in Tajikistan, which took place May 25 to 31. Activities included visiting religious and historic sites and taking orphan children on an outing. The week concluded with visiting an Ismaili shrine, cleaning and painting a fence at the St. Nicholas Cathedral, and a friendly football tournament.

In our society, tolerance of different worldviews, ways of life, behavior and customs, religion, national origin is gradually yielding to rudeness, intolerance of dissent, and a desire for other values. Unfortunately, we face the evidence of this everywhere - in the yard and transport, at work, in the street, in official bodies, in politics. During recent years in Tajikistan, the rate of tolerance has significantly downgraded. People can hardly accept a different opinion, a different lifestyle, or a different ideology.

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Tajiks have always been noted for their sincerity and friendliness. In the nation where the majority of the population is Muslim, they always showed respect and reverence for other ethnicities and religions. Many consider the cause of intolerance in Tajikistan to be gradual loss of values and a low level of education and culture.

Unfortunately, in modern Tajikistan, the level of tolerance has dropped dramatically. This is especially noticeable among the youth. The most vivid example is the murder of a young man in December 2011 because he went out in the costume of Santa Claus.

At the same time, the history of the recent past shows that the Tajik people are tolerant by nature. A solid evidence of tolerance is the restoration of peace between the opposing sides during the civil war of 1992-1997. The civil war in Tajikistan served as a tragic lesson for the whole generation; everyone could witness the obvious results of disagreements. Again, the negative trends in the youth milieu are becoming apparent. Key reasons for the growing radicalism and intolerance of young people are poverty, unemployment, low level of literacy, and poor understanding of Islamic teaching. Many do not even know that Islam is a religion of tolerance; in particular the hanafite madhhab (one of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence in Sunni Islam) is the source of tolerance.

Beginning in mid-May, the social networks of the nation reported that the Universal Peace Federation was inviting all who wish to take part in the intercultural and interreligious dialogue project "Dushanbe – City of Peace." The idea was simple: in spite of their different religious beliefs, young people can help each other.

The first initiative of this project was a community work day at St. Nicholas Cathedral scheduled for May 25. It was announced that all who wished to participate in the project should come to an informational meeting at the city movie theater. As a bonus, they would be given a free movie ticket. On the afternoon of May 21, an hour before the film began; about 40 people, mostly young, came to the appointed place. As organizer of the project, I was asked a lot of questions, since almost all who came to this first meeting were followers of Islam. However, after introductions and my sharing about the goals of the Religious Youth Service project, many a expressed desire to join in the activity on the grounds of the Orthodox Church.

On May 25, the intercultural and interreligious dialogues began; first, we met with the youth group of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The meeting was attended by the pastor of the Adventist Church, Edward Tramper, a group of young Christians, and participants in the "Dushanbe – City of Peace" project. During the meeting at the church classroom, we discussed the common cultural values of believers.

That afternoon, the first volunteers came to join the "Dushanbe - City of Peace" project. Despite the rain, 25 young people gathered in the center of the city. The participants were given T-shirts with the Religious Youth Service logo. The majority of them were Muslims and one girl was a Catholic. In Tajikistan, there are six Orthodox churches, and the Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Dushanbe is considered the largest of them. Volunteers went to the St. Nicholas Cathedral by bus. They were very interested to visit an Orthodox place of worship. Unfortunately, due to heavy rain, the work was postponed to the following week. Since none of the volunteers had ever crossed the threshold of the Orthodox church, they were invited to tour the building. After the guided tour, the volunteers met the bishop of St. Nicholas Cathedral. During the meeting, the weather miraculously changed: the rain stopped and the sun shone brightly.

The most sensitive element of the project was visiting the city mosque. While the vast majority of Tajik citizens are Muslims, the intercultural and interreligious dialogue part of the project included a meeting with the imam.

The schedule on May 26 featured a visit to the unique Sacred Springs of Tajikistan – Chilu Chor Chashma. Volunteers of the project went there together with Ambassador for Peace and university professor, M.M. Babajanova. Chilu Chor Chashma is called the Springs of Health and is located about 300 kilometers to the south of Dushanbe. There is a folk legend that long ago, the head of the stables of Prophet Ali, successor to Muhammad, was buried here. Even in the Soviet times, until 1961 Chilu Chor Chashma was called the Mecca of Central Asia and was visited by pilgrims from all over the Soviet Union and beyond. For three months in the summer, Chashma is visited by hundreds of thousands people - several thousand a day. Whole families, including children, come here. The basic purpose of visiting the Sacred Springs is to perform ritual ablutions in the healing waters.

Near the Sacred Springs, project participants met with a local imam. In addition, participants toured the Central Asia Mausoleum of Khoja Mashhad (who lived around the 10th century C.E.). By 8:00 in the evening everyone returned to Dushanbe.

Early in the morning on May 27, volunteers in the project and those of the public organization Peshraft went to the Vakhsh district, located 130 kilometers to the south of Dushanbe, with the purpose of taking orphan children to the Poitakh amusement park in Dushanbe. This "Lucky Day" outing was enjoyed by 150 orphans and more than 30 volunteers. For the children it was a true miracle to ride on the merry-go-round and enjoy other amusements in the park. This was followed by a performance and lunch.

The Poitakh entertainment park was officially closed that day, but for the orphans participating in the "Lucky Day" outing, they made an exception. It was a real feast for 150 kids and a real challenge (in terms of organization) for the volunteers.

On May 30, participants visited the Ismaili Center in Dushanbe. Ismailism is a Shiite branch of Islam and one of the most important directions of modern Islam. There are over 20 million followers of Ismailism. In Tajikistan they live mostly in the mountainous regions of the Pamir. The official opening ceremony of the Center in the capital of Tajikistan was held on October 12, 2009; the event was attended by the President Emomali Rahmon, and the spiritual leader of Ismaili worldwide, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who specially arrived for this occasion. The one-story building of the Center looks very beautiful. There could easily be two floors, as the height allows it. The glass ceiling is decorated with wooden carvings, and the sunlight is casting their images on the walls. Impressive big walls of glass are reflected in the pools of water along the perimeter.

The tour included school classrooms and seminar rooms. Most of all, people were impressed by the Prayer Hall, its magnificent and noble appearance. It can accommodate up to 1000 people. In a special antechamber where people take off their shoes and enter the huge sanctuary with high ceilings. In the natural lighting streaming in through the narrow windows of the hall, the tender twilight and quiet and incredibly soft flooring create a unique feeling of peace and tranquility. In the social part of the building there is a large conference hall with the ceiling decorated with wood carvings. The floor is made of three kinds of wood. Overall, it is a stunningly majestic and beautiful building crafted so deliberately and professionally that people feel as if they have emerged into a different reality.

Despite the heat of over 34 degrees, June 1 featured a subbotnik (community work day) in the St. Nicholas Cathedral of Dushanbe. The task was simple: cleaning and painting the iron fence, but actually the work appeared to be rather complicated. Still the volunteers managed to do it well.

An Orthodox woman parishioner sympathetically asked if the young people were wearing pendent crosses. Imagine her surprise when she learned that the participants in the subbotnik were Muslims. Overcome by emotions, the woman made the sign of the cross on her chest.

A football tournament for “The Cup of Volunteers" was the perfect ending of the project and was held at the Madjmaai Sports Complex in Dushanbe on June 2. The tournament aimed at achieving unity of volunteers and development of partnerships between different volunteer organizations. Four teams participated in the tournament:

The players of the first team were graduates of the American Educational Program FLEX. The FLEX team won three convincing victories and gained the maximum points.

The second was the team of the International Network “Y-Peer." The Y-Peer are actively promoting a healthy lifestyle.

The third team of the NGO "Peshraft" consisted of talented pupils of the scholarship program "Invest in the Talents."

The participants of the fourth team represented the NGO Dast ba Dast (“hand in hand”) of the Youth Journalism School in Dushanbe.

At the end of the tournament, one of the participants, Parviz Jamalov, commented: “Although my team is not the winner of this tournament, I am overwhelmed with joy of victory... the victory of our unity! For me it was an honor to play with and meet wonderful young leaders of Tajikistan!!!”

All program participants were awarded special certificates, and the winning team got the Cup.

The participants in the program arrived at the lunch site in a bus rented specially for the occasion. During the lunch young people shared impressions and made new friends.

Although officially the RYS project was closed, the organizers received applications for cooperation and continuation of the project.

Submitted by Maxim Beringov

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