By Courtney Mares
Pope Francis plans to visit Kazakhstan in September for an interreligious meeting, the Vatican has confirmed.
The pope intends to visit the Central Asian country for the seventh edition of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, taking place in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan on Sept. 14-15.
Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the potential papal visit on April 11 following a video call with the pope.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni later confirmed: “Yes, there was video contact this morning and the pope confirmed his intention to travel to the country.”
Kazakhstan has been proposed as a potential country that could serve as a location for a meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
Kirill is expected to participate in the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
But the Vatican is also studying the possibility of an earlier meeting between the pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem in June in conjunction with a potential trip to Lebanon, according to Reuters.
It would be the second meeting between Pope Francis and Kirill, who has been outspoken in his support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A potential papal visit to Kazakhstan has been in the works since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ambassador of Kazakhstan to the Holy See told EWTN in 2020 that there were “high hopes” that Pope Francis would visit the country to take part in the interreligious congress, which was postponed due to the pandemic.
The first pope to travel to Kazakhstan was St. Pope John Paul II, who visited the country, together with Armenia, in September 2001. At 81 years old, and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, John Paul II spent four days in Kazakhstan amid heightened security concerns following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In Kazakhstan, there are five Catholic dioceses and approximately 250,000 Latin Rite Catholics, according to 2008 statistics, making up a small minority of its population of 18 million people.
Ethnic Kazakhs are predominately Sunni Muslim, the most commonly practiced religion in the country. According to a 2009 national census, the second most practiced religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity, at more than 20%. The Central Asian country is also home to many immigrants.
Pope Francis erected an apostolic administration for Byzantine Catholics in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, in 2019, highlighting the growing number of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the country, which some estimates put at around 10,000.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, but it has one of the lowest population densities. The country shares borders with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and adjoins part of the Caspian Sea.
Pope Francis has expressed his intention to visit at least three continents in the next six months.
The Vatican has confirmed that the pope is due to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 2-5 and South Sudan on July 5-7.
The president of Lebanon has said that Pope Francis will visit the Middle Eastern country in June.
And the pope has indicated that he hopes to travel to Canada for the July 26 feast of St. Anne as a gesture of apology for the role Catholics have played in the abuse of Indigenous peoples in Canada, especially in residential schools.