By Courtney Mares
This week Pope Francis is traveling to Kazakhstan, a Muslim-majority country sandwiched between Russia and China.
The pope has said that he sees the trip to the former Soviet country as “an opportunity to meet many religious representatives and to engage in dialogue as brothers, inspired by the mutual desire for peace, the peace our world thirsts for.”
The Sept. 13-15 visit to the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan, formerly known as Astana, comes shortly after the pope concluded a meetingwith the Vatican’s diplomats from around the globe. And geopolitics will inevitably play a role in Pope Francis’ “pilgrimage of dialogue and peace.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine looms in the background of Pope Francis’ trip to Central Asia, so much so that the papal plane will go out of its way to avoid flying through Russian airspace on Sept. 12 and will instead fly further south.
Kazakhstan and Russia share a 4,750 mile border and the former Soviet country has historically been regarded as Moscow’s greatest ally after Belarus. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has tried to balance the country’s relationship with Moscow with openness to the West.
About 18% of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnically Russian, some of whom are descendants of survivors of the Soviet labor camps established in the country.
The interreligious summit in Nur-Sultan was originally expected to serve as a meeting spot for the pope and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the patriarch backed out last month. Instead, Pope Francis will likely meet with Metropolitan Antonij, the new head of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate.
In the pope’s speech to Holy See diplomats last week, he underlined that the war in Ukraine is “a particularly serious war, due to the violation of international law, the risks of nuclear escalation and the drastic economic and social consequences.”
Two decades after St. John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in September 2001 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pope Francis’ visit will focus in part on interreligious dialogue between Muslims and Catholics.
A large majority of Kazakhstan’s population are Sunni Muslims (72%), with Orthodox Christians making up about a quarter of Kazakhs. President Tokayev has highlighted the country’s history of interreligious tolerance. In 2022, however, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended placing Kazakhstan on the State Department’s Special Watch Listbased on violations of religious freedom.
As a participant in the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to meet with several Muslim leaders attending the congress, including representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and across Central Asia.
Pope Francis will also have a chance to meet again with Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, with whom the pope signed a joint declaration on human fraternity in 2019 in Abu Dhabi.
As a historic corridor of the Silk Road, Kazakhstan has been known as a country that connects the East and the West.
Neighboring Kazakhstan and China continue to have close ties with large scale Chinese investments in the Central Asian country’s natural resources through its Belt and Road Initiative. (China’s Xi Jinping announced his plan for a “new silk road” in the Kazakh capital in 2013.) Until March, Kazakh railways served as a major trade conduit between China and the European Union via Russia.
Notably, Kazakhstan borders China’s Xinjiang region, where the United Nations High Commissioner has found that the Chinese government has committed serious human rights violations.
Uyghur Muslims in China have faced torture, detention, and sexual violence, according to the UN’s Sept. 1 report, which found that persecution against the religious minority may be considered “crimes against humanity.”
Despite this, Kazakhstan has not granted political asylum to Xinjiang refugees.
Thousands of Kazakhs have family ties to Xinjiang and more than 200,000 Uyghurs live in Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan was home to some of the first vocal critics who testified to China’s brutal repression of Uyghurs in 2017, human rights advocates have come to consider Kazakhstan a “hostile place for Xinjiang victims.”
Last year Kazakhstan barred Gene Bunin, the founder of the Xinjiang Victims Database, from entering the county. The Chinese foreign ministry also thanked the government of Kazakhstan for its “understanding and support for China’s position” in Xinjiang in 2019.
Pope Francis’ visit to Kazakhstan coincides with a visit by Xi Jinping to Nur-Sultan on the Chinese leader’s way to a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Central Asia. Many eyes will be watching Xi on his first state visit since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. He will meet with Tokayev one day after Pope Francis meets with him at the presidential palace.