ISSN 2330-717X

Asian Church Pins Hopes On Papal Visit To Kazakhstan

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By Ben Joseph

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(UCA News) — Pope Francis is set to visit Kazakhstan, a Central Asian state close to the epicenter of ethno-religious conflicts where bloody anti-government unrest early this year claimed 240 lives.

According to the office of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan is set to host the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in September with Pope Francis as a star guest.

Bishops’ Conference of Kazakhstan president Bishop Jose Luis Mumbiela said the Church was “grateful” to the president of Kazakhstan for inviting Pope Francis 20 years after the visit of Pope St. John Paul II.

The papal visit will be a “breath of hope and strength,” said Father Guido Trezzani, director of Caritas Kazakhstan in the predominantly Muslim nation of 15 million.

While Muslims constitute 70 percent of the population, Christians, mostly Orthodox, number about 30 percent. However, Catholics are a tiny minority of hardly 2 percent of the population.

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The papal visit to the country of some 300,000 Catholics is considered a major boost for the Kazakhstan Church. The country has a huge landmass of some 3 million square kilometers, making it the ninth-largest nation in the world.

But its Catholic hierarchy is relatively new. In 2019, the Vatican established one diocese and three apostolic administrations in Kazakhstan with a clergy comprising 50 priests serving in 27 parishes of the Latin rite and of the Greek Catholic rite. Almost all are missionaries.

The Vatican approved the establishment of a regional conference of Catholic bishops in Central Asia last year. It aimed to forge stronger unity among Catholics in countries in a region that includes Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Earlier, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Kazakhstan was a member of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, while bishops in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan were associate members.

Islam dominates in these five Central Asian nations with an estimated total population of 72 million.

The newly formed Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Central Asia scheduled its first meeting for the last week of April in Kazakhstan capital Nur-Sultan.

The bishops are expected to discuss ways to gain maximum benefits from the papal visit, which they believe could strengthen the Asian Church as a whole. After all, just as in other parts of Asia, minority Christians are facing curbs on their activities.

Pope Francis has confirmed his willingness to take part in the two-day VII Congress in Nur-Sultan on Sept. 14, according to pontifical news agency FIDES.

The Congress follows the model of the “Day of Prayer for Peace” in the world convened in Assisi by Pope St. John Paul II on Jan. 24, 2002.

Held in Nur-Sultan every three years, this year’s theme is “The Role of Leaders of World and Traditional Faiths in the Socio-Spiritual Development of Humanity after the Pandemic.”

The First Congress of Traditional World and National Religions was held in Kazakhstan in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) on Sept. 23, 2003, in which delegates from 17 religious and faith-based organizations and institutions participated. Pope St. John Paul II visited the Turkic country in September 2001.

In Kazakhstan, the pope is expected to strengthen cooperation between Kazakhstan and the Vatican in promoting interreligious dialogue.

In December last year, Kazakhstan finally abolished the death penalty, a pet theme of the Vatican. The death penalty was in force for the first 13 years of independent Kazakhstan’s history. The last death sentence took place 2003 when 12 prisoners were shot. Since 1990, a total of 536 death sentences have been carried out in Kazakhstan.

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine may spill over to Kazakhstan because there is fear in the country that it might be next in Russia’s line of fire. In the Russian imperial imagination, the northeastern regions of Kazakhstan are Russian and were given away to oil-rich Kazakhstan in a fraternal gesture.

Given their closely linked economies, the biggest task is to protect Kazakhstan’s economy from the side effects of the US-led sanctions on Russia. Fluctuation in the value of the Russian rouble has a direct effect on the Kazakhstani tenge.

More than 75 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports go through the Russian port of Novorossiysk via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium.

Then there is the eternal threat from communist ideology. An authoritarian China is another immediate neighbor of Kazakhstan and shares a border of around 1700 kilometers. Both China and Russia have regional and global agendas.

Though China’s ambitions are linked to geopolitical developments in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Indo-Pacific region, many of its priorities overlap with those of Russia, which found fault with the Ukraine Church before starting its invasion on Feb. 24.

Kazakhstan shares a border with Afghanistan to the south. The emergence of the Taliban in Kabul has put the region under tremendous pressure of Islamic terror. It also borders Iran, which is facing US-led sanctions over its nuclear program.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put pressure on neighboring Kazakhstan, which hosted the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) troops on its soil two months ago. President Tokayev turned to Russia for military help in January when his opponents hijacked protests on fuel price hikes to ransack government buildings.

The 2,000-plus Russian troops were in Kazakhstan for two weeks before being redeployed and many of them are now in Ukraine.

Kazakhstan is playing neutral and abstained from the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

After much prevarication, Timur Suleimenov, the deputy chief of the presidential office, stated that Kazakhstan does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia nor the independence of Donbas.

Protests in the Central Asian nation began on Jan. 2 after a steep rise in gas prices. The unrest, which started in the city of Zhanaozen, spread to other urban areas including Almaty, the country’s largest city.

President Tokayev declared a nationwide state of emergency and summoned troops from the CSTO, an alliance comprising Russia and allied states.

Anti-government rallies turned ugly after protesters started destroying government buildings and police started firing, which claimed 240 lives.

President Tokayev has agreed to constitutional reforms to limit the powers of his office with a strong parliament. He has also proposed reform to make it easier for political parties to register with the government by reducing the number of people required to establish a party to 5,000 from 20,000.

The pope is coming to an Asian region where ethno-religious conflicts are the order of the day and where Christians undergo stepmotherly treatment due to their minority status.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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