Church in Asia Pins Hopes on Papal Visit to Kazakhstan


The Pope visits a region where ethno-religious conflicts are frequent and where Christians are a minority

Protesters attend a rally in Almaty on February 13 in memory of the victims of the unrest. At least 240 people died when police opened fire on anti-government rallies in Kazakhstan earlier this year. (Photo: AFP)

Posted: April 26, 2022 10:30 GMT

Updated: April 26, 2022 10:33 GMT

Pope Francis is due to visit Kazakhstan, a Central Asian state near the epicenter of ethno-religious conflict where bloody anti-government unrest earlier this year left 240 people dead.

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

President of the Episcopal Conference of Kazakhstan, 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 Saint 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 make up 70% of the population, Christians, mostly Orthodox, make up around 30%. However, Catholics are a tiny minority of just 2% of the population.

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

The bishops are expected to discuss ways to derive maximum benefit from the papal visit, which they believe could strengthen the Asian Church as a whole.

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

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

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

Islam dominates in these five Central Asian countries with a total population estimated at 72 million.

The new Conference of Catholic Bishops of Central Asia has scheduled its first meeting for the last week of April in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan.

The bishops are expected to discuss ways to derive maximum benefit from the papal visit, which they believe could strengthen the Asian Church as a whole. After all, just like in other parts of Asia, minority Christians face restrictions in their activities.

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

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

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

Ukraine’s ongoing crisis could spill over to Kazakhstan as the country fears it could be next in Russia’s crosshairs

The First Congress of World and National Traditional Religions was held in Kazakhstan in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) on September 23, 2003, attended by delegates from 17 religious and faith-based organizations and institutions. Pope Saint John Paul II visited the Turkish 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, the Vatican’s favorite theme. The death penalty was in effect for the first 13 years of independent Kazakhstan’s history. The last death sentence came in 2003 when 12 prisoners were shot. Since 1990, a total of 536 death sentences have been carried out in Kazakhstan.

Ukraine’s ongoing crisis could spill over to Kazakhstan as the country fears it could be next in Russia’s crosshairs. In the Russian imperial imagination, the northeastern regions of Kazakhstan are Russian and were given to oil-rich Kazakhstan in a brotherly gesture.

Given their closely intertwined economies, the most important task is to protect Kazakhstan’s economy from the side effects of US sanctions imposed on Russia. The fluctuation in the value of the Russian ruble has a direct effect on the Kazakh tenge.

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

Then there is the eternal threat of communist ideology. An authoritarian China is another immediate neighbor of Kazakhstan and shares a border of around 1,700 kilometers. China and Russia have regional and global agendas.

Although China’s ambitions are tied 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 has criticized the Church of Ukraine before beginning its invasion on February 24.

Kazakhstan shares a border with Afghanistan to the south. The emergence of the Taliban in Kabul has placed the region under enormous Islamic terror pressure. It also borders Iran, which faces US sanctions for its nuclear program.

President Tokayev turned to Russia for military aid in January when his opponents hijacked protests against rising fuel prices to trash government buildings

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put pressure on neighboring Kazakhstan, which two months ago welcomed troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). President Tokayev turned to Russia for military help in January when his opponents hijacked protests against rising fuel prices to trash government buildings.

The more than 2,000 Russian soldiers remained in Kazakhstan for two weeks before being redeployed and many of them are now in Ukraine.

Kazakhstan plays neutral and abstained from voting for the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion.

After much dithering, Timur Suleimenov, the deputy head of the presidential office, said that Kazakhstan does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia or the independence of Donbass.

The protests in the Central Asian country began on January 2 after a sharp rise in gasoline 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 sour after protesters began destroying government buildings and police began firing, killing 240 people.

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

The pope comes to an Asian region where ethno-religious conflicts are the order of the day and where Christians suffer step-mother treatment because of their minority status.

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Jerry B. Hatch