A tour of what it means to be a Christian in a multicultural Kazakhstan

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Kazakhstan is a country of diverse cultures and religions. They coexist in harmony, respect and tolerance. It is no coincidence that the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions is to take place in the country’s capital, Nur-Sultan, on September 14-15. During the same period, the pope will also be invited to the country. Pope Francis’ state visit will take place for the first time since Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan in 2001 under the slogan “Love one another”.

Upon his arrival in Kazakhstan on Tuesday, September 13, the Pope will pay a courtesy visit to the Kazakh President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as well as a solemn address addressed to the diplomatic corps accredited in the country and to civil society. On Wednesday, he will have a moment of silent prayer with religious leaders and will address them during the opening and plenary session of the Congress. The pope will then meet with some of the leaders in private. In the afternoon, he will celebrate Mass for the country’s Catholics.

Around 100 delegations from 60 countries are expected to attend the Congress, including representatives from Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and other religions. Among them are Pope Francis, Supreme Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed at-Tayeb, Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef and others. religious leaders, as well as representatives of a number of international organizations.

Since the country’s independence in 1991, its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has promoted dialogue and mutual understanding of cultures and religions. He championed the creation of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In September 2001, he welcomed John Paul II, during the 10th anniversary of the country’s independence.

President Nazarbayev with Pope John Paul II in September 2001 © Kazakhstanskaya Pravda

This year, the theme of the Congress is “The Role of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in the Socio-Spiritual Development of Humanity in the Post-Pandemic Period”. Four round tables will be organized, focusing on questions on the role of religions in strengthening spiritual and moral values, education and religious studies in promoting the peaceful coexistence of religions, the fight against extremism, radicalism and terrorism, in particular for religious reasons, as well as the contribution of women to the well-being and sustainable development of society.

For Kazakh society, the religious traditions of different ethnic groups have become a bridge that unites various communities and strengthens cohesion across the country. This attitude nurtured mutual respect and tolerance towards one another. With a population of nearly 19 million, the word Kazakhstan signifies the homeland of more than 135 ethnic groups and 18 faiths.

About 65% of Kazakshtan’s 18.6 million people are Muslims, most of whom are Sunnis following the Hanafi school of education. About 26% of Kazakhs are Christians (a large Orthodox majority, a Catholic minority) and the remaining 5% follow Judaism or other beliefs.

The majority of Christian citizens are Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, who belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church of Kazakhstan under the Moscow Patriarchate. About 1.5% of the population is ethnically German, most of whom are Catholic or Lutheran. There are also many Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and Pentecostals. Methodists, Mennonites and Mormons have also registered churches in the country.

Historians believe that as early as the second century AD in the city of Merv, now known as Mary, ((in Turkmenistan, not too far from the border of Kazakhstan), there were Christians among the Roman soldiers taken prisoner after a battle they lost against the Persians.

The Italian Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247-1328) was one of the greatest missionary-diplomats of the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1307, Pope Clement V appointed Montecorvino archbishop of the city of Kambalik and patriarch of the Far East. After the death of Giovanni da Montecorvino at the beginning of the 14th century, Kazakhstan remained without a Catholic bishop for 600 years.

According to the Roman Observatory, the history of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan resumed in the 20th century when Stalin ordered the deportation to Central Asia of entire peoples of Catholic tradition. Providence turned a diabolical plan into a missionary event beyond the boldest dreams of Propaganda Fide or any missionary strategist. From 1930, many priests were deported and sent to concentration camps in Kazakhstan.

In 1980, during the consecration of the Church of St. Joseph in Karaganda, built after endless quarrels between the Soviet authorities and the people, and not only the Catholics, Bishop Chira revealed his identity. It is moving to think of this bishop humbly teaching the faith to hundreds of young people, to many future priests (including Bishop Joseph Werth, titular of Bulna and apostolic administrator of Western Siberia of the Latins) without revealing his authority even to his parish priest. .

In 1991, Pope John Paul II appointed Father Pavel Lenga Apostolic Administrator of Karaganda for Latin Rite Catholics in Kazakhstan and the other four former Soviet republics of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Talikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. He was ordained in Krasnoarmiejsk but the episcopal see is Karaganda, the main center of Catholicism in Kazakhstan.

On June 25, 1995, Archbishop Lenga consecrated Kazakhstan to Mary Queen of Peace at the shrine dedicated to Our Lady under this title in Oziornoje, northern Kazakhstan. It is the only Marian shrine in this part of the world. It was built as a gesture of thanksgiving by deported Poles who in 1941 were literally starving to death. A nearby lake was miraculously filled with fish and people survived. In 1994, diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan were established.

In 1999, Astana received an apostolic administration, as did Almaty and Atyran. There are 250 parishes; 20 churches have been built to date, there are 63 priests, 74 nuns, and in 1998 a major seminary was opened under the title Mary, Mother of the Church.

Catholic buildings

1. Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima

The Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Fatima, located in Karaganda, is the largest Catholic church in Kazakhstan. For its construction, the cathedral of Cologne, Germany, served as a model. The consecration of the cathedral took place on September 9, 2012. In the warm season, it also hosts concerts of organ, symphonic and choral music.

2. Minor Basilica of St. Joseph in Karaganda

St. Joseph’s Basilica was built in the 1970s when Kazakhstan was a republic of the Soviet Union, at the request of Catholics in exile. The church was approved in 1977 and consecrated in 1980, when it became a focal point for the country’s Catholic community. In September 2020, the Vatican named St. Joseph’s Church the first minor basilica in Central Asia, a region that includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

Orthodox constructions

1. Ascension Cathedral in Almaty

The Cathedral of the Temple of the Holy Ascension (1904-1907) in Almaty, also known as the Zenkov Cathedral (in honor of its architect Andrei Zenkov), is located in the park of the 28 Panfilov guards. It is the main Russian Orthodox church in Kazakhstan and is included in the list of historical and cultural monuments of Kazakhstan. The church brings together local and Russian architecture because Kazakhs and Russians participated in its construction.

The church is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world and the tallest wooden Orthodox church. The highest point at the upper end of the cross on the main dome is 39.64 meters, at the top of the bell tower – 46 meters.

2. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Almaty

This Orthodox church is located in Almaty, in the Karasu district (Vysokovoltnaya street). Built in 2011, the Church in Honor of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was designed in the Byzantine style, with a height of 33 meters.

3. Assumption Cathedral in Nur-Sultan

This cathedral has beautiful blue roofs with side half domes. Completed in 2009, this 68 m high structure serves as the main place of worship for the Orthodox Christians of Nur-Sultan. A three-story 18m-high iconostasis with more than 50 icons, gilded doors, elaborate wood carvings and gold leaf murals creates a majestic atmosphere, enhanced by the acoustics of the cathedral.

4. Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Almaty

Russian Orthodox Church in the Almaly district of Almaty. Set in a small leafy park with ornate golden domes contrasting with white and pale cyan walls, the interior of the building features richly painted walls, ceiling, and icons.

© Creative Commons

It houses relics of 20 different saints in the church. A library and reception hall adjoin the cathedral, with a life-size statue of Saint Nicholas next to the staircase leading to the main entrance. Having served in the past as a museum of atheism and as a stable, the church has been reopened to the faithful since 1980.

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