As Pope Francis prepares to embark on his apostolic journey to Kazakhstan, we offer insight into the Catholic Church in the Central Asian nation.
By Lisa Zengarini
The origins of the Catholic Church in Kazakhstan date back to the 13th century. In 1253, the King of France, Saint Louis, sent missionaries to this territory directed towards Mongolia.
Then, 25 years later, in 1278, Pope Nicholas III entrusted the entire mission in the region of Central Asia to the Franciscan Order. In the first half of the 14th century, the Franciscan friars built a small convent and a cathedral in the town of Almalik.
At this time, Pope John XXII sent a letter to the Chagatai Khan, the second son of Genghis Khan, to thank him for the kindness shown to the Christians of his kingdom. However, in 1340 the persecutions began and there was no trace of the presence of Christians in the region until the middle of the 19th century, when the Kazakh territory was under the rule of the Russian Empire.
Kazakh Catholic Church in the 20th century
Roman Catholics began to arrive in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the 20th century.
They were soldiers of the Russian army, or exiles, deportees, prisoners of war, settlers and refugees. Many Catholic refugees and prisoners of war arrived during World War I.
In 1917, the parish of Pietropavlovsk had some 5,000 faithful, while the parish of Kustanai had over 6,000. Other Catholics of various nationalities arrived as deportees during the seven decades of Soviet rule.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991 also marked a turning point for the small Kazakh Catholic Church.
The first milestone in this development was the establishment of diplomatic relations between the former Soviet Republic and the Holy See on October 17, 1992, followed, on September 24, 1998, by the signing of an important Agreement on Mutual Relations by which the Kazakh government granted the Catholic Church freedom of worship, of speech through the media and of carrying out its pastoral and social activities without any restriction; establishing, organizing and directing educational institutions; and full access to prisons and health facilities to provide spiritual assistance.
Ongoing interreligious dialogue after the end of the Soviet Union
These two events marked the beginning of a continuous and fruitful collaboration between the Catholic Church and the Kazakh authorities, particularly in the field of interreligious dialogue.
Witness the three official visits to the Vatican by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (which took place in 1998 for the signing of the Agreement on Mutual Relations with the Holy See, in 2003 and 2009), but, above all, by the Apostolic Mission Journey of Pope Saint John Paul II from September 22 to 25, 2001, the first visit of a Roman Catholic pontiff to a country in Central Asia.
The motto chosen for the trip was: “Love one another”, aimed at underlining the peaceful coexistence of the many ethnic and religious communities of Kazakhstan.
These aspects were emphasized several times by John Paul II during his three-day stay. Meeting young people at Eurasia University in Astana on September 23, the Polish pope described Kazakhstan as “a land of encounter, exchange and novelty; a land that stirs up in everyone the desire for new discoveries and allows us to experience difference not as a threat but as an enrichment.
This same desire to promote the values of coexistence and dialogue among peoples and religions, as opposed to attempts to instrumentalize religion for political purposes, inspired the “Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions”, which was first launched in 2003 in Astana (now Nur-Sultan) by former President Nazarbayev, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and following the “spirit of Assisi”, the interreligious meetings for peace held in the birthplace of Saint Francis and first convened by Saint John Paul II in 1986
Since then, meetings have been held every three years in the Kazakh capital – the last of which took place in 2018 on the theme “Religious leaders for a secure world” – with the participation of a Vatican delegation. This has further contributed to strengthening collaboration between Kazakhstan and the Holy See to promote interreligious dialogue.
Deepen the dialogue
The contribution of the Holy See to dialogue between religions was officially recognized by Kazakhstan on February 6, 2013, when a Kazakh delegation, led by the President of the Senate, visited the Vatican on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the creation of the “Interreligious Congress”, awarded a special prize to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, as well as to Monsignor Khaled Akasheh, Officer of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the time.
This consonance of values was further confirmed in 2017 on the occasion of the Astana International Exhibition (known as “Expo 2017”) which was held from June 9 to September 10 of the same year on the theme “L ‘energy of the future’. The Holy See participated in the event with a pavilion on the theme “Energy for the common good – Caring for our common home”.
On the occasion of the National Day of the Holy See at Expo 2017, September 2, Pope Francis sent a message in which he recalled “the growth of dialogue and cooperation between religions that has produced in Kazakhstan, a land characterized by rich ethnic, cultural and spiritual traditions.
Cardinal Peter KA Turkson, then Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, participated in several Expo 2017 events, including an interreligious conference at the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.
The existing good relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan received a new impetus in October 2020, when the current Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and the Kazakh Center for the Development of Interreligious and Inter-Civil Dialogue “Nursultan Nazarbayev” (NJSC ) signed a memorandum of understanding with the aim of paving the way towards “new opportunities and more promising paths to implement joint projects, to promote respect and knowledge between representatives of different religions”.
The open religious policies of former President Nazarbayev, albeit under tighter controls on religious activities introduced in 2011 to prevent religious radicalization, were also continued by his successor Kassym Zhomar Tokayev.
In this context, the Church of Kazakhstan has been able to continue its activities as established by the 1998 agreement. This includes its charitable work carried out by Caritas Kazakhstan, which since 1997 has been on the front line to help the poor and most vulnerable .
Today, the Catholic charity’s initiatives include various social services across the country; the management of certain orphanages and assistance to AIDS patients.
A small minority
The Catholic Church represents about 1% of Kazakhstan’s 19 million people, 70% of whom are Muslims, while 26% are Christians, mostly Russian Orthodox.
Under the Soviet regime, the Catholic population of Kazakhstan was made up of different ethnic groups, including former deportees, but since independence many of them have returned to their respective countries of origin and emigration continues today. , due to the economic situation.
The Catholic faithful in the country are divided into 4 dioceses: the Archdiocese of Mary Most Holy in Astana (today Nur-Sultan), the Diocese of the Holy Trinity in Almaty, the Diocese of Karaganda and the Apostolic Administration of Atyrau , for a total of 70 parishes, and are assisted by about 90 priests.
Episcopal Conference of Central Asia
In September, the Church took another important step, not only from an organizational point of view, with the creation of the Episcopal Conference of Central Asia (CEVAC), which unites the Churches of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan , Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan , Mongolia and Afghanistan.
The new transnational episcopal conference met for the first time from April 26 to 30, 2022 and appointed its first president Bishop José Luis Mumbiela Sierra of Almaty.
Msgr. Jerzy Maculewicz, Apostolic Administrator of Uzbekistan, and Msgr. Evgeny Zinkovsky, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Karaganda, were respectively named Vice-President and Secretary.