Why is Pope Francis visiting Kazakhstan?


Pope Francis will leave tomorrow for a journey of almost 3,000 miles in a country that has around 250,000 Catholics.

Why is the 85-year-old pope, whose mobility is limited by leg pain, making a three day trip in Kazakhstan?

The pillar have a look.

Where is Kazakhstan again?

Kazakhstan, the largest landlocked country in the world, is located in Central Asia, the meeting point between Europe and Asia. It borders the geographical giants of Russia and China, as well as Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Despite its considerable size, Kazakhstan has only 19 million inhabitants.

About 70% of the population is Muslim. But the Republic of Kazakhstan, as the country is officially known, is a secular state. Roughly A quarter of the population is Christian, mainly Russian Orthodox.

Pope Francis seems to have chosen to visit Kazakhstan for two main reasons. The first is that he may witness an event known as the seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The congress, which Goals to strengthen interreligious ties, has been held in Kazakhstan every three years since 2003. Francis will be the first pope to attend this gathering, which this year has around 100 participants from 50 countries.

The second reason for the papal trip was a meeting with the Russian Orthodox leader, Patriarch Cyril. But in late August, the Moscow Patriarchate reported that the summit was canceled. Observers have suggested that the cancellation was a tit-for-tat movement after Pope Francis pulled out of a June meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Jerusalem.

(Chinese President Xi Jinping should be in Kazakhstan at the same time as François, but the chances of a meeting look slim.)

There are other less important reasons for the trip. This year marks the 30th anniversary the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan — an important step — and 21 years old since John Paul II became the first pope to visit the country.

After reciting the Angelus on Sunday, Pope Francis asked for prayers ahead of his trip, which will be his 38th outside Italy since his election in 2013.

“It will be an opportunity to meet many religious representatives and to dialogue like brothers, inspired by the mutual desire for peace, the peace that our world is thirsting for,” he said. saidadding: “I ask you all to accompany me with prayer in this pilgrimage of dialogue and peace”.

Cathedral of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Nur-Sultan. Polk via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The “eighth sacrament”

The Catholic presence in Kazakhstan goes back centuriesbut the community of today was forged in the furnace of the persecutions of the 20th century.

As L’Osservatore Romano wrote in 2001, the year of the first papal visit, “it can be said that 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 the Catholic Church”. tradition. Providence turned a diabolical plan into a missionary event beyond the boldest dreams of Propaganda Fide or any missionary strategist.

A listing of priests, religious and laity imprisoned and exiled in Kazakhstan from the 1920s to the 1940s has 32 pages.

Bishop Tomasz Petawhich is based in the capital Nur-Sultan, Told AsiaNews in 2019 that under the Soviet regime, Catholics transmitted the faith without priests or churches.

“Catholics have created a sort of eighth sacrament: that of the prayer of the rosary,” he said. “The reason is that the only thing they could do during the persecutions was to baptize their children and pray the Rosary. In a way, the rosary replaced the lack of the shepherds.

A new chapter

The only previous papal visit to Kazakhstan was in 2001, just 11 days after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. The intensive four-day visit of a frail and elderly John Paul II left a deep impression on local Catholics.

At a time when 300,000 people lived in the capital, around 40,000 people gathered in a main square on September 23, 2001, for a papal mass.

“Without exaggerating, I can say that the papal visit opened a new chapter in the history of our Church,” Bishop Peta commented in 2019.

The first The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was held in 2003 and brought together Vatican officials. According to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the event was modeled on John Paul II day of prayer for peace in Assisi in 2002.

Archbishop Tomasz Peta of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan. Kirill Kolpakov via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).


The Catholic community has changed significantly since the first papal visit, according to Bishop Peta.

“Generally, the number of Catholics has gone down over the past 20 years since the pope last visited,” Peta said. Told the Astana Times last month. “But the Catholic Church has become more international.”

“Thirty-twenty years ago, many had the idea that Catholics in Kazakhstan were mostly Germans, Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians and Lithuanians – nationalities that traditionally belong to the Catholic Church,” explained the archbishop, born in Poland. “Today in Kazakhstan there are dozens of different nationalities in the Catholic Church.”

The Kazakh Church has also emerged in recent years as what New York Times writer Ross Douthat calls “the strange core of traditionalist Catholicism.”

On December 31, 2017, three local bishops signed a “Profession of Immutable Truths About Sacramental Marriage” in response to the “opening” to the Communion of divorced and remarried Catholics by Pope Francis apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

One of them was Bishop Athanase Schneiderdescendant of Black Sea Germans a native of Odessa, in present-day Ukraine, who established himself as a figurehead of the traditionalist movement.

Catholic writer Dan Hitchens Noted at the time of the letter that “Kazakhstan is not a capital T traditionalist country: the extraordinary form is not particularly widely celebrated. But many practices associated with the pre-Vatican II liturgy are common. Receiving the Eucharist on the tongue and on the knees is the norm.

He quoted a priest from Kazakhstan who described the country’s Catholics as “rather traditional and conservative.”

“For us,” the priest said, “it means being faithful to the Holy Church, to Catholic teaching, to God.” He pointed out that the community had suffered for the faith in living memory.

Political upheaval

Kazakhstan has also seen notable political changes since 2001. Back then, it was ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for three decades before stepping down as president in 2019.

The first official act of his successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, was to rename the capital Nur-Sultan in honor of his predecessor. (It was previously known as Astana.)

Tokayev’s reign was eventful. He declared a state of emergency in parts of the country in early 2022, following protests against rising fuel prices. More than 200 people are thought to have died in the unrest and the resulting crackdown, dubbed “Bloody January.” At the beginning of September, Tokayev announced a early presidential election in autumn.

The war in Ukraine presented a dilemma for the president, given Kazakhstan’s close economic ties with neighboring Russia. Tokayev refused to recognize the separatist republics established in Ukraine with the support of Moscow. But he greeted the “strategic partnership” between Kazakhstan and Russia during a meeting with Vladimir Putin in August.

The motto of the papal visit is “Messengers of Peace and Unity,” a sign of Francis’ desire that the trip promote the restoration of peace and strengthen interreligious ties.

The pope’s presence should also offer encouragement to Catholic minorities, not only in Kazakhstan but also in neighboring countries. Thousands of pilgrims from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and even Mongolia are would have plans to attend the papal mass at Nur-Sultan on September 14.

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